In the article, and then especially in the book, he has convincingly demonstrated that one of the founding myths of modernity--viz., that the state was necessarily founded in Europe (and later in North America) to keep Christians from killing one another in the aftermath of the Reformation--is rubbish. In the book he amasses evidence aplenty to support this thesis, and I will not reiterate that evidence here, instead strongly encouraging readers to buy the book and discover for themselves.
One of the many useful things about the book is that Cavanaugh does not deny that self-identified "religious" people sometimes use violence against one another, and against other non-religious actors; nor does he engage in the usual "apologetics" whereby such actions are dismissed as the unrepresentative antics of a fanatical fringe. What makes Cavanaugh's book so important is that he shows that the very creation of the categories of "religion" and "politics" or "secular" and "sacred" are tendentious attempts by the modern state to justify its existence, and especially its monopoly on violence, and to privatize "religion" while disguising the fact that the state itself makes certain transcendent metaphysical and "theological" claims. (Much of this argument is, of course, reliant upon, e.g., John Milbank and Alasdair MacIntyre.) In other words, it is impossible to speak of pure motives as though the sacred and secular were discrete and separable. The suicide bomber flying planes into buildings is doing so not only because of his understanding of a religious text ostensibly tells him to do so, but also because he has political goals in mind: to see a people, their economy, and ultimately the state itself mortally wounded and thereby ripe for conquest by another polity.
This pseudo-sacral nature of the state, with its covert theology, is the object of analysis in Cavanaugh's most recent book: Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church (Eerdmans, 2011), v+200pp.
This is, in parts, an extremely important book for Eastern Christians to read, though I fear most will not do so. For the modern history of Eastern Christianity, especially in Europe and especially since the end of the eighteenth century, is inseparable from various nationalistic and ethno-phyletistic movements. For too many Eastern Christians--Eastern Catholics as well as Orthodox--nationalist aspirations were kept alive during the Soviet period by and in the Churches, which in some cases functioned as surrogate "states" for those who had none in the Soviet Union. (This is true for some Western Christians who also fell under Soviet domination.)
Cavanaugh's arguments are important for both Eastern and Western Christians alike, and they are stated with the greatest cogency in the introduction and first two chapters of the book, which is really an anthology of articles disguised as a monograph. Several of the chapters fit only loosely with the book and, in my estimation, constitute something of a distraction from his very important main thesis.
Cavanaugh opens by declaring that "I don't believe that the state can be understood without theology. Carl Schmitt was right to say that all modern concepts of the state are secularized theological concepts if by 'secularized' one means 'covert'" (3). Cavanaugh will go on to note that while the "separation of church and state" can be accepted "as a liberation of the state from the wielding of coercive power, I nevertheless reject the separation of 'religion' from 'politics'" (4). It is simply impossible, Cavanaugh says, "that Christianity belongs to some special, nonempirical realm of 'religion' cordoned off from some other essentially distinct realm of human behavior called 'politics'" (4). He rejects this distinction for several reasons, not least because the relevant history shows it is false: it is a distinction we find invented in the West only in the last 400 years or so. Here a key person to read is John Bossy: Christianity in the West 1400-1700. Bossy's book is
a rollicking good historical revision of much of what we have taken for granted about Reformation and post-Reformation Christianity in the West.
Cavanaugh argues that those who think we can separate 'religion' from 'politics' end up smuggling the former back in under the disguise of the latter. This is a process he calls (borrowing Bossy's terminology) the "migration of the holy." What we once regarded as holy--viz., Christ's body in the Eucharist and the Church, understood together as Henri de Lubac showed--is no longer seen as such by more and more people today: on this, I would say, one must also read Charles Taylor's massive A Secular Age. Instead, what is increasingly regarded as holy, that for which we are willing to lay down our very lives, is precisely the modern nation-state: it, today, is regarded as holy; it, today, has become our biggest idol demanding our biggest sacrifice. How many Christians in North America are willing to kill in the name of their faith? Thankfully almost none. But how many of them are willing and ready to kill in the name of their country, and what does that startling fact tell us about Christianity today and the power--the imaginative power above all--of the modern state?
Cavanaugh's second chapter is the heart of the book. Here he argues that the nation-state is not the keeper of the common good. Making this argument requires dealing at the outset with some prominent Roman Catholic theologians who have attempted to argue that today the pursuit of the common good requires supporting the modern state. The chief person here is Charles Curran. Cavanaugh makes short work of him and spends the rest of the chapter demonstrating "the case against seeing the state as the promoter and protector of the common good" (8). He does this in significant measure by tracing the origins--philosophical, terminological, theological, sociological--of the institution of the modern state, whose roots are undoubtedly prepared "in the medieval period." Though he does not cite her, much of Cavanaugh's argument here has striking parallels to Jean Bethke Elshtain's recent Gifford Lectures: Sovereignty: God, State, and Self,
another very important recent contribution toward understanding the historical roots of the state's insistence on it having "sovereignty," a notion Cavanaugh briefly treats here through a discussion of Jean Bodin. This notion of the sovereign individual, and the sovereign state, are both contrary to sound Christian anthropology--a point Cavanaugh does not really develop enough. He also does not treat the fact that the idea of sovereignty has been hugely influential in ecclesiology in the East (in its debates about "autocephaly") and in the West (in its debates, before, during, and after Vatican I, about the jurisdiction of the "sovereign pontiff," the bishop of Rome: a key person to see here is Hermann Pottmeyer; in the background, of course, is Joseph de Maistre).
While not romanticizing the modern period, nor demonizing the modern state, Cavanaugh nonetheless presents some startling ideas and facts, chief among which is that the engine that drives all state growth in every form everywhere is war: in the U.S. he says, "all but five cabinet departments and the majority of smaller federal agencies have come into being during wartime" (27, here citing Bruce Porter, War and the Rise of the State). We have, of course, recent evidence of this in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, now one of the largest federal bureaucracies extant. In the ongoing Congressional budget battles, nobody is talking about scaling back this department or "defense" spending. And that, Cavanaugh suggests, should not surprise us for war gives an overarching purpose or telos to the state that it otherwise deliberately if impossibly refuses to claim explicitly. (Well do I recall here my Glaswegian grandparents saying to me that the one thing they most remembered about living through World War II in Great Britain was "how united we all were." As soon as the war was over, that vanished, much to their regret--and that of many others, apparently.)
Cavanaugh notes that the nineteenth century sees the fusion of the nation with the state in the West. He has a fascinating discussion about modern nationalism as it is understood by various scholars, noting, e.g., that the very idea or "imaginary" of the nation only comes about after the idea of the state has been conceived: "nations are only impossible once states have been conceived" (34). Here he has an apt quote from the Italian patriot Massimo d'Azeglio after the creation of Italy: "We have made Italy; now we have to make Italians." This idea is crying out for critical application and empirical verification in the Christian East. I am thinking primarily of Ukraine--beyond what important work has been done already.
The problem with nationalism, and with the obeisance we give to the nation-state today, is that we make of it an idol, honoring it as we should not, and expecting of it things it cannot properly give: "the longing for true communion that Christians recognize at the heart of any truly common life is transferred onto the nation-state" (42). This is what we call idolatry. In response to this, Cavanaugh says that the "urgent task of the Church...is to demystify the nation-state and treat it like the telephone company"--that is, as the mere bureaucratic purveyor of certain goods and services, nothing more or less.
How can the Church do that? This is the burden of his next chapter: "From One City to Two: Christian Reimagining of Political Space." Here Cavanaugh argues that the modern state is good at pretending to meet our "longing for unity...[and] fear that diversity will produce conflict and tear the body politic apart" (47). The modern liberal state, especially following Hobbes, claims to be in favor of diversity, to permit a variety of ends to be pursued, but it is secretly threatened by that diversity: "the nation-state needs the constant crisis of pluralism in order to enact the unum" (53). Cavanaugh does not, as he notes, have a lot of answers as to how we can outwit such a dynamic on the part of the state, but he does want--as he says earlier--to "argue for a more radical pluralism...[and] complex political space [that] would privilege local forms of community, but...would also connect them in translocal networks of connectivity" (4). He does not detail the practical outworkings of all this, but leaves it to readers to undertake the fascinating if difficult work of thinking through such practices.
One of the ways Christians can do that, he does argue (and not entirely adequately or with the length and depth I thought necessary) is through not merely the creation of more local forms of community, but also through better ecclesiology and liturgiology. It is in his sixth chapter, "The Liturgies of the Church and State" where he again cites (as he did earlier) John Zizioulas's landmark work Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church. Cavanaugh's chapter, however, resorts to vacuous sloganeering at points as, e.g., when he says that "we must look with a critical eye on liturgies that compete for our allegiance" (122). Here he has in mind "liturgies" of the state or other non-ecclesial organizations, but in advocating for a more critical evaluation of liturgy, I think he missed a crucial opportunity to turn a critical eye on Roman liturgy today, and how precisely it fails to do what Cavanaugh rightfully thinks good liturgy must do. In saying this, I have in mind the very important criticism of Catherine Pickstock--whose work Cavanaugh surely knows, not least because they've been published together--first articulated in a 1997 article in New Blackfriars, "A Short Essay on the Reform of the Liturgy" and expanded in her breathtaking work After Writing: On the Liturgical Cosummation of Philosophy. In that 1997 essay, she argued that
the Vatican II reforms of the mediaeval Roman Rite...failed to challenge those structures of the modem secular world which are wholly inimical to liturgical purpose: those structures, indeed, which perpetuate a separation of everyday life from liturgical enactment (56).
Pickstock hastens to add that her criticisms are not some kind of revanchist horror at modern liturgics. (She is, after all, Anglican and not a part of, say, the SSPX.) Rather they
issue from a belief that its revisions were simply not radical enough. A successful liturgical revision would have to involve a revolutionary re-invention of language and practice which would challenge the structures of our modern world, and only thereby restore real language and action as liturgy (56-57).She picks this up again in her concluding paragraph, where she says that what we need is to
devise a liturgy that refused to be enculturated in our modern habits of thought and speech. Such enculturation, one would have to realise, can only be appropriate for a society that is itself, as a whole, subordinate to liturgical offering. But...our society... would have not only to register internally the need ‘to pray that there might be prayer’--by restoring a 1iturgical ‘stammer’, and oral spontaneity and ‘confusion’--but also the need to pray that we again begin to live, to speak, to associate, in a liturgical, which is to say truly human and creaturely fashion. It would have more actively to challenge us through the shock of a defamiliarizing language, to live only to worship, and to be in community only as recipients of the gift of the body of Christ (64).Only such liturgy (which, I have argued elsewhere, can be found today in the Byzantine tradition) could remind us that the nation-state is not our true home: we have here no lasting city.
William Cavanaugh's Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church has reminded us of this crucial idea not through liturgy but through deeply challenging, and wholly welcome, argumentation, only some of which we have sampled here. I warmly recommend this book to all who are interested in these vital ideas and hope it receives the hearing it deserves.