Lethal Loyalties: Dulce et Decorum Est

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.

Page 2 of 4 | Previous page | Next page