William T. Cavanaugh is well known in certain political theology (or “theopolitical” as some Christian theologians like to refer to it) circles because of his 1998 book Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ. The book is a very interesting study of the Catholic Church in Chile during Pinochet’s regime and details the theological background to the political relationship between Church and State. At times, though I’m willing to hedge here, it isn’t clear in the book if Cavanaugh doesn’t secretly think that the Eucharist is a more revolutionary act than, say, workers organizing to provide for themselves and resist Pinochet’s Chicago School led neoliberalism. It certainly has been used in that way by some of Cavanaugh’s enthusiastic readers and even, dare I say, mis-used in that way by members of the Radical Orthodoxy/Red Tory movement. His mix of Foucault and Roman Catholic radicalism does give the impression of a strange conservative anti-Statist and anti-Capitalist form of thinking. Still, I would feel uncomfortable simply regulating Cavanaugh to this pit of vipers since his own work is overwhelmingly negative in its approach (I’ll explain the meaning of this more below) and his own attempts at positive proscriptive political statements often are undertaken with great care and a deep grounding in a tradition of non-violence. Weirdly, if I can indulge in a bit of biography before moving on to the more substantive comments, reading Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist was the reason I decided not to convert to Roman Catholicism when at the age of 19 I decided to leave the Church of the Nazarene. Simply stated the book broke any romantic illusions I had about the Roman Church. It seemed to me as compromised and fucked up as anything American Evangelicalism had going for it. Regardless of the beauty of its liturgy or the depth of its intellectual tradition, I just couldn’t imagine ever converting. Perhaps if I grew up in a Roman Catholic culture I’d engage with it in some sense (and in fact I do), but why would I ask permission to be a part of something that had a hierarchy I’d struggle against for the rest of my life? And, worse yet, refused to acknowledge its awful crimes towards, not just others, but its own adherents? Perhaps not the outcome hoped for by Cavanaugh…
Cavanaugh’s newest book, The Myth of Religions Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, is really a fuller development of an argument he laid out in a somewhat popular article he wrote entitled “‘A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House': The Wars of Religion & The Rise of the State” [pdf]. In both cases the point is to challenge the “creation myth” of secular liberalism, which states that the modern state arose in response to the irrational and endless violence waged in the name of religion. As he states in Myth, “What I call the “myth of religious violence” is the idea that religion is a transhistorical and transcultural feature of human life, essentially distinct from “secular” features such as politics and economics, which has a peculiarly dangerous inclination to promote violence.”Cavanaugh argues against this myth through four chapters that attempt to deal with different aspects of the ideology. The first chapter lays out all the different aspect of the myth, namely its reliance on a largely unexamined theoretical separation of the religious and the secular and the hypocritical definition of violence. The second chapter, the most interesting to me, deals with the questionable “invention of religion” that treats religion as a genus that specific religions are species of. The third chapter lays out a few historical issues with what is often taken, though not be academic historians, to be commonplace knowledge about the wars of religion (this largely supplements the original article). And the fourth deals with the way this myth has been used in America to shore up a civil religion taken to be secular against a private religion taken to always be teetering on the verge of violence. He also looks in this chapter at the way theories of religious violence have been used to justify violence against Muslims as harbingers of an irrational civilization that refuses to separate mosque and state.
Cavanaugh’s book can be placed alongside a number of recent post-secular works of theory (he uses Asad and Masuzawa, but unlike them his is an unrelentingly negative work. In each chapter the goal is not to provide some better theory of religion and violence, or even a new theoretical framework for thinking about questions generally treated under that academic pursuit, but simply to negate through reasonable doubt the power of the prevailing “myth”. In many ways I’m very sympathetic to this project and I also appreciate the time that Cavanaugh devotes to discussing the ways that the secular has been deployed, by racists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchins, against the “Islamic world”. Still – you knew there was going to be one, in fact I expect this ‘still’ is why you’re reading – there is something about Cavanaugh’s use of postsecular negation that raised questions for me and that exist more generally regarding the Christian use of postsecular theory. The first thing that bothered me was that, though he often defends Islam against people like Harris, he also takes pains to emphasize that he’s not saying “religion is off limits” or that he’s not out to just defend religion (sometimes he says “Christianity” and sometimes just “religion”, despite doubting its existence or at least showing reasonable doubt regarding its existence as a genus, and rarely “Islam”). Yet the first instance of this hedging it is in fact Islam that is used as the example of a religion that can be interogated: “I think that the separation of church and state is generally a good thing. On the other side, there is no question that certain forms of Muslim beliefs and practices do promote violence.”
Now, Cavanaugh is clear that Christianity is up for debate too (namely the relationship between violence and the sacrifical atonement of Christ), but I’m still troubled by the presentation of Islamic countries in relation to America. He basically seems to accept that countries like Iran and movements like Palestinian liberation are a theopolitical mixture that can be identified as Islamic. Yet, his description of America as a largely secular country that has felt the need to separate out Christian religious commitments from civic commitments seems like a bait and switch. While, yes, America seems to have a civic religion that goes into full swing when America goes to war, it does so with a whole army of clergy. I was recently corrected in a class when I claimed that Sao Paulo was the largest Catholic diocese in the world. Instead, the student told me, it was the Diocese for the Military Services, USA. I’m not sure he’s correct, but it certainly is a fact that in terms of territory this is the largest diocese and further more that, while the Pope and other religious leaders came out against the war in Iraq, many Catholic leaders in the US alongside of evangelical leaders supported the war very vocally with appeals to the Christian tradition and scripture. What is it that allows Cavanaugh to label the theopolitics of the Islamic world as such and to claim that the American system of civil religion is not Christian?
I’ll end with a general remark that applies broadly to Christian uses of the postsecular event. If you follow Asad or any number of other postsecular theorists you know that the term “religion” was primarily used to separate out religions from Christianity. The roots of this go back to Hegel more than anyone else. Yet, we know have Christians trying to use the postsecular event, which was initially a violent anti-colonial struggle against Christo-secular imperialism. My worry is that the negative uses of postsecularism are being turned into a kind of general weaponized apophaticism in Christian theology. I say general because this form of apophaticism has been used for some time against Western science, but now it’s being used in a political register. Not simply by Cavanaugh, who again I think is more careful than many of those who use his work, but also by right-wingers who generally support imperialism! In these instances the question of religion is used to argue for a place for the Church as Authority in public life. This is happening in different forms throughout Europe, but most obviously in the UK where these anachronistic forms of authority still hold a great deal of power. My question, then, is how will this weaponized apophaticism play out with regards to the question of religion in relation to the foreign policy of countries that begin to speak in a more mixed economy of the state and Church/Mosque? And furthermore, why lies behind Christian theologians deploying this weaponized apophaticism without dealing with this rather obvious question? Or is there a reason why this weaponized apophaticism isn’t turned on Christianity itself?