A couple of recent books–one reviewed on The Other Journal and one reviewed on Per Caritatem–seem to develop what is now becoming a commonplace argument in theological circles. In the effort to revitalize a kind of Christian politics that is separated from American nationalism, this argument offers a genealogy of the religion-secular divide. It could be titled: How the Church Lost Power.
In this argument, the Christian West used to be a unified community where religion was not a private, intellectual belief but a virtue that bound this community together. Then along comes “modernity” and the “rise of nation states.” In an effort to discipline and control the bodies of its citizens, power shifts from the ecclesial community to the national community. Religion arises from this shift: “religio” is no longer this communal virtue explicitly tied to proper worship of the Triune God but is now a matter of an individual’s private, interior feelings or beliefs (about a set of doctrines). Religion moves inside, and the secular–the realm of politics and bodies–is governed by the state (its powerful agents and the market). The punch line is that this configuration of religion and the secular represents an appropriation of Christian ideas (salvation, etc): the nation form is religious, and Christianity is inherently political. The church’s task today is to regain its political form. It should refuse surrendering our bodies to the violence of the nation state and once again display its (peculiar, peaceful, good, beneficent, liberatory, revolutionary, etc) political life.
A few quick critiques of this admittedly broad outline. First, the stories about the “rise of modernity” or “the nation-state” generally–and quite oddly–have the church and Christian theologians as passive agents. Quoting the review quoting Cavanaugh: “The religious-secular distinction also accompanies the state’s monopoly over internal violence and its colonial expansion.” In an effort to wash Christianity’s hands clean of the formation of the nation (and its colonial expansion), these thinkers have to attribute the evils associated with the rise of the nation state (capitalism, violence, colonialism) to the state itself, as if the state–and not Christianity–was the agent of its birth.
This leads to the second point: the formation of “modernity” (and the nation, religion, the secular, etc.) needs to be placed in a broader context, specifically, the Crusades. Quoting T. Masuzawa,
the efforts of early European explorers to reach India were aimed at more than lowering the cost of pepper or outwitting Venetian monopolists [global capital]; for, in the eyes of those navigational pioneers, their expeditions were veritable missions in the continuing crusade…The conquest of Islam…was the utmost exigency for European modernity at the moment of its inception (The Invention of World Religions, 185-186).
Third: the virtue of “religio” (in the sense it is summoned from the past by these Christian political theorists) was formed as it is related to–deployed against–heretics, infidels, and the pagan rest. If “religio” is the proper worship of the Triune God, then other “religions” represent heretical departures or failed approximations to Christianity. Thus, you can have a book with the title: Nazarenus, or Jewish, Gentile, and Mahometan Christianity (1718; referenced by Masuzawa, p. 49). The Christian community is the community of true “religion” or true worship, and thus all other human communities can be judged by comparison to this authentic, virtuous, fully human community (religion being a “moral virtue” considered as part of a discussion of justice, not faith, by Thomas Aquinas). The reviewer of Cavanaugh picks up this point, stating (unfortunately without a hint of irony):
if the root of the problem of anemic ecclesial theopolitics is located partly in very particular and erroneous—even idolatrous—appropriations of the Christian theological tradition (Scripture first and foremost), then does Christian syncretism not override modern liberalism and state co-option as the primary problem for ecclesial identity and practice today?
There is much I want to say about this–in fact, a refrain from Battlestar Galactica comes to mind: all this has happened before, and all this will happen again (meaning, this concern over syncretism–inquisitions, Jewish blood laws–attended the Christian production of the modern, colonial world). Perhaps it is best, at least for my mental health, to end by quoting another source: Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.