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  • Liberal States – Nations, Idolatry and Violence: Cavanaugh’s Migrations of the Holy
  • Isis I.O. Leslie (bio)
William T. Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2011. #18.00 (paper). 208 pp. ISBN-10 0802866093

In Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church, the theologian, William T. Cavanaugh, provides an erudite and incisive critical analysis of prevalent contemporary ideas of the nation-state and the role of religion in politics. The book’s title, Migrations of the Holy, a phrase Cavanaugh borrows from the historian, John Bossy, is the central leitmotif of the several movements in nine chapters that constitute the text. The phrase refers, for Cavanaugh, to the process by which, in early modern Europe, people transferred their primary loyalties from the Church to the state, and civil authority came to take precedence over ecclesial power. The most marked indicator of this transfer of public loyalties from the Church to the nation-state is the creation of citizenries in modern nations who although largely not willing to die for their religious beliefs, are willing to die for national militaries. In this connection, Cavanaugh draws on Carolyn Marvin and David Ingles’ Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag (Cambridge Cultural Social Studies, 1999). Indeed, for Cavanaugh, nation-states in the modern era have become objects of idol worship. As against narratives that define modern secularism as a political accomplishment that privatized religion and in so doing did away with the violence of the Religious Wars of the sixteenth century, Cavanaugh argues that religious disagreement was never the primary subject of the religious wars, but rather, competing economic and political interests that were sometimes, largely mistakenly, if not disingenuously, cast in metaphysical terms.1 Moreover, Cavanaugh contends that violence has not been reduced in the modern era, but rather, has been relocated from confessional hegemonies to nation-states that define public space exclusively in terms of self-interest and contract.

Cavanaugh develops the implications of this thesis through an explication of classical liberal ideas of sovereignty in conversation with John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. Where Hobbes re-founds the state in fear, Locke founds it in property. Both agree that self-interest is the organizing principle of the state. Some recent Hobbes theorists maintain that Hobbes offers a concept of political participation which, in their interpretation, might leave room for representation of religious commitments in the public sphere.2 However, in Cavanaugh’s analysis, the Hobbesian concept of absolute sovereignty wholly absorbs the church into the state. By contrast, Locke offers a theory of “toleration” that privatizes the Church. Locke then defines public space exclusively in terms of contracts between individual persons and parties which provides little room for a conception of any common, public good.

This redefinition of public space in terms of contract, in turn, effects the flattening of civil society. In contrast to the pre-modern era, where social relationships were defined by parishes, guilds, collegiums, and other associations, Cavanaugh argues that the flattening and more, simplification, of civil society is manifest in the direct relationships that modern states maintain with individuals through the military. At the same time, war drives the continuous expansion of the state. Cavanaugh maintains further that the dissolution of intermediary associations that theorists of civil society, such as Robert Bellah, Robert Putnam, the Council of Civil Society, and Michael Hardt, among many others note reflects the absorption of groups with common virtues, ends, and identities into the market and the state. Modern states replace the complexity of pre-modern sociopolitical life with what G.D.H. Cole has called the ridiculous fiction of a unitary sovereign that is in fact a mask for the hijacking of the common good by an elite few. Concordantly, with Alistair MacIntyre, Cavanaugh argues that, in fact, the state cannot promote the common good.

Yet, Cavanaugh notes that, despite the hijacking of the common good that liberal sovereignty effects in modern politics, in the nineteenth century, the vertical relationship between ruler and ruled that defined absolute sovereignty came to include horizontal relationships between citizens in...

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