©2019 by Charles H. T. Lesch. Proudly created with Wix.com

I am the Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Professor of Political Theory at Vanderbilt University.  I received my Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2016, and was previously a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis.  My research grapples with questions in contemporary political theory and practice by drawing from the history of European political thought, modern and classical Jewish thought, religious studies, social theory, and literature.  

 

I am especially interested in questions at the intersection of religion and democracy.  My first book, Solidarity in a Secular Age: From Political Theology to Jewish Philosophy (completed manuscript in preparation), narrates an untold history of European political theology and spotlights a neglected strand of modern Jewish philosophy to propose a new foundation for liberal-democratic solidarity.  My second book, Who Governs when God Rules? Jewish Theocracy Between Kingship and Democracy (under contract with Cambridge University Press for a new series on Comparative Political Theory) examines the idea of theocracy and its tensions in classical Jewish political thought and beyond.  In my third book, Messianism and Politics from Jesus to ISIS: Religion, Philosophy, Democracy (in progress), I probe the impact of messianic ideas on politics and political theory, both historically and today.

My work has appeared in the American Political Science ReviewThe Journal of PoliticsCritical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, and the Oxford Handbook of Civil Society.  My dissertation was nominated by Harvard for the American Political Science Association’s Leo Strauss Award for Best Dissertation in Political Theory.  At Harvard I was awarded the Bowdoin Prize, the university's highest award in the humanities, as well as a conference prize for best paper.  I have been a Mellon/ACLS Fellow, Harvard Presidential Scholar, Fulbright Fellow, Edmond J. Safra Graduate Fellow in Ethics, and Harvard Graduate Society Merit Fellow.  My work has been supported by the Harvard Center for European Studies, Center for Jewish Studies and Loeb Initiative on Religious Freedom.  I graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors from Yale in 2009.

Research

Solidarity in a Secular Age: From Political Theology to Jewish Philosophy

Book Manuscript in Final Stages of Preparation

Solidarity in a Secular Age joins two core areas of political theory, social solidarity and political theology, to tackle a fundamental problem of our time: What should unite us?  In an age in which religious norms no longer predominate, how should we envision our social bond?  Can we secure solidarity while upholding liberal values and avoiding racism, demagoguery, hyper-nationalism, and violence?  Solidarity in a Secular Age responds by narrating an untold history of European political theology and spotlighting a neglected strand of modern Jewish philosophy to propose a new foundation for liberal-democratic solidarity.  

 

In part one I describe the connection between liberal solidarity and political theology, uncovering religion’s underlying role in the evolution of European ideas since the Enlightenment.  Whereas most historians stress the secular nature of modern political thought, I argue that some of political theory’s most central figures sought to theorize solidarity by appropriating concepts they inherited from religion: I show how Jean-Jacques Rousseau envisioned a democratic solidarity by transposing the theological concept of the “general will” to politics; how Immanuel Kant theorized an ethical solidarity by reimagining the core of our moral freedom in terms drawn from discussions of divine freedom; and how Jürgen Habermas proposed a discursive solidarity by secularizing our experience of the sacred into language.  

 

In the second part of Solidarity in a Secular Age, I reimagine our social bond by looking to a different philosophical approach to political theology: the modern Jewish philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber.  While neither Levinas nor Buber advocate for religion, they do learn from religion’s insights into social solidarity.  They provide resources for how we might restore our fractured unity while staying true to core liberal values: critical reason, plural attachments, individual dignity, and ethical responsibility.  From Levinas I develop solidarity as sacrifice, an original account of liberalism’s moral psychology and concept of the self.  From Buber I develop solidarity as fate and destiny, a revised vision of liberalism’s theory of the “we” and collective obligation.  In an uncanny way, the novelist George Eliot anticipated Levinas’ and Buber’s ideas in Daniel Deronda, and I conclude by using her novel as a case study for how individuals can practice solidarity in their own lives. 

Solidarity in a Secular Age tackles complex philosophical systems, but its purpose is to rethink how we, as actually-existing members of liberal societies, should approach our relationships and responsibilities.  It provides us with a new language for navigating the challenges of contemporary moral and political life. 

Who Governs when God Rules? Jewish Theocracy from Kingship to Democracy

Under Contract with Cambridge University Press for a New Series on Comparative Political Theory

Since Plato, Western thinkers have shared a basic assumption about politics: some people rule and others obey.  Political order necessarily entails what Max Weber called "a relation of men dominating men…supported by means of legitimate violence."  Across millennia of Jewish political thought, by contrast, a fundamentally different view prevailed.  Legitimate rule (arche) is the possession neither of one human being (monarchy), nor the few (aristocracy), nor the many (democracy).  It is the province of God alone, a concept which the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus called “theocracy.”  

Yet embedded in the idea of theocracy is a paradox.  In theory, divine rule eliminates the need for earthly politics.  God’s ultimate sovereignty forbids all human violence and domination; secular power is at best illegitimate, at worst idolatrous.  In practice, something like human political agency always remains necessary.  The deity, after all, does not punish criminals, collect taxes, defend borders, or feed the hungry; these tasks must be performed by people.  What, therefore, does human politics look like in light of divine sovereignty?  How does theocracy translate into reality?  Or, to rephrase Robert Dahl’s famous question, who governs when God rules?  

 

In this book, I compare the responses to the theocratic paradox taken by two figures who are central in classical Jewish thought but largely neglected in political theory: Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) and Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel.  Maimonides, medieval Judaism’s most important philosopher, argues that divine rule entails kingship by the Davidic dynasty, a royalist theocracy.  A king, he proposes, should have the authority not only to enforce Jewish law (halakhah), but to enact new legislation according to his discretion.  In this way, he can ensure that the social order as a whole aligns with the idea of divine justice and that divine rule is made manifest.

 

By contrast, Abarbanel, the leader of Spanish Jewry during and after the Spanish Inquisition, argues that God’s rule necessities a participatory, federated, and substantially democratic republican theocracy.  Human kingship, he contends, is not only less suited to divine rule but essentially antithetical to it.  Far from ensuring justice, it actually invites tyranny.  Thus against theocratic royalism, Abarbanel proposes that in the Torah’s conception the people themselves hold the right to appoint their judges; power is diffused between multiple, quasi-representative legal bodies; and final say in political matters—including the right to declare war and make exceptions to the law in times of emergency—is held by the highest court, the Sanhedrin.  

 

I conclude the book by addressing lingering theocratic impulses in contemporary Judaism as well as in Christianity and Islam.  At a time when the relationship between religion and democracy remains fraught and complex, Who Governs when God Rules? sets out to redraw our horizons about politics and theology by recovering an overlooked but important strand of political theory.

Messianism and Politics from Jesus to ISIS: Religion, Philosophy, Democracy

In Progress

Political theorists usually assume that messianism is a strictly religious phenomenon, associating it with faith groups either ambivalent about democracy or opposed to it entirely.  I aim to challenge this view.  First, I will argue that messianic thought has historically been secularized into politics, for example by Marxists, who saw communism’s advent as a kind of messianic rupture; by France’s radical revolutionaries, who justified the Terror’s violence in terms of realizing an “ultimate justice”; and by Nazis, who saw the Fuhrer as the Volk’s savior.  Second, I will show how messianic ideas were secularized by important philosophers, including Immanuel Kant, Franz Rosenzweig, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno.  Finally, I will propose that messianic beliefs are deeply embedded within liberal-democratic discourse itself: the West’s nineteenth-century belief in its “civilizing mission”; its twentieth-century belief in hastening the “end of history”; and the language employed by anti-slavery advocates like Frederick Douglass and civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King.  


This raises important questions: Why has messianic thinking been so attractive? Is it always problematic and violent, or is some version of it beneficial, or even necessary, for liberal democracy?  To answer these questions, I will draw comparatively from Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religious writings, the history of political thought, social theory, and empirical research on messianic movements.  I aim for the book to be grounded in political theory and also interest scholars in multiple disciplines.

 

Publications

Democratic Solidarity in a Secular Age? Habermas and the Linguistification of the Sacred

The Journal of Politics, 81:3 (2019), 862-877. Read the article here.

Theopolitics Contra Political Theology: Martin Buber's Biblical Critique of Carl Schmitt

American Political Science Review, 113:1 (2019), 195-208. Read the article here.

What Undermines Solidarity? Four Approaches and their Implications for Contemporary Political Theory

Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 21:5 (2018): 601-615. Read the article here.

Against Politics: Walter Benjamin on Justice, Judaism, and the Possibility of Ethics

American Political Science Review, 108:1 (2014): 218-32. Read the article here.

Civil Society and Government

In The Oxford Handbook of Civil Society, ed. Michael Edwards (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), with Nancy L. Rosenblum. Read the chapter here.

 

Teaching

Political theory comes to life in the course of dialogue with students and colleagues, and I believe passionately that teaching is both a core responsibility of faculty and crucial to progress in the discipline.  I have been honored to receive teaching awards and strongly positive feedback as an instructor, including an average instructor score of 4.84/5 across all of my lectures and seminars (10 total) at Harvard, Washington University in St. Louis, and Vanderbilt. 

I have designed and taught a wide range of introductory and advanced courses in political and social theory, the history of political thought, and religion and politics, including lectures on Justice: An Introduction to Political Theory, Modern Political Philosophy, and Religion and Politics, and seminars on Violence and Politics, Community in a Secular Age, Classics of Social Theory, and American Political Thought.

Forthcoming Courses at Vanderbilt

Fall 2019

Modern Political Philosophy (Lecture of 40) 

Religion and Politics (Lecture of 40)


Spring 2020

Justice: An Introduction to Political Theory (Lecture of 60)

American Political Thought (Writing-Intensive Seminar of 20)

 

About Me

I’m a Bay Area native, diehard SF Giants fan, and go by Charlie.  Here's my family at that stage of a walk when both kids want rides.

 

Department of Political Science

Vanderbilt University

345 Commons Center

Office Hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays 3:50 pm to 4:30 pm or by appointment.