“The Past Is Never Dead”

In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, religious violence tore across Europe.  The Wars of Religion, culminating with the Thirty Years’ War, left the continent scarred and exhausted.  Out of ashes of war the secular nation state arose to establish a new political order which privatized religion and enshrined reason and tolerance as the currency of the public sphere ensuring an end to irrational violence.

That is one of the more familiar historical narratives that we tell ourselves.  It is sweeping and elegant in its scope and compelling in its explanatory power.  There’s only one problem according to William Cavanaugh:  it’s not true.  Cavanaugh lays out his case in his most recent book, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford UP, 2009).  Needless to say, he has his work cut out for him.  The narrative he seeks to deconstruct is deeply entrenched and we’ve staked a lot on it.  His point, to be clear, is not that religion has never been implicated in violence.  As he puts it elsewhere, “Given certain conditions, Christianity, Islam, and other faiths can and do contribute to violence.”  Rather, he is contesting the particular historical narrative whereby the secular nation state arises in response to religious violence in order to secure peace for society by marginalizing religious practice and discourse.

To begin with, Cavanaugh demonstrates that the very concept of religion is problematic and thus renders any neat parsing of violence into either religious or secular categories tenuous at best.  Moreover, the nation state precedes the so called wars of religion and is best seen as a contributing cause, not an effect of the wars.  The historical realities of the wars resist the simplistic “Wars of Religion” schema anyway.  For example, during the  Thirty Years’ War, Catholics were at times fighting other Catholics and sometimes in league with Protestants.  The Thirty Years’ War as it turns out was a scramble by competing dynasties and rising national governments to fill the power vacuum created by the collapse of the medieval political order.  Furthermore, Cavanaugh suggests that the state co-opted and assumed for itself many of  the qualities of the church creating, as one reviewer put it, “its own sacred space, with its own rituals, hymns, and theology, and its own universal mission.”  In the end, the secular nation state, particularly in its 20th century totalitarian apotheosis, hardly appears as the champion of reason, peace, and tolerance.  The nation state secured its status by monopolizing the use of coercive force.  In doing so, however, it clearly did not put an end to violence.

Cavanaugh presents a counter-intuitive thesis and he takes care to make his case.  It is a case he has been working out since 1995 when, as a graduate student, he published “‘A fire strong enough to consume the house:’ The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the Nation State.” In the intervening years he has honed and strengthened his argument which finds mature expression in the The Myth of Religious Violence.

Whether one ultimately agrees with Cavanaugh’s thesis or not, his work highlights two important considerations regarding historical narratives.  First, historical reality is usually more complex than the stories we tell, and the complexity matters.  We are living through a cultural moment when historical awareness is a rare commodity, so perhaps we shouldn’t complain too much about shallow historical knowledge when the alternative may be no historical knowledge.  But that said, much of what does pass for historical knowledge too frequently is filtered through Hollywood, the entertainment industry, or the talk-show circuit, and for all these subtlety must necessarily be sacrificed to the demands of the medium.  The big picture sometimes is painted at the expense of important details, so much so that the big picture is rendered misleading.

Perhaps most days of the week, this is not a terribly important consideration.  But it can become very significant under certain circumstances.  When a historical narrative is hotly contested and passionately defended it is usually because the real battle is over the present.  Consider heated debates about the Christian or secular origins of the American constitutional order, or arguments over the causes of the American Civil War and Southern identity.  Leaving the terrain of American history, consider the Armenian genocide, the Japanese atrocities at Nanking, or the the tangled history of the Balkans.  In each case the real issue is clearly not the accuracy of our historical memory so much as it is the perceived implications for the present.  In other words, we fight for our vision for the present on the battlefield of the past.  This raises a host of other questions related to the status of arguments from history, philosophies of history, and historiography.  These sorts of questions, however, are rarely raised at rallies or on television — it would be hard to fit them on a placard or in a 10 second sound bite.

A debate about the origins of the modern nation state is likewise about more than historical accuracy.  Critics of religion and the place of religion in public life, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris for example, have made the historical narrative we began with a key component of their case — religion kills, the secular state saves.  Cavanaugh has offered the compelling rejoinder.

Either way it appears Faulkner was right:  “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”


You can listen to a lecture and link to a number of essays by Cavanaugh here.

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