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?

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