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 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 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, than it would have a profound effect on the way we view the world, or rather, on 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, and in this case, it is not. But 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,” “Islam” etc., 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 rites of hospitality, to the temple rites of the various gods. Augustine writes De Vera Religione, “Of True Religion,” but his subject is not Christianity. Rather it is about worship, which can be given either to the creator or to the creation. But 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, as 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.”

Having been a cause of the wars, the state and its apologists now proposed the state as a solution. Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau saw 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.


Mr. Piccolo,  Friday, June 11, 2010 at 6:06:00 PM CDT  

Interesting points, and I think more people are coming around to agreeing with this point of view, i.e., that modern ideologies are also “religions” in a sense, so one cannot blame everything that is bad on the supernatural “versions” of religion.

However, contemporary secularists now seem to define religion not simply as supernaturalism, but as any idea that is fundamentally unreasonable and devoid of evidentiary support, and thus akin to a form of fantasy or even mental illness (the latter argument is a favorite of Richard Dawkins, I believe).

This argument allows secularists to lump the more classical “supernatural” religions in with modern ones like fascism, communism, etc. Basically, the modern secularists say that all ideas that are based on fundamentally unsound or irrational ideas end up becoming dangerous religions.

These beliefs are dangerous because they have the ability to make seemingly normal, decent people, do horrible things. These irrational beliefs are what allowed the thoughtful Russian intellectual to support the gulag system or nowadays turns the otherwise decent Afghan shepherd into a suicide bomber.

I think the next phase of modernism will be one of intense, aggressive utilitarianism. Having buried the modern ideologies that were perhaps more obviously akin to classical religions, like communism, modern secularists will use the argument from bare practicality and materialism to further shame Christians and others into feeling that their beliefs are a kind of private madness that only exists to make the individual feel good or get them through life’s rough spots.

I think Stephen Hawking perfectly summed up the new (well, I am not sure how new it is…) trend in modern secular thinking in an interview with Diane Sawyer, saying:

“There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”

Earlier, all Diane Sawyer could say on the topic was to ask Hawking if his world view made him “sad.” Thus, we can see that “religion,” in the modern sense, is to be relegated to the status of a drug to make us feel happy, without any kind of real application to the actual world. Deep down, our culture accepts utilitarian notions of value as the final word on the matter.

Karl Marx had things backwards. Religion today is perhaps closer to his “opiate of the masses” idea than it ever has been in human history. It is hard to read the Bible, supposedly an obscurantist book, and not see, for example, explicit calls for social justice that are much more radical and up-front than anything that comes from today’s progressive think tanks and publications.

Grace Potts Friday, June 11, 2010 at 10:46:00 PM CDT  


I have to thank you for this. It is not often, that I am given deep pause by something I've read.

I have always considered myself a patriot - and unapologetic at that. Not a nationalist, or a zealot. But a patriot.

Given this, and my unapologetic commitment to being a Catholic; I will have to decide if I can still be a patriot as well.

I'll let you know.

John Médaille Friday, June 11, 2010 at 11:28:00 PM CDT  

Grace, I have no problem with being a patriot, if that means slaughtering the invader; I have every objection to being a nationalist, if that means becoming an invader. We are required to be patriots, because in the "patria" our friends and families reside, and we must defend when anyone threatens. But that doesn't justify us going to someone else's home and threatening their friends and families.

PJMULVEY Sunday, June 13, 2010 at 1:46:00 PM CDT  

Thank you for the enlightening post. As I grow older I see the follies of nationalism and secularism which are bound to one another and institutionalized by government.

Chris Campbell Monday, June 14, 2010 at 9:19:00 AM CDT  

John, well put. One cannot support these days at all the USA's policies, esp as one can see they are based on a shifting sand of lies.

that said, as Catholics, we are called to love our homes and serve in capacities that do not first negate our loyalty to Christ.

Good article, negates the often said "most wars are about religion". No, wars are about money and power.....religion is used to rally the masses and to try to take a high ground. In Ireland, often times the Calvinist and the Catholic would ally against the Church of England....

Grace, thanks for your contributions here, some good articles I see!

Grace Potts Monday, June 14, 2010 at 9:00:00 PM CDT  


I'm certainly not re-evaluating my position as regards invasion... And this approach has always been how I see myself as a patriot.

Rather, there is a certain thing that concerns me. When you work for Ford Motor Company, and it is they who provide the $$ that provides the food you eat, and the shelter your family requires: you develop a blind spot. And there are many things, that Ford Motor Company might do that you do not agree with -- and in fact might find deplorable -- but you literally cannot see these things; because you've come to understand or believe on a deep level that seeing it, would be your own demise.

All this is to say that you cannot serve two masters. I'm wondering if I've slipped from a healthy place of loving my homeland, to an unhealthy place of blindness for her clear wrongdoing... And further, I'm wondering if my love leaves me vulnerable to that sort of blindness. Then again, vulnerability seems to be the very point of love.

I'm reminded of Dorothy Day here- she said that we do not have faith in G-d, if we place our faith in the atom bomb for our safety...

Still mulling this over. Thanks again for the fruitful post.

Grace Potts Monday, June 14, 2010 at 9:15:00 PM CDT  

Just to be clear-

I enjoy reflecting deeply on what I believe; I find it to be an extraordinary gift that encourages my Faith immeasurably.

It's gotten to be rare that my daily blog-reading calls me to such reflection.

If I had to guess, I'm probably not giving up patriotism - but I find it edifying to genuinely question my beliefs and assumptions (and to be questioned) every so often. I rarely change my answers, but the asking changes me. I like to amuse myself by assuming the change is for the better.

Anonymous,  Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 10:11:00 AM CDT  

Some apparent blindspots in this analysis:

What about the Albigensian Crusade?

What about the "Crusades" in general?

What about the rise and spread of Islam?

Besorge Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 11:56:00 AM CDT  

We cannot allow people to define religion in terms as how they want, but we can make them realize that "religion" is something you cannot divorce from humans. The way we communally or interpersonally respond to the Great Silence is religion. Like Anthony De'Melo says, "Religion is silence." A neo-thomist or neo-scholastic will have a hard time coming up with such a term in their rationalistic tendencies. As a Thomist, I cannot help see that his last act on the Summa was to burn it, followed by a vow of silence. The mystical element of St. Thomas was expressed in his silence. Only a mystic would burn his greatest works, knowing that there is no thing that can be said (this does not mean not to express it).

Religion by definition is something not easy to define. We have ridiculous historical linguistic attempts to define it, saying it stems from 'religare', or 'relegere', etc. Always looking into the Greek or Latin to define the words, forgetting that a pantheistic language is going to have problems expressing a panentheistic expression. So the Greeks, or Romans had a small view of what we call religion in their pantheism. We call it 'religion' in tradition tied to our martyrs, saints, and salvation history. As Catholics/Christians, religion is something else.

Does that mean drop it? No. If this were the case, it would be impossible to speak. To the degree something is good, is to the degree it is true. We must remind people that religion is undefinable as love is undefinable, because ultimately in its system it is expressing either Love, or its relationship to the Divine. Religion is advancing in expressions daily, while maintaing the same Faith as it was in the beginning. Mystics have been muffled, and that is because we have allowed cowards who participate in pissing contests to speak in our place. A mystic is the most difficult speaker of all, because he is constantly reminding us how little we know. Waking us up from our pseudo-intellectual debates, and reminding us we live in a 'sacramental universe', not this contemporary world of fluff we created. Part of this is when they tell us sin is the problem when we blame a political ideology. A mystic reminds us that we have built our house on sand, something everyone chooses to ignore hoping it will not collapse in their life time.

Besorge Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 11:56:00 AM CDT  

An obedience to European ideals and our way of thinking is part of the problem of the mind-frame that is formed by Catholic Americans. Dawkins has no debate, he is a mass-appealer, a mass-man, someone who holds no ground philosophically or theologically. We must however protect the uneducated masses from him, so he cannot be ignored. We have listened to contemporary pseudo-philosophical morons like Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke, and Hawkins, who have intellectually masturbated ideas which contradict what makes their own science a science in the first place. Yet we don't realize this and argue on top of their Tower of Babel(Babble). Dawkins is one of the newer scientists that make people feel intelligent, and wise when he argues against common misconceptions, but to his favor. He does this while assuming he is actually being able to have any sound argument against Catholic theology, which quite frankly he doesn't even come close.

My point is that religion is not something definable. It is not something you can place in a box. Which is why irreligious is such a arrogant statement, which assumes first that religion is something concrete enough that you can run away from it. And that you can actually identify yourself without a religion. We all respond to the Great Silence, in indifference, or in Faith, it does not matter, the way we live our lives is our religion. That some choose to organize, congregate and identify as one both contemporarily and historically, is another way of responding to this Great Silence.

Examples of the Great Silence are:

1. Go to a quiet room, and ask Why am I here?

2. What was there before me that you actually know as well as what you experienced?

3. What will come after I am gone?

The Great Silence defines the grand orchestra of life. Without silence there can be no music.

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