According to Cavanaugh, the common assumption in modernity with regard to the relationship between religion and politics goes something like this:
The 'wars of religion' in Europe during the modern period (15th-18th centuries) enabled the rise of the nation-state as a 'neutral party', which attempted to solve the problem by reducing religion to a private sphere away from the public discourse. In other words, religious discussion was relegated to personal pietism and worship, while law, politics, commerce, etc. were maintained as public areas of discussion that would hopefully be debated in a rational, 'peaceful' manner, something that was apparently made more difficult when religious belief was brought into the mix. This, it is said, is a primary reason why we have less religious violence now than in the past (though that assumption has been called into question post-9/11).
Cavanaugh thinks this narrative is wrong, and ought to be reversed. It is literally backward in his view: rather than religion and religious violence being the catalyst for the nation-state, the European states, caught up in conflicts over territory and power, used religion as a way to deflect from what was really going on. The 'social contract', according to Cavanaugh, allows individuals to gain certain rights (esp. property) in exchange for allowing the state government to have certain coercive powers. This leads to a situation where loyalty to the state becomes paramount, since it offers protection for what we value (safety, shelter, food, etc). The state soon usurps religion as the source of what people are willing to die for.
Cavanaugh says, "The 'wars of religion' were not the events which necessitated the birth of the modern state; they were in fact themselves the birthpangs of the state." (p. 315) What should we make of such a claim? It is true that the state itself is - rather than religion itself - the source of conflict and bringer of war, rather than a securer of peace? Has the state in some ways simply replaced the church, in a political sense? How does the modern state differ from the medieval church? Both, of course, have been very corrupt, and both are structures of power that were established as means of establishing control (of course, I mean church as a system -- call it 'Christendom' -- not as the 'body of Christ').
Luther was right, says Cavanaugh, to say that church power should not lie in coercive, violent means (the sword). But he gave away too much by making it seem as though the state could view its role in a spiritually positive light, as if accomplishing something that the church could not. (p. 316) The picture thus shifted from one where 'church' and 'state' were part of one body, with church as the 'head', to a picture of two bodies. Prior to this shift, in the 16th century, there had already begun to be a shift wherein the secular authority was now the head of the body.
Cavanaugh suggests that, in fact, the German Reformation (at least) actually was sustained by the political will of the princes in different regions. If Catholicism had already been domesticated politically in a particular region, the Reformed movement stalled in that area, but where Catholicism was still strong, the rulers typically moved toward Lutheranism. (p. 318) Moreover, he says, "The rise of a centralized bureaucratic State preceded [the French civil wars] and was based on the fifteenth-century assertion of civil dominance over the church in France." (p. 319) And, the bloodiest religious war, the 'Thirty Years War', was likewise motivated more by state power than by religion. How accurate is this assesssment?
Thus, according to Cavanaugh, "The creation of religion [as a private set of beliefs], and thus the privatization of the Church, is correlative to the rise of the State," and not the other way round. (p. 320) This leads to two shifts in the meaning of 'religion' in the modern period:
1. A shift from Christian worship of God, especially in liturgy (cf Aquinas), to an ideal 'human impulse' found within each person.
2. A shift from activities which were seen as the proper virtue for a worshiper of God, to a set of propositional beliefs, a set which is perhaps one among many.
This means, says Cavanaugh, that religion is now a "domesticated belief system... no longer a matter of certain bodily practices within the Body of Christ, but is limited to the realm of the 'soul', and the body is handed over to the state." (p. 322) The beginning of these shifts, Cavanaugh claims, is found in Hobbes. Hobbes held an "ontology of violence" (p. 323) that led him to posit fear and a desire for protection as the source of both religion and the social contract. This gives the state an equal claim with the church as a potential source of 'salvation'.
So, for Cavanaugh, this situation means that "Lockean liberalism can afford to be gracious toward 'religious pluralism' precisely because 'religion' as an interior matter is the State's own creation." (p. 324) However, it does seem that the doctrine of sin would indicate the extent to which Hobbes was correct, inasmuch as there is indeed something selfish, fearful, and violent within humanity that needs to be tempered, and the state provides a means for accomplishing this that some might argue the church has been unable to do. What does this mean for Cavanaugh's argument?
Kant, for example, viewed the state as necessary for moral behavior, because it prevents people from having their freedom infringed upon by others, and it is this freedom which allows human beings to grow as persons. Cavanaugh seems to concede this point somewhat, but argues that in spite of any errors on the part of the church, now everything is done for the sake of the state. This, he suggests, creates a form of ideology that is just as damaging, if not moreso, as a corrupt church system. He asks whether 'truth' in the public square is really a matter of consensus? Cavanaugh states that consensus created by the state is far from being unbiased and uncoerced.
Neuhaus and others, says Cavanaugh, suggest that religion today can only enter into public discussion by agreeing to abide by the rules of that discussion. But while this is no doubt true, it remains to be seen whether this is even the proper discussion to be having in the first place. These theologians 'give back' just a bit to religion by saying it is the 'ground of culture', whatever that may mean. (p. 327) But Cavanaugh asks, if the law derives from "the deepest moral intuitions of the people," (Ibid) what flaw is present when we assume that our moral intuitions are sufficient for Christian behavior?
The problem, he says, is the way that the word 'religion' is still being defined. But what DO we say if we aren't going to define 'religion' as a universal category? And when, then, are we as Christians supposed to "challenge the standards for public conversation?" (p. 328) These are questions left unresolved. Cavanaugh, with Asad, argues that there has been a movement away from church 'discipline' to the state 'disciplining'. In other words, we learn how to act based upon the results of actions in relation to the state, rather than in relation to the church. Thus, we have lost, in part, our ability to correctly gauge the results of our actions, since we are not related to the proper source of our morality.