The Hollow, Empty Freedom of America

So, here I am, continuing with William Cavanaugh’s Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. This review/synopsis will cover chapter four, which deals with the messianic nature of American nationalism.

Cavanaugh begins with a discussion of American exceptionalism, and he says there are two kinds — one which is explicitly Christian, which sees America as the”New Israel,” and the other, which is grounded heavily in the Enlightenment (especially in Kant and Hegel), which sees America as history’s final meaning and end. America as history’s telos. While the first kind of exceptionalism is explicitly theological, the second kind avoids theological language or biblical imagery “out of respect for the human conscience.” (p. 93) For Cavanaugh, the American exceptionalism founded in Enlightenment philosophy is much more important than what he calls Judeo-Christian exceptionalism:

This kind of exceptionalism is based not on the particularism of the election of Israel by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but in the universalism of certain concepts of freedom and right. In the Enlightenment narrative, the tragedy of religious violence can only be solved by a recognition of the indeterminate nature of the truth about God, at least on a public level. It is this recognition that has given priority to the freedom to worship the god of one’s choice, or not god at all. The priority of freedom to the good becomes not just a political theme but an economic one as well. The priority of freedom is embodied in democracy and free markets, which hold the key to the happiness of all. The nation that is the vehicle for this hope for the world is exceptional, therefore, not because it was chosen by a particular act of the biblical God but because it is based on something prior and more universal, the freedom of the human will. The United States is not a successor to a past “chosen people,” but is, a Colin Powell has said, the first “universal nation,” the first to break the bonds of particularity. (p. 92-93)

Two things are very important here. First is what Cavanaugh describes as “the priority of freedom.” And the second is the universality of America as the ends of human history. Before I review Cavanaugh’s deeper discussion of these two (especially what “the priority of freedom” really means), I need to note that Cavanaugh’s great concern about the theologizing of the American state in an Enlightenment context makes America an “empty shrine,” which can then be filled up by whatever content its various worshipers choose to fill it with. That, for some believers in the American civil religion, that is the whole point — America itself is the thing that can be agreed upon. But Cavanaugh believes that explicit biblical exceptionalism actually puts America in the Bible story, and thus makes it accountable to something other than itself. Enlightenment exceptionalism has no means of accountability.

The deepest theological danger inherent in American exceptionalism, then, is that of the messiah nation that does not simply seek to follow God’s will, but acts as a kind of substitute god on the state of history. When the concept of chosenness becomes unmoored from the biblical narrative, the danger is that the nation will not only be substitute church but substitute god. When the shrine is empties of the biblical God and replaced with the generic principle of transcendence, the danger is that we will not come to worship God but will worship our freedom to worship God. The empty shrine is surreptitiously filled. Our freedom itself becomes an idol, the one thing we will kill and die for. (p. 96)

From here, Cavanaugh begins a fairly thorough exploration of Roman Catholic theologian Stephen Webb’s views on American nationalism as outlined in Webb’s book American Providence, and finishes with a brief examination of German jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt (who influenced Leo Strauss). I mention this the way I do because I believe Cavanaugh focuses on Webb’s book because Webb’s book is reflective of how many American Christians have come to understand their place as Americans and their nation’s place in history.

For Cavanaugh, Webb believes the following:

  • God is active in history.
  • The purpose of history is to open up the world in ways that allow human beings to choose Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
  • America is doing more than any other nation to make the opening possible. In fact, American government, society, institutions and capitalist economy are better ways of opening the world to the Jesus than all others.
  • America in and of itself is universal freedom.
  • But the point of the freedom to choose is the ability to choose Jesus, and nothing else.
Cavanaugh finds numerous problems with the approach, the foremost being there is no standard by which to judge American actions. “The danger is locating God’s activity in America,” Cavanaugh writes, “in that America itself becomes the criterion for locating God’s activity in the world.” (p. 99) According to Cavanaugh, there is no mention of what Jesus does in the Gospels — no love of neighbor, no healing, no reconciling, nothing.
But most importantly, no cross. And no resurrection. Cavanaugh states that “Webb explicitly rejects the idea of reading history from the underside, that is, from the point of view of the poor majority of the world’s population.” (p. 99) They do not matter. They are not actors in history. For Webb, the poor are recipients of God’s grace, but only because they exist for the “nonpoor” (Cavanaugh quotes Webb) to engage in acts of charity. Charity itself is good, but achieves nothing a grand scale. Only governments and nation-states can do that. (Webb very much espouses a theology of glory.)
Cavanaugh also states that Webb has no room for the church as God’s agent in history. Salvation is for the world and for individuals, but there is no church. And thus, no way to embody the grace of God collectively and in community, and to speak the judgment of God, since the only actor in Webb’s history that matters is the United States of America, which embodies God’s will for humanity in the here and now.
Finally, Cavanaugh deals briefly with German jurist and philosopher Carl Schmitt (who figures in the last chapter of Webb’s book). For Cavanaugh, Schmitt is important because of his belief that sovereignty is the power that decides the exception. Because of this, the sovereign cannot always be subject to the law. The purpose of politics is to decide who is a friend of the nation and who is an enemy. For Schmitt, the church has no business telling the state how to use this power. Webb goes even farther, and states (according to Cavanaugh) that attempts by the church to tell the state how to act in this regard is an attempt to exclude God from history. (!!!!) As Cavanaugh notes:

The problem, in my view, is that the political presence of the biblical God is mediated through the official discourse of America, and not through a distinctively Christian body that stands under the explicit authority of Jesus Christ. The church as mediator between God and America — a church that has the critical distance to pronounce judgment as well as blessing — is in danger of being erased. What has happened in effect is that America has become the new church. When the relationship of America and God is this direct, there is little to check the identification of Gods’ will with America’s. America is God’s people, the bearer of God’s salvation to the world. … Without the irritant of the body of Christ, the body politic is free once again to divinize the political authority, to transfer the sovereignty of God to the sovereign state. (p.104-105) 

Cavanaugh then concludes the chapter with a brief discussion of Israel’s sovereignty in scripture, noting that Israel was more a people than a polity. For most of its history, it was intertwined with enemies and truly sovereign, or was conquered and administered by foreigners. This is a point that I have long focused on, and have concluded from the scriptural narrative of Israel’s history that God does not intend for God’s people to be a polity, but rather, to be subject to polities while at the same time interacting with them. Cavanaugh also focuses on Paul’s description of the church as a grafting on to Israel, the opening up of Israel to all humanity, so that God’s chosenness may include all people.
I think Cavanaugh’s discussion of Webb contributes something important. Again, Webb is not crafting or creating an idea, but rather is reflecting a reality — this, I believe, is how many American Christians already view the American state. It is primarily a conservative view, and one very focused on the military and war making, but I believe this view — that the important actor in history is the United States of America — is also one held by more than a few liberal Christians as well. 
It also explains an interesting understanding of “freedom” current on the right. As someone with libertarian tendencies, I’ve always found the conservative belief in “freedom” to be somewhat at odds with how conservatives actually act. Freedom is not a thing to use in any meaningful way. It seems like it’s a hollow, empty freedom, this freedom that Lee Greenwood sings about. What good is it if it’s not used? But it’s not supposed to be used, this “freedom,” because this “freedom” itself is the end of human existence, and that end is embodied in the United States of America. It explains, I think, why someone like Rick Santorum can speak of freedom on the one hand, and restricting human action on the other. The freedom he speaks of is not the freedom to act without harming others, but the very purpose and meaning of history. That is why the “priority of freedom” is so important.
In effect, many conservative American Christians are mystical nationalists, and not really Christians at all.
Chapter five is a short chapter on how to do penance for the inquisition, and I probably will not deal with it. And so, I will lump chapters six and seven together, which deal with the liturgy of American nationalism and the church as a political entity.

Migrant, Tourist, Pilgrim, Monk

That’s the title of Cavanaugh’s third chapter of Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church, and it’s a brief exploration of Christian identity in the world globalization and nation-states. I’m always leery of discussions of identity. Not because such conversations aren’t important, but because words and ideas can be used to convey more than the actual reality does.

Nonetheless, this is a book about being church. That’s a question of identity. And this chapter is important, if somewhat limited.

Cavanaugh first looks at migrants and tourists, two types of people he sees as prime types in globalized modernity. The migrant is stateless and sees the world from the bottom. The tourist is cosmopolitan — a pretend stateless person — who sees the world from the top. More than describing such people, Cavanaugh says these types (he admits they are stereotypes, but drawn from reality) perform an important function for the modern nation-state. In talking about the U.S.-Mexico border (though he could be talking about any international boundary crossed by people legally and illegally seeking work), he writes:

The purpose of the border is not simply to exclude immigrants but to define them, to give them an identity. That identity is a liminal identity, an identity that straddles the border and defines a person as being neither here nor there. (p. 74)

Again, I don’t want to give too much weight to these words, but despite being an American, I have a somewhat different experience of borders and work, having twice crossed international frontiers (both times legally, though in the case of Saudi Arabia, my stay was long enough to become an illegal one) looking for work. There’s a fair amount to this assertion of his, and that people without rights as nationals — or nationals of the nation-state they inhabit — are important in globalization. However, it does put the lie to one of Cavanaugh’s earlier statements that in a globalized world, capital moves while labor doesn’t. Clearly labor does. It just doesn’t do so easily, or often as legally as it could.

And then he begins to wander into what I think could be an interesting discussion if he kept it up. Which he doesn’t:

The modern nation-state was born of the attempt to protect the rights of humans as humans. The Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 declared all human life as such to be the subject of rights. As Giorgio Agamben points out, however, the more “life” became the subject of rights–that is, the more life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, health, the satisfaction of human needs, and so on, became the subject of rights–the more “life” became inscribed into the political order and brought under sovereign control. This process is completed when state sovereignty becomes linked to the nation (from nascere, to be born). Political life in the nation-state is not derived from the conscious and free subject, but from the bare fact of birth. The key political question now takes the form “Who is German?” or “Who is American?” and more pointedly “Who is not?” Migrants and refugees challenge the link between nativity and citizenship. The nation-state may choose to confer citizen status on some migrants and refugees. Unless that takes places, however, migrants retain a liminal status. The person without a nation-state is what Agamben calls “bare life,” whose biological needs may be attended to by humanitarian relief efforts, but whose full identity as the bearer of rights is constantly held in question. (p. 74-75)

Two things pop out from this passage. The first is the expansion of rights necessitated the expansion of state power. For example, if suddenly the U.S. Constitution were amended to grant all Americans the right to a free lunch, the state would have to act to make sure those rights could be realized. More rights for individuals requires more state power.

The second, for me, is how citizenship/nationality have become in the nation-state what baptism was in Christendom. An accident, the result of being born in a particular place amidst a particular group of people. The United Nations has as one of its fundamental rights the right to nationality, that no one in theory can be without it. Because, as Cavanaugh notes here, civic and social — and even human — rights all flow from holding nationality. But why can’t I choose my nationality? Or, more importantly, why can’t I choose to have none at all? I can renounce my U.S. citizenship, but it is a meaningless gesture, since I’m still subject to U.S. law and taxes as long as I reside in the U.S. Statelessness is not a real option in a world of nation-states, at least not a voluntary one. And the only real choice is to obtain some other nation’s citizenship or nationality. And I’m not rich enough to do that easily.

Back to Cavanaugh. His ideal Christian type in the world of nation-states is the pilgrim. That’s important for him because Constantinianism gave Christians the illusions that we are a truly settled people, that the world and its arrangement seem more permanent than they truly are. He’s a little too enamored of globalization, spends a little too much time quoting from newspaper and magazine articles on economics and politics, but in the end, I think he’s right to want this is our primary identity:

To embrace the identity of pilgrim now is first of all to embrace a certain kind of mobility in the context of globalization. The church has been unmoored and should joyfully take leave of the settledness of Constantinian social arrangements that gave it privilege and power. To accept our status as pilgrims on our way back to God is, as Augustine saw, to accept the provisional nature of human government. Our status as pilgrims makes clear that our primary identity is not what is defined for us by national borders. The pilgrim seeks to transgress all artificial borders that impede the quest for communion with God and with other people. 

Loyalty to the nation-state is not eclipsed by a simple cosmopolitanism, however, for like the migrant and unlike the tourist, the pilgrim travels on foot and does not enjoy a commanding view of the globe from above. Again, humility is the key virtue of the pilgrim. A church that desires to be a pilgrim does not claim the power to treat every location as interchangeable and impose global solutions on the world. As it was before, pilgrimage today in a kenotic moment. The church on the periphery finds itself in solidarity with the migrant and with other people whose identity is liminal. The pilgrim church is itself a liminal reality, occupying the border between heaven and earth. The term peregrinus, from which “pilgrim” is derived, recognizes this liminal status: the meaning of the term in Latin includes foreigner, wanderer, exile, alien, traveler, newcomer, and stranger. Like the Israelites, whose care for the alien and poor was motivated by their own remembrance of their own slavery and wandering, the pilgrim church is to find its identity in solidarity with the migrant who travels out of necessity, not in order to transcend all necessity. (p. 82)

In his brief discussion of monks, Cavanaugh talks a bit about settledness. Citing St. Benedict’s orders for monasteries, Cavanaugh writes that the only real purpose of settledness is to be able to greet the stranger and wanderer properly. Only in the settled community can the kind of obedience necessary to truly “enter communion with God and with others” because this process takes a great deal of time. And only in settled communities can the kind of human relationships exist that truly create and sustain communities. Not the imagined and mediated relationships of citizenship in a nation-state of 300 million people, but real relationships on the human scale of congregation, town and neighborhood.

But Cavanaugh is clear — the point of the settled life, of creating the settled community, is to welcome and stranger and care for the wanderer. One way of living is not better than the other, nor more desired than the other. (I would add, at this point, that both ways of living are callings. The host cannot be without the guest.) Both need each other to fully live out their callings as people of God. Cavanaugh ends the chapter this way:

Following Jesus on our pilgrimage through this world clearly relativizes any national borders that define some people as “illegal.” Their primary identity is bestowed by Christ; it is Christ we welcome when we welcome the stranger. This position put the church at the margins of the law and at the margins of any national identity. Before we are Americans, we are Christians. But that marginality is accompanied by a rootedness in the concrete needs of a particular people, a rootedness that stands as the basis for hospitality to the migrant poor. The church should respond to globalism by enacting a more truly global story of all things made one in Christ. At the same time, the identity of the universal Christ is found in the one lonely migrant who knocks at the door, looking for rest. (p. 87)

Okay, from here, it is on to chapter four, which is all about the messianic nature of American nationalism.

One City, Or Two?

Okay, I will continue with the review of Cavanaugh’s book, Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. It looks like I’ll probably do this one chapter at a time.

Cavanaugh (who is listed on the back of the book as “a senior research professor at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology and professor at DePaul University,” so it is probably safe to assume he is a Roman Catholic, though he may not be) begins chapter two speaking about unity. In particular, the Christian desire for unity and what that unity becomes “when the longing for participation in God and the eschatological framework is lost.” Cavanaugh writes:

In Christian thought, the gathering of the many into one is not accomplished by an act of binding one to another. In the body of Christ, the many are gathered into one by means of each one’s participation in the head of the body, who is Christ. [Come on Lutherans, how is this done? BAPTISM! Thank you.] The body of Christ has a transcendent reference, which, according to Paul, allows for diversity within unity (1 Cor. 12), since the interval between each one and God allows for a diversity of ways of participation within God’s life. (p. 47)

At this point, I’d add, or say, that the reality of the call of diverse people with diverse talents and so forth is proof itself of the diversity within unity of the church. But no matter, let’s let Cavanaugh continue:

How will a modern liberal nation-state resolve the question of the one and the many in the body if participation in Christ is no longer the common goal? Liberalism is said to allow for a greater pluralism of ends: there are no longer two cities–the followers of Christ and the “world”– but one city with a diversity of individuals, each with the freedom to choose his or her own ends, whether to worship no god, one god, or twenty. But the longing for unity persists, along with the fear that diversity will produce conflict and tear the body politics apart. In the absence of a transcendent telos, plurality is not simply a promise but a threat, one that must be met by an even greater pull toward unity. But what could be the source of unity in a nation-state of diverse ends without a transcendent reference to participation in any single god? It can only be that the nation-state becomes and end in itself, a kind of transcendent reference needed to bind the many to each other. (p. 47)

At this point, Cavanaugh’s theocentrism — and unadulterated Christian view — becomes clear. No doubt there are philosophers, religious and secular, who would square this circle without any reference to God (and who would even argue the need for a transcendent meaning in organized human communities) or Christ. I will grant that. But I do believe Cavanaugh is correct here, however, when he posits that the nation-state has become its own transcendent meaning absent other meaning with the ability to compel or coerce adherence. This is especially true in the American context.

Cavanaugh then harshly examines the views of Martin Marty, describing Marty as believing there is only one public square in America, and too close an adherence to specific religion (such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses) create a dual loyalty that endangers the public square. In the liberal state, the state comes first, creating space where many voices — secular and religious — can speak and contribute to the common good. But for Marty, pluralism requires surrendering some of religion’s truth claims to the state, in order for a civil civic space to exist:

The basic assumption is that the nation-state is one city, within which there is a division of goods and a division of labor, and these follow certain well-worn binaries: civil society and state, sacred and secular, eternal and temporal, religion and politics, church and state. (p. 49)

And the discussion of these things is neither reasoned nor reasonable as John Courtney Murray would have it. Pluralism is an insoluble problem and in the American context has found its solution in the nation-state itself:

The nation-state is made stronger by the absence of shared ends, and the absence indeed of any rational basis on which to argue about those ends. In the absence of shared ends, devotion to the nation-state as an and in itself becomes more urgent. The nation-state needs the constant crisis of pluralism in order to enact the unum. Indeed, the constant threat of disorder is crucial to any state that defines its indispensability in terms of the security it offers. Pluralism will always be a crisis for the liberal state, and the solution to the crisis is to rally around the nation-state, the locus of a mystical communion that rescues us from the conflict of civil society. (p. 53)

In casting itself as “one people,” the leaders of the nation-state must always disguise the “sinister reality” of what it is the state does — and the primary sinister reality is that violence, Cavanaugh writes. In fact, Cavanaugh goes as far to describe the American attachment to war as a kind of blood sacrifice to and of American nationalism (which itself has religious qualities). Religion is dangerous, Cavanaugh writes, because it challenges the primary loyalties to the nation-state itself and encourages more specific loyalties:

“Religion” in public is dangerous because it tries to impose unity on plurality. At the same time, however, religious and lethal devotion to the unity of the nation-state itself is assumed to be a normal part of one’s civic duties. Plurality is desirable only at the level of civil society and only as long as it does not interfere with the sacred duty to stand together at the level of the state. There is only one temporal city. The church may jealously guard its sacred space within that city, but it may not demur from the state’s monopoly on violence. (p. 55)

At this point, Cavanaugh wanders into territory first explored by Augustine. Are there two cities, a City of God and a City of Man, or is there only one city? Cavanaugh states the problem is one of space — both the City of God and the City of Man are seen to share the same space. How to divvy that space up, to delineate it? The Constantinian solution was to have the church use the state to rule the city. The solution proposed by Martin Marty is for the church to place itself “within the city but outside the state” because it’s the state’s job to rule the city. And so, we moderns examine the matter by trying to figure out how the two — the church and the state — share the city. Because there’s only one city.

But what if there isn’t only one city? Cavanaugh writes:

Augustine has no theory of church and state, no spatial carving up of one society into spheres on influence. There is no sense that there is a single public square in which the church must find its place. Augustine complexifies space by arguing that the church itself is a kind of public; indeed, it is the most fully public community. The city of God has to do with ordering matters that are considered public, because the city of God makes use of the same temporal goods as does the earthly city, but in different ways and for different ends. There is no division between earthly goods and heavenly goods, secular and sacred; there is no sphere of activities that is the peculiar responsibility of the earthly city. The city of God, therefore, is not a part of the larger whole, but is a public in its own right. (p. 57)

The people living in the earthly city do share an end — love of self and the contempt of God. And the unity created in the earthly city is not a real unity, “but a false order, a restraint of vice through vice.” The city of God exists within the earthly city as a mere wanderer, using that city’s order to its benefit as the church continues its journey through the world.

Cavanaugh writes that Augustine doesn’t so much place the two cities in space, rather he places them in time:

The reason Augustine is compelled to speak of two cities is not because there are some human pursuits that are properly terrestrial and others pertain to God, but simply because God saves in time. Salvation has history, whose climax is in the advent of Jesus Christ, but whose definitive closure remains for the future. Christ has triumphed over the principalities and power, but there remains resistance to Christ’s saving action. The two cities are not the sacred and the profane spheres of life. The two cities are the already and the not yet of the kingdom of God. (p. 59-60)

The church is a witness to the already in the midst of the not yet. The church is the witness to the triumph of Christ in the midst of the brokenness of humanity. The church is eternal, the nation-state is temporary. It has already met its end in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has reconciled the entirety of God’s creation. The crucifixion is an act in the not yet, but the resurrection (to which we are all joined in baptism!) is the already, and the already is what is truly real. The not yet is still apparent, but it has no permanent meaning in the face of the already. Cavanaugh also describes the two cities as “performances” — they are verbs rather than nouns — without clearly defined boundaries:

The task of the church is to interrupt the violent tragedy of the earthly city with the comedy of redemption, to build the city of God, beside which the earthly city appears not to be a city at all. (p. 63).

And so onward, to chapter three.

Killing for the Telephone Company

I often peruse the new books section at the JKM Library, and despite our current impoverished condition (there are frequent claims we don’t really acquire new books anymore), I’m always relatively impressed by the new volumes on those shelves. Maybe there’d be more if the seminary’s (and library’s) financial situations were different. But if I see something interesting, I usually pick it up and try reading it (and with Amos Yong, don’t have much success, since the book itself is too unpleasantly written to read).

But then I spied William T. Cavanaugh’s Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. I make no pretense of the fact that the issue that drives me theologically, morally and ethically is that of the relationship between Church and state and Christian and state. It’s really the only thing I can get passionate about (as friends who know me and have grown frustrated by my single-mindedness can attest to). And I do so from a very critical standpoint, one that questions the very moral foundations of the state as an entity. Which is why I am so happy to have found Cavanaugh’s book. Where was it eight weeks ago when I so desperately needed it?

I have just finished the first chapter, “Killing for the Telephone Company”: Why the Nation-State is Not the Keeper of the Common Good. It’s an essay I’ve quoted from before.

Cavanaugh’s thesis is simple: the state is not an organic development arising from the needs of the human community, but rather the product of deliberate conquest and the simplification of social space. And, as the subtitle of his chapter notes, the state is not a reflection of any kind of common good (or even any single entity called society, which doesn’t pre-exist the state), but rather a very specific good arising out of the claims to monopoly power first exercised by absolute monarchs in the 17th century:

According to [Joseph R.] Strayer [author of On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State], the development of regularized systems of revenue extraction and accounting, law courts, and assemblies were undertaken with reference to its advantages for particular parties [italics mine, CHF], namely the royal household and the properties classes, and without reference to anything like a common good. The common people came into the purview of the emerging bureaucracy almost exclusively as a resource for revenue extraction. At the same time, the very definition of what is “common” had begun a gradual transformation. The centralization of royal power involved a transfer of rights from local bodies that had previously been the primary recipients of communal life. Legal right and the administration of justice as not created by royal power but was usurped from manorial lords, churches, and communities. If Strayer is accurate, this process took place to serve the particular interests of dominant groups, and not as the expansion of common space. (p. 13)

War is the primary means by which state power is truly expanded, and states made war in order to expand power — not only against other emerging states, but also against the people they governed. Cavanaugh points out the greatest expansion of domestic, non-war related state power and spending in the United States coincides with both World Wars (he could have added the War of Confederate Independence from 1861-1865, the war in Southeast Asia, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Cavanaugh also states that, contrary to the ideas of the Burkeans and others, the state is not created by “civil society.” Rather, unitary civil society is the creation of the state. The great English-language theorists of the state, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, both saw the state as acts of will which individuals surrender to and contract with. Both also saw the state’s sovereign will as absolute — there could be no competing wills. Cavanaugh writes of Hobbes:

In his view, the state is not enacted to realize a common good or common telos [end or meaning], but rather to liberate the individual to pursue his or her own ends without fear of interference from other individuals. In the peculiar new space created by the state, the individual members do not depend on one another; rather, they are connected only through the sovereign–as spokes are to the hub of a wheel. (p. 20)

For Locke, political space has only two poles: the individual and the state:

The state is enacted immediately from the needs of the solitary individual to protect his person and possessions. The world belongs to all humankind in common, but it is quickly withdrawn from the common by human labor. (p. 21)

According to Cavanaugh, the 16th and 17th century theories of sovereignty — the ones that more or less still hold sway in our world today — “do not yield much in the way of the common good.” They are founded on the individual (and this is also true of 19th and 20th century collectivist understandings as well, which is why ideological opposition to individualism on the left almost always becomes a kind-of nihilistic collectivism which continues to advance state power) that sees the only basis of individual cooperation as “the contracts” in which the state mediates between interests and wills. In this, Cavanaugh writes:

The body politic does not pursue a common good, but instead seeks to liberate the individual to pursue his or her own ends. … [S]overeignty is not there mere gathering of the many into one, but the creation of sovereign individuals related through the sovereign state. (p. 23)

This is problematic for many libertarians. For if the goal is the expansion of individual liberty, then the maximization of that liberty involves destroying anything that could interfere with that liberty. Any intermediary institutions that can protect people can also stand in their way. Thus, the expansion of individual liberty as commonly understood also requires the expansion of state power as a way of destroying anything that might have a separate identity from the state. So, whatever civil society there is exists to serve the state and its ends. For example, the church is domesticated and privatized.

This is why the language of rights — civil rights, human rights — are so important to the expansion of state power:

The rise of rights language goes hand in hand with the rise of the nation-state, because political and civil rights name both the freeing of the individual from traditional types of community and the establishment of regular relationships of power between the individual and the state. Marx was wrong to dismiss rights as a mere ruse to protect the claims of the bourgeois classes. Nevertheless, individual rights do greatly expand the scope of the state because political and civil rights establish binding relationships between the nation-state and those who look to vindicate their claims. The nation-state becomes something of a central, bureaucratic clearinghouse in which social claims are contested. The nation-state is fully realized when sacrifice on behalf of the nation is combined with claims made on the state on the basis of rights. (p. 36)

This is a theological book, and in this Chapter, it appears Cavanaugh is laying the foundation for what he believes the church (for like John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas before him, is speaking only to the church) should do as it thinks and acts in the context of the nation-state. For Cavanaugh notes that the nation-state presents itself as:

… the keeper of the common and repository of sacred values, so that it demands sacrifice on its behalf. The longing for true communion that Christians recognize at the heart of any true common life is transferred onto the nation-state. Civic virtue and the goods of common life do not simply disappear: as Augustine perceived, the earthly city flourishes by producing a distorted image of the heavenly city. That nation-state is a simulacrum of the common life, where falls order is parasitical on true order. In a bureaucratic order whose main function to adjudicate struggles for power between various factions, a sense of unity is produced by the only means possible: sacrifice to false gods in war. The nation-state may be understood theologically as a kind of parody of the church, meant to save us from division. 

The urgent task of the church, then, is to demystify the nation-state and to treat it like the telephone company. At best, the nation-state may provide goods and services that contribute to a certain limited order; mail delivery, for example, is a positive good. The state is not the keeper of the common good, however, and we need to adjust our expectations accordingly. The church must break its imagination out of captivity to the nation-state; it must constitute itself as an alternative social space, and not simply rely on the nation-state to be its social presence; the church must, at every opportunity, “complexity” space, that is promote the creation of spaces in which alternative economies and authorities flourish. (p. 42)

I do not know Cavanugh’s religious affiliation. He cites Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novum and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno — and the whole of Catholic social teaching, which tends to look to an idealized middle ages as a way of creating structures that will protect people and look after them — positively. And he cites a story told by political scientist Michael Budde about the unwillingness of the a group of Roman Catholic bishops in an unnamed state to conceive of a way of dealing with poverty that was more than lobbying legislators as an example of the church’s failure to see itself as creating “authentically common spaces among the haves and the have nots.”

For Cavanaugh, the failure is primarily one of imagination, a failure which careens across political lines from liberal Christians who see in the welfare state something of the Kingdom of God and in conservatives who see in the United States of America (and its wars) something of God acting deliberately and purposefully in history:

In seeing the nation-state as responsible for the common good, the church mutes its own voice in such crucial matters as war and peace, and it is pushed to the margins. Just-war reasoning becomes a tool of statecraft, most commonly used by the state to justify war, rather than a moral discipline for the church to grapple with the questions of violence. The church itself becomes one more withering “intermediate association” whose moral reasoning and moral formation are increasingly colonized by the nation-state and the market. To resist, the church must at the very least reclaim its authority to judge if and when Christians may kill, and not abdicate authority to the nation-state. To do so would be to create an alternative authority and space that does not simply mediate between state and individual. (p. 44-45)

It is early yet, and I do not quite see where the book is going. So I’ll keep my comments short here. First, those of us who believe as Cavanaugh advocates — and I am one — will have our work cut out for us, especially in very statist confessions like the Lutheran churches of North America. Lutherans have in their confessional DNA the belief and expectation that church, people and polity will be one in the same. (It is our heritage.) The northern European understanding of the nation-state is much more “organic” than the English understanding (though no less false), and thus the idea that the church serves the state and the state rules the community bounded by the church in which all share culture, faith, language and telos (which is more or less true in northern Europe and Scandinavia) does not lend itself easily to Cavanaugh’s subsidiarity. This is especially true under the progressive church’s preferred ruling ideal, multiculturalism, which just as intolerant as any other form of assimilationism, demanding the complete surrender of any alternative claims of explaining and structuring society and seeking the power of the state to enforce its claims.

Cavanaugh also says the church is different. A claim we can make as believers but one we cannot “prove” to the satisfaction of non-believers. It will also be interesting to see where Cavanaugh takes language like this:

Salvation history is not a particular subset of human history; it is simply the story of God’s rule, not yet completely legible, over all of history. (p. 45)

Such language, when used sloppily (or deliberately), can justify all kinds of things. One of the reasons I don’t break bread with the religious left is that such language seems to be an excuse to use state power and wield it illiberally. But also because Cavanaugh is right. There really is no common good in the nation-state. At least there’s no common good separate from the specific exercise of power for specific advantage.

But the truth it, the medieval world cannot be reclaimed is simply because modernity won’t allow for it. And by that, we who are moderns simply don’t live in a world where medieval organization or arrangements can or will make any sense. We live in a world of the individual. So, if I have to choose between nihilistic individualism and nihilistic collectivism (and I believe that is the only real organizational choice modernity gives us), that’s an easy choice — nihilistic individualism. Because at least there’s space within that to work with others and make something different.