Over the past decade and a half, theologian William T. Cavanaugh has written at the convergence of history, political philosophy, and theology with enough expertise and intelligibility to warrant public consideration within other disciplines. Cavanaugh’s most recent book is a summary and extension of much of this work in that it directly challenges the salvation narrative of the modern state and modern political history, which presents religion as the source of violence from which the state saves us. In this work, he deconstructs the idea of “religion” itself, which he argues operates in both modern political theory and religious studies as an essentially transhistorical and transcultural phenomenon. In so doing, Cavanaugh presents less a constructive theological treatise than a thoroughgoing empirical critique of existing work on modern notions of religion. In so doing, he challenges both the liberal political theory and religious studies scholarship that would relegate Christian faith and practice to the private, interior life of the individual, precluding the church as a genuine politics in the world today.
The primary concern of the book is to take to task conceptions of religion that accord it a unique capacity for violence and ignore the culpability of such ideologies as capitalism or nationalism and such entities as the nation-state or market. Cavanaugh’s thesis is twofold: (1) there is no such thing as transhistorical and transcultural religion, inherently inward and private, and thus separated from politics, and so what qualifies as religion in a given context is contingent upon different configurations of power; and (2) the attempt to assert such a transhistorical and transcultural “religion” separate from the “secular” is itself part of a particular configuration of power, that being the modern liberal nation-state.
Examining the treatments of religious violence by a number of philosophers of religion and religious studies scholars, Cavanaugh concludes in the first chapter that, by and large, not only is their understanding of religion unclear, but that their vague definition is applied far too specifically to things called Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, et cetera, when phenomena like nationalism or capitalism could also qualify as “religious” according to a functionalist understanding. Cavanaugh argues that to attribute violence or a certain ferocity thereof exclusively to “religion” is to miss the fact that not merely do nationalism and capitalism underwrite extensive violence in the late medieval and modern eras, but also that according to empirical investigation, there is no coherent way of separating religious and secular violence in such a way as to conclude that the latter is essentially more restrained than the former. He argues that each scholar in question has artificially and inconsistently attended to “religious” violence over “secular” and has subscribed to the prevailing understanding that “religious” violence is inherently more absolutist, divisive, and irrational than “secular” violence. Such a distinction—firmly anchored in an understanding of religion as timeless and universal—is neither examined nor justified, and it ignores other prominent scholarship recognizing that things like secular nationalism can be characterized as religious.
In fact, Cavanaugh asserts in his second chapter that religion is a contestable term, its definition depending on the configurations of power and authority in a given context. Specifically, the understanding of religion operative in the studies he critiques is a product of the modern liberal state: “the religious-secular distinction accompanies the invention of private-public, religion-politics, and church-state dichotomies. The religious-secular distinction also accompanies the state’s monopoly over internal violence and its colonial expansion” (59). These distinctions perform an ideological role in authorizing certain kinds of practices and delegitimating others. They make religion essentially interior and private, distinct from the secular, public sphere. Thus, something like Christianity can coexist peacefully with patriotism because (private) loyalty to God is separated from (public) loyalty to the state.
Cavanaugh contrasts this modern understanding of religion with the medieval conception of religio, a virtue integral to particular bodily disciplines. For Augustine, religio meant worship; true religio is worship of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, whereas false religio is directed to elements of creation. This religio is not contrasted with some sort of secular realm that is free from worship. Religio cannot be compartmentalized from the rest of life; rather, the rest of life put in proper order and relation to the Creator constitutes religio’s true form. With Thomas Aquinas, religio is a virtue, a habit cultivated by repeated practice. Rather than being a general category of which Christianity is a particular instance, true religio reveres the Triune God “‘as the first principle of the creation and government of things’” (65). It is a habit that brings the person to participate in the life of the Trinity, in both body and soul, in both private and public dimensions alike. This conception of religio is overtaken in early modernity by the invention of “religion,” a universal genus containing particular species demarcated by systems of propositions, characterized by an interior and private essence, and existing as distinct from public, nonreligious endeavors like politics. This modern development is catalyzed by the Reformation, in various strands of which religion comes to be associated merely with particular, salvific propositions, “a body of objective truths to which the believer could assent or withhold assent” (73). Subsequently, in both Protestant and Catholic understandings, distinct doctrines come to signify separate religions, an understanding that during the seventeenth century comes to include Christianity as juxtaposed with Judaism or Islam.
Integrated into early modern political philosophy, such as that of John Locke, such intellectual religion is primarily a state of mind, something that cannot be regulated by civil authority or force. It is distinct and separate from the activities of the body. Locke propagates a division of labor between the public interests of the state and the private interests of the church, a line that both must be prohibited from crossing in order to secure civil harmony. Violence is the purview of the state, rather than the church, the latter which constitutes a voluntary society of persons rooted in their interior religious dispositions. Thus, “in Locke, we find a modern version of the spatial division of the world into religious and secular pursuits” as opposed to the medieval conception of the secular as “this world and age” (80), a redefinition of the “secular” from time to space. All this is to say that religion itself has a history, and it therefore cannot be considered transhistorical and transcultural in essence. Moreover, the modern notion of religion is not merely a description of a social phenomenon, but it actually helps create and reinforce that phenomenon: in short, “religion is a normative concept” (85).
In the third chapter, Cavanaugh reiterates one of his best-known arguments, a repudiation of the typical account of the so-called “Wars of Religion” put forward by contemporary political theorists such as Jeffrey Stout, Judith Shklar, and John Rawls, in which liberalism arises to save humanity from the ravages of religious strife. Cavanaugh breaks the myth of the Wars of Religion down into four main component assertions: (1) combatants were defined according to different and opposing religious doctrines and practices; (2) religion was the primary cause of the war, as opposed to politics or economics; (3) religious causes are at least analytically separable from political or economic causes at the time of the wars; and (4) the modern state arose not as a cause of the wars but, rather, as a solution to them. Cavanaugh then examines the historical record and finds a plethora of examples of combatants opposed to each other militarily who in fact shared a commitment to the same doctrines; conversely, he finds numerous examples of allies committed to disparate doctrinal positions or traditions. The fact that these examples are frequent and widespread indicates that religion could not have been the primary casus belli, in which case these could not qualify as religious conflicts. This negates the first two components of the myth.
Cavanaugh challenges the third component by pointing out the anachronism of reading the modern distinction between religious and secular—which more often than not involves seeing modern secular society as basic and religion as a sort of secondary, and often less than rational, interpretation of the social—onto historical figures who would have made no such distinction. As other scholars have shown, once religion was isolated, no society remained in sixteenth century thought. Finally, Cavanaugh shows the fourth component as suspect by discussing the new configuration of early modern Christian society, in which many juridical powers and claims to power—as well as allegiances—were passing from the church to the state. According to Cavanaugh, the Reformation and the subsequent rise of confessionalization on the part of all sides were themselves part and parcel of the political developments of the time, that is, they were used often for the sake of social conformity under the prince. Not only did this transition literally define secularization at the time, but it constituted itself a cause of the wars of that era. As Cavanaugh writes, “The so-called wars of religion appear as wars fought by state-building elites for the purpose of consolidating their power over the church and other rivals” (162).
One should not take from this that the wars were about politics and not religion, but that that very distinction was what made the wars and their attendant political consolidation possible. With the transition in power—and Cavanaugh especially mentions “the ability to organize killing energies”—what we see in early modernity “is not a separation of religion from politics but rather the substitution of the religion of the state for the religion of the church” (177). The myth of religious violence thus operates as part of the West’s constituting narrative, wherein rather than merely relating history, the myth actually authorizes certain configurations of power. And it is quite theological. The typical narrative of the Wars of Religion acts as the creation myth for modernity, wherein the forces of order overcome some preexisting chaos. The myth is also the state’s soteriology, its narrative of the salvation of humanity from religious division and violence: “It is a story of salvation from mortal peril by the creation of the secular nation-state. As such, it legitimates the direction of the citizen’s ultimate loyalty to the nation-state and secures the nation-state’s monopoly on legitimate violence” (226).
In the fourth and final chapter, Cavanaugh addresses contemporary uses of the myth of religious violence in three ways. First, the myth has been employed domestically by the United States Supreme Court in decisions on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In a series of decisions since the 1940s, the Supreme Court ruled that American sociopolitical cohesion requires a supposedly neutral secularism, in which faith in the United States unites the citizenry against the inevitable divisiveness of different faiths in God. At the same time, patriotism is upheld as a nonreligious ideal. Second, in foreign policy, the myth has been used to reinforce a dichotomy between the West—seen as rational and peacemaking—and non-Western cultures, especially Muslim cultures, which are portrayed as irrational and violent. This is the result of largely academic discourse that has emphasized the inherent incompatibility of monolithic civilizations: the rational, universal, secular West over and against the irrational, parochial, religiously animated Islam. Third, such reductionistic work deploys the myth of religious violence in justifications of violence against these irrational non-Western cultures. Cavanaugh underscores the irony of these accounts that, in extolling the virtues of the secular West for avoiding the conflict of religious war, actually rationalize the violence of the supposedly secular nation-state. This it does by concentrating on theoretical accounts of the opposing sides and essentialist conceptions of religion, rather than by empirically examining actual encounters between them. The consequence is a liberal war of liberation, wherein the violence of the West is rationalized as controlled and largely beneficial in the attempt to contain the uncontrolled and fanatical violence of the irrational, religious Other. And thus, in place of the unacceptable absolutism of religion, liberalism constructs its own. In the end, the myth of religious violence is nothing other than a central element of Western folklore: it accomplishes no empirical task but rather legitimizes particular configurations of power, reorienting allegiance to the state that saves us from the inevitable peril of religious conflict.
With regard to the aims of his book, which revolve around correcting standing empirical analysis, Cavanaugh is largely successful. His analysis is insightful and trenchant, demonstrating an interdisciplinary acumen that allows him to successfully identify and resist the incoherence of various arguments conceiving of religion as categorically distinct from nation-state ideology and as inherently more prone to extremism and violence. He takes on numerous scholars on their own turf and finds them wanting by their own standards of scholarship and empirical reason. In so doing, he effectively dismantles much of their academic rationale for the eschewal of Christianity and other faith traditions, and thus their dismissal of any robust political theology.
Cavanaugh’s argument is not itself free from inconsistency, however, as evidenced by his allusions to the phenomenon of nationalism. According to his account, modern nationalism relies on a portrayal of religion as transcultural and transhistorical. This is because nationalism is, for Cavanaugh and the nationalism scholarship upon which he relies, an exclusive project of the modern state. The problem here is that many forms of nationalism, and in fact, some of the most prevalent nationalism operative in the United States today, rely not on such an abstract form of religion but rather on the appropriation of very specific elements of particular faith traditions—especially the biblical narrative—which are extracted and fused with certain national narratives that are themselves a mixture of history and myth. Specific spaces and times are central to these moves, and even Cavanaugh’s own discussion of confessionalization attests to this. This means that either nationalism is not solely attributable to modernity, which undermines his references as well as his own arguments to that end, or that what is at work in the modern era is not merely a transhistorical and transcultural conception of religion. Additionally, such nationalist discourse often appears not as a project of the state but rather emanates from within the church, regardless of the aims and intentions of the state. In these situations, it is not so much modernity and its conception of religion at work as it is a certain syncretism operating from within the church itself.
What does this suggest about Cavanaugh’s larger argument in The Myth of Religious Violence? On the one hand, it arguably reinforces the book’s underlying claims that modern “religion” and various other forms of ideology (e.g., nationalism, capitalism, statism) cannot rightly be divided. Consistent with his earlier work and that of the theopolitical school more broadly, every politics presumes some sort of salvation narrative, an inherently theological undergirding. This book amply demonstrates that the modern state is just a more recent manifestation of this, rather than a departure from it. On the other hand, if a prominent contemporary challenge to Christian identity and practice—not to mention a significant source of violence—is generated not from the modern conception of religion he describes but rather from what is by his definition a non-modern reliance on specific theological narratives, then the book’s larger modernity thesis is put into some question. Going beyond this book to his larger corpus, if the root of the problem of anemic ecclesial theopolitics is located partly in very particular and erroneous—even idolatrous—appropriations of the Christian theological tradition (Scripture first and foremost), then does Christian syncretism not override modern liberalism and state co-option as the primary problem for ecclesial identity and practice today?
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 For an example of Cavanaugh receiving attention outside his own discipline, see Paul S. Rowe, “Render Unto Caesar . . . What? Reflections on the Work of William Cavanaugh,” The Review of Politics 71 (2009): 583–605; and Cavanaugh’s reply, “If You Render Unto God What Is God’s, What Is Left for Caesar?” The Review of Politics 71 (2009): 607–19. For previous writings by Cavanaugh on this salvation narrative, see “‘A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House’: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State,” Modern Theology 11 (1995): 397–420; Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998); “The City: Beyond Secular Parodies,” Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward, eds. (London, UK: Routledge, 1999), 183–84; and Theopolitical Imagination (London, UK: T&T Clark, 2002).
 Cavanaugh depends, somewhat ironically, on what is known as the modernist school of nationalism scholarship, which claims that nationalism is an exclusively modern project of the exclusively modern state. For a more extensive appropriation of this scholarship, see his “Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is not the Keeper of the Common Good,” Modern Theology 20 n.2 (April 2004):243–274. This school argues that national identity is largely fabricated from scratch by state elites with little to no regard for any preexisting cultural features of the populace (which they argue seldom exist anyway). Cavanaugh’s conception of modernity fits well alongside this schema, but like modernist scholarship itself, he fails to properly account in his theory for the frequent nationalist appropriation of quite specific, preexisting theological narratives.