The myth of the state as saviour

Is a theologically informed vision of politics, a vision that can help the church to break out of its captivity to political, social, and economical myths of modernity, possible? The Catholic and Radical Orthodoxy theologian William Cavanaugh thinks so. In his manifesto-like book Theopolitical Imagination he calls for just such a vision, a vision of "theological politics" – or a post-secular political theology – that situates itself in contrast to public theology, political theology, and liberation theology.

This review article will be presented in a series of blog posts: in the first three posts we will look at the three myths which Cavanaugh addresses in this book, in the forth post we will take a look at Cavanaugh's Eucharistic counter politics, and in the last post I will give my reflections, comments and rise some questions.

The myth of the state as saviour

The myth says: "The state had to step in and redefine and privatize religion in order to keep peace." ... This is nothing other than an alternative salvation story, a "theology in disguise".

Modern political theory (and liberalism) starts, says Cavanaugh, with the assumption that in the beginning there was the free individual and (more or less) violence. The founding fathers of modern politics – Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau – all agree that we enter into society by way of a social contract and we do that as a way to protect our stuff, as a way of being protected from each other (Hobbes goes so far as to depict the "state of nature" as "the war of all against all"). The cause of the development of the sovereign state[1] was then to promote and protect the common good, in other words, to bring peace between competing individuals in general and between competing religious factions in particular, manifested above all in Western history in the "Wars of Religion" of the 16th and 17th centuries. Religion is – so the common wisdom goes – inherently violent since it is absolutist, divisive, and irrational. The state had then to step in and redefine and privatize religion (since it needed to have its subjects primary loyalty; the church can continue to care about souls, as long as the bodies of its members is handed over to the state) in order to keep peace. In other words: the Church or Christianity was (as is Islam today) "perhaps the primary thing[s] from which the modern state is meant to save us."[2]

Is this a "secular" theory based on neutrality and objectivity, asks Cavanaugh. No, it is nothing other than an alternative salvation story, a "theology in disguise" and, from a Christian point of view where you see the ground for true unity in the participation in God, "a false or 'heretical' soteriology".[3] In trying to bring this basic myth into contact with actual history, he shows convincingly that the "Wars of Religion" is primarily caused by the rise of the modern state and its absolutistic claims on sovereignty (a process that perhaps began already in the 13th century), and is not the crisis that necessitated it. The entire state apparatus came primarily[4] into being to enable princes to make war. They needed more effective ways to extract resources from the local population than the earlier forms of governance (e.g. empire, city-state, lordship) had made possible and in which people's political loyalties were based not necessarily on territoriality, but on feudal ties, kinship, religious or tribal affiliation). Regarding the more recent development in the history of political organization that we call "the nation-state" (we are talking about the 18th century), he says that it is "the result of the fusion of the idea of the nation – a unitary system of shared cultural attributes – with the political apparatus of the state. ... It is only after the state and its claims to territorial sovereignty are established that nationalism arises to unify culturally what had been gathered inside state borders."[5]

"War made the state, and the state made the war."

To summarize his position regarding the "sub-myth" of religious violence, Cavanaugh often quotes Charles Tilly: "War made the state, and the state made the war."[6] And one only needs to remember all the wars of the 19th and 20th century to see the truth in this. So much for the myth of the state as saviour, peacekeeper and protector of the common good. Cavanaugh writes: "violence becomes the state's relegio, its habitual discipline for binding us one to another."[7]

Perhaps one could argue that the nation-state at least internally (within its borders) works for the common good. But the reconciliation provided by the nation-state, claims Cavanaugh, "only comes after the creation of a prior antagonism, the creation of a novel form of simple social space that oscillates between the individual and the state." It is only the result of "an – ultimately tragic – attempt to ward off social conflict by keeping individuals from interfering with each other."[8]

Anyway, since the Church more or less (not always consciously) accepted this myth, with its duality between public and private and the creed that public faith "has a dangerous tendency to violence"[9], it has lost its vision of the "'political' nature of faith" and instead accepted the privatization of faith, and has come to see its own role as a kind of apolitical provider of values or as an interest organization and the state as the primary agent of social change.

(Bibliographic references will be given in the last post in this series.)
[1] In Theopolitical Imagination Cavanaugh defines the state in the following way: "that peculiar institution which has arisen in the last four centuries in which a centralized and abstract power holds a monopoly over physical coercion within a geographically defined territory" (p. 10).
[2] Ibid, p. 20.
[3] Ibid, p. 2.
[4] Other reasons can be "the rise of capital market, technological innovations, geographical position, the introduction of Roman law, and urbanization" (Killing, p. 250).
[5] Killing, p. 246.
[6] See e.g. Killing, p. 249.
[7] Theopolitical Imagination, p. 46. For more information about this, see Cavanaugh's new book The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict.
[8] Killing, pp. 254, 255.
[9] Theopolitical Imagination, p. 46.

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Av Bengt Rasmusson

Bengt Rasmusson är teolog, förläggare och mediakonsult.

Bengt Rasmusson is a theologian, publisher and a media consultant.