Lethal Loyalties: Dulce et Decorum Est


It is, alas, a story we hear almost everyday. A “terrorist” straps explosives to his body and walks into the crowded market to cause mayhem. Or “Holy Warriors” fight endless battles to prevent the spread of democracy in their homelands. When we see these things, we shake our heads and lament that in the name of God, these people not only commit terrible crimes, but resist the very things—democracy and liberalism—which will bring them the same peace and prosperity that we enjoy. We have no doubts about how these events are to be interpreted, for we know that misdirected and irrational violence is part of our own history, a history from which we were rescued by the liberal state, and the separation of religious and temporal affairs.

But what if our understanding is wrong? What if the nation-state was not the cure but the cause of the wars that we term “religious”? In other words, what if all that we “know” isn’t so, is in fact a myth used to justify the nation-state and marginalize certain kinds of discourse, most particularly “religious” discourse? This is the theme of William T. Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence.

We know the story very well: after the Reformation, Europe fell into a murderous cycle of sectarian violence, from which we were rescued by the nation-state, which cordoned off “religious” concerns from the temporal order, imposing a political tolerance on the contending faiths while concentrating on building prosperous kingdoms (at first) and then liberal democracies, in which the religious realm was kept separate from the secular. It is this story which provides us—all of us, whether “left” or “right—with the framework by which we view both domestic and international events, and most particularly the Muslim world.

But is this story a history or a myth? Prof. Cavanaugh contends that it is a myth, one that simply does not conform to the facts of history. In support of this thesis, he makes a number of remarkable claims:

  • Religion in not a severable category from cultural political, and economic life. In fact, “religion,” as we understand the term, is a creation of the modern West, and would have been unintelligible to previous ages and cultures.
  • The modern state precedes the so-called wars of religion, Indeed, the “wars of religion” weren’t about religion at all.
  • There has been a transfer of the sacral from the religious order to the political. Far from separating religion from the state, the modern state creates its own sacred space, with its own rituals, hymns, and theology, and its own universal mission.

The universal mission of this new Church is mainly tied up with practical solutions to particular problems that are elevated to the status of transcendent truths. As Alasdair MacIntyre put it:

The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf… [I]it is like being asked to die for the telephone company.

If Cavanaugh is correct, then his thesis should profoundly effect the way we view the world, or rather, the story we tell ourselves about how the world works. Humans always tell themselves stories about how things are; it is the only way to organize information into a coherent whole. But it does help if the story bears some relationship to the way the world is, or was; if its details can in general be correlated with some actual history. In this case, the story does not correspond with reality. Even if we allow that religion is not something severable from the rest of life and culture, can we go along with Cavanaugh’s claim that religion itself is a modern invention?

The moderns would hold that “religion” is a trans-cultural, trans-historical reality, a universal genus of which “Christianity,” “Hinduism,” and “Islam” are particular species. The problem is, any attempt to define this genus in such a way as to include what the moderns want to include and to exclude what they wish to exclude turns out to be contradictory. Nationalism is no less a cult than Catholicism. Including a belief in God would exclude many major “religions.” One might attempt to limit religion to the “transcendent,” but ideas such as “the nation” or “liberty” are transcendent ideas, as are all values. Hence, there is no coherent way to distinguish “religious” from “secular” violence. What counts as “religious” or “secular” in any given society always depends on the configuration of power within that society. Indeed, the demarcation of the “religious” sphere is itself an expression of secular power, a political act.

Our concept of “religion” was simply unknown to the ancients. There is no word in Greek, Latin, Egyptian, Aztec, Chinese, or the Indian languages that precisely corresponds to our term. The Latin religio, “re-binding” referred to the rites which bound the social order together, and would include anything from the Japanese tea ceremony to the Greek rites of hospitality, to the temple rites of the various gods. When Augustine wrote De Vera Religione, “Of True Religion,” his subject was not Christianity. Rather, it was about worship, which can be given either to the creator or to the creation. True religion is directed toward the creator alone, and religion is not something contrasted with a secular realm. In the City of God, Augustine uses the term religion to refer to the worship of God, but he finds the term ambiguous, because:

In Latin usage…”religion” is something displayed in human relationships, in the family (in the narrower and wider sense) and between friends; and so the use of the word does not avoid ambiguity when the worship of God is in question. We have no right to affirm with confidence that “religion” is confined to the worship of God, since it seems that this word has been detached from its normal meaning in which it refers to an attitude of respect in relations between a man and his neighbor.

When we turn to a work like Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, we would expect it to be concerned with what we call “religion,” but Thomas uses the term only once. Religion is one of the nine virtues that are a part of justice; it is that part which renders to God what is due to God and refers to the rites and practices that offer worship to God. It is not a term that designates a sphere of human activity that stands apart from some other sphere, called the “secular.” Indeed, the terms “religious” and “secular” in the middle ages normally referred to the two orders of clergy, those bound to monastic vows and those which were a part of the diocesan structure. The different “religions” were Benedictine, Cistercian, Dominican, etc.

If there is no analytical severable category of “religion,” then the idea of the “wars of religion” from which we were saved by the secular state can’t be correct either. The neat narrative of a struggle with Catholics on one side and Protestants on the other simply doesn’t work out. The framework of the 30-Year’s War was a struggle between three Catholic monarchies, the French and the two branches of the Hapsburgs. Prof. Cavanaugh gives of 10 pages of examples that run counter to the standard narrative: Catholics allied with Protestants against Catholics, Protestants allied with Catholics against Protestants, Protestants battling Protestants, etc. Obviously, the facts exceed the narrative.

Nor was the rise of the modern state the solution to the problem, it was the cause. Long before the Reformation, the state was expanding its power at the expense of the Church. The taxing of the clergy, the consolidation of ecclesial courts into civil ones, intrusion into the educational system, the replacement of the Church’s charities with the welfare state, and royal control of clerical appointments were some of the signs of the expanding power of the state. The Reformation itself was part of this process, since so many of the “reformers” were more than willing to replace the pope with the prince to enforce a confessional conformity. The Reformation depended on lay power, and gave a justification for that power. The biggest source of power is always property, and the wealth of the Church was a tempting target. In 1524, King Gustav Vasa of Seeden welcomed the Reformation because it allowed him to transfer the tithes from the Church to the crown, and three years later he appropriated all Church property, nine years before Henry VIII did the same. In France, “secularization” meant the transfer of Church property to the crown.

But this confessional conformity required that local privileges and independence to be overturned. The Catholic Monarchs desired absolutism as much as did their Protestant counterparts. Charles V made war against the Protestant princes, with the help of at least some Protestants, in an attempt to turn the Holy Roman Empire into a centralized, sovereign state. In France, the crown attempted to unite the country under un roi, une foi, une loi, which required a war against the nobility. The nationalized churches became part of a clientage system, so much so that Pope Julius III could write to the French King Henry II, “You are more than pope in your kingdoms.”

After the state caused the wars, its apologists proposed the state as a solution. Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau saw a strong state (or even a state religion) as a necessity. After all, membership in a religion was voluntary, but membership in the state was compulsory, and the state required a degree of conformity. It is not that the new state would be intolerant. On the contrary, it would enforce religious “tolerance,” but only for a “religion” shorn of any civil interests. Religion was to be a private passion—or fantasy—one which would not be allowed to serve as a source of resistance to the totalizing state. Hence, Catholics were excluded from this tolerance, not because of bigotry, but on the quite rational grounds that the Catholic Church could never confine itself to being a “religion” that could be conveniently domesticated and striped of its civil and economic concerns. This church could never fit into the truncated category of religion, and hence could not be compatible with the modern state. The actual trajectory is that first the state was “sacralized” by absorbing the powers of the Church, and then the state was “liberalized” by being tolerant of the “religions,” but only insofar as they present no genuine opposition to the power of the state.

Seen in this light, the so-called “separation of church and state” is a complete sham. As Robert Bellah put it, the state becomes “an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion” that “has its own seriousness and integrity and requires the same care in understanding that any other religion does.” the real issue is where we place what Cavanaugh calls our “lethal loyalties,” which have been transferred to this new religion and its universal mission: the imposition of democracy and market economics on the whole world. None of us would think of killing for the faith, but killing for the state becomes “patriotism.” It was in the trenches and the gas attacks of World War I that Wilfred Owen discovered the price of this new religion in “the old lie, Dulce et Decorum est, pro patria mori.” And of course, what we die for, we also kill for.

The actual trajectory of history is that the state absorbed the powers of the church, and then “solved” the problems this creates by offering “tolerance” to any church which would become a “religion,” a domesticated, private fantasy that could pose no challenge to secular authority. As Christians, our best response is to accept the role that Hobbes and Locke assigned to us: permanent outsiders, to be viewed with suspicion at best and persecution at worst. This new state, actually just another cult, rationalizes some forms of violence and condemns others. We are horrified at the violence of those whose countries we invade, but “shock and awe” over Baghdad is a regrettable, but rational form of violence in a noble cause; in the end, it will bring free trade, democracy, and better phone service.

The obedience that the state requires is total, and dissent is worse than traitorous, it is unpatriotic. Every combat soldier instinctively recognizes the truth of Randall Jarrett’s The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, and tells his own version of the grim joke:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

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