March 7, 2020 Editor



by William T. Cavanaugh

first published in: Modem Theology 11:4 October 1995

ISSN 0266-7177

WN: Dr. Cavanaugh has been producing an impressive list of scholarly works challenging certain Enlightenment narratives about Christianity in the West. I previously reviewed two of his books together: The Myth of Religious Violence and Migrations of the Holy.

I can think of two professionals I know well, senior in their respective fields, flawed though in their lack of critical thinking about post-Enlightenment bias against Christianity. (They were once fundamentalist Christians,) As Cavanaugh succinctly argues in the article highlighted below, claims that the secular state of necessity stepped in to end the bloody religious wars in the West, get the matter ass-backwards. I confess to being one of those who as well once imbibed/expressed unthinkingly such prejudice . . .

Charles Tilly’s article, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” highlighted below, has a compelling echo in this story by Saint Augustine:

The king asked the fellow, “What is your idea, in infesting the sea?” And the pirate answered, with uninhibited insolence, ”the same as yours, in infesting the earth! But because I do it with a tiny craft, I’m called a pirate: because you have a mighty navy, you’re called an emperor.” (Saint Augustine, Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans, trans. Henry Bettenson, New York: Penguin Books, 1984, IV, 4, p. 139).”

And remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that.Lord John Acton

One takeaway from that article is1: any adherence to a doctrine of “Just War” was rendered utterly beside the point against the events of European history throughout this era of state-making. It no more pertained then than in any other kind of “gang” warfare. There has in this respect never been honour among thieves–never will be. It is even less apt in developing nations worldwide. In short: it is, pace Saint Augustine (and a long line of ethicists in intellectually casuistic lockstep), for all intents a kind of ethical hoax.

Noam Chomsky also devoted a book to this: Pirates and Emperors, Old and New: International Terrorism in the Real World, South End Press. ISBN978-0896086852 (2003). See also Wikipedia: “Pirates and Emperors”.

For wider reflection on rethinking Christianity, please see my “Easter Song, Keith Green, and Reflections on the Resurrection“.


Only killing in the name of religion is damned [by 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions’ declaration called “Towards a Global Ethic”]; bloodshed on behalf of the State is subject to no such scorn.2

What is wrong, then, with killing in the name of religion? The answer can be derived from the definition of “religion” implicit in the declaration. Religion is assumed to be a matter pertinent to the private sphere of values. The individual’s public and lethal loyalty belongs to the State.

My purpose in this essay will be to focus on the way revulsion to killing in the name of religion is used to legitimize the transfer of ultimate loyalty to the modern State. Specifically I will examine how the so-called “Wars of Religion” of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe are evoked as the founding moment of modern liberalism by theorists such as John Rawls, Judith Shklar, and Jeffrey Stout.3

In other words, the modern, secularized State arose to keep peace among the warring religious factions.

I will argue that this story puts the matter backwards. 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.

These wars were not simply a matter of conflict between “Protestantism” and “Catholicism,” but were fought largely for the aggrandizement of the emerging State over the decaying remnants of the medieval ecclesial order. I do not wish merely to contend that political and economic factors played a central role in these wars, nor to make a facile reduction of religion to more mundane concerns. I will rather argue that to call these conflicts “Wars of Religion” is an anachronism, for what was at issue in these wars was the very creation of religion as a set of privately held beliefs without direct political relevance. The creation of religion was necessitated by the new State’s need to secure absolute sovereignty over its subjects. I hope to challenge the soteriology of the modern State as peacemaker, and show that Christian resistance to State violence depends on a recovery of the Church’s disciplinary resources.

The Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms signifies, therefore, the defeat of the medieval metaphor of the two swords. The entire edifice of ecclesiastical courts and canon law is eliminated. As Quentin Skinner puts it, “The idea of the Pope and Emperor as parallel and universal powers disappears, and the independent jurisdictions of the sacerdotiumare handed over to the secular authorities” . . . What is left to the Church is increasingly the purely interior government of the souls of its members; their bodies are handed over to the secular authorities.

The eventual elimination of the Church from the public sphere was prepared by the dominance of the princes over the Church in the sixteenth century.

The policy of cuius regio, eius religio [whose territory, their religion] was more than just a sensible compromise to prevent bloodshed among the people, now divided by commitment to different faiths. It was in fact a recognition of the dominance of secular rulers over the Church, to the extent that the faith of a people was controlled by and large by the desires of the prince. G.R. Elton puts it bluntly: “The Reformation maintained itself wherever the lay power (prince or magistrates) favoured it; it could not survive where the authorities decided to suppress it.”

The concept of religion being born here [16th century] is one of domesticated belief systems which are, insofar as it is possible, to be manipulated by the sovereign for the benefit of the State. Religion is 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.

[Thomas] Hobbes’ aim in uniting Church and State is peace… The war of all against all is the natural condition of humankind. It is cold fear and need for security, the foundation of both religion and the social contract, that drives humans from their nasty and brutish circumstances and into the arms of Leviathan. This soteriology of the State as peacemaker demands that its sovereign authority be absolutely alone and without rival.

What I hope to have shown, however, is how the dominance of the State over the Church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries allowed temporal rulers to direct doctrinal conflicts to secular ends. The new State required unchallenged authority within its borders, and so the domestication of the Church. Church leaders became acolytes of the State as the religion of the State replaced that of the Church, or more accurately, the very concept of religion as separable from the Church was invented.

A pluralism of conceptions of the good is protected by the liberal State, but in fact this pluralism exists only at the private level. In the public sphere, the State itself is the ultimate good whose prerogatives must be defended coercively. As Ronald Beiner has shown, the liberal State is by no means neutral. It defends and imposes a particular set of goods—e.g., the value of the market, scientific progress, the importance of choice itself—which excludes its rivals.[ref number=”59″] Ronald Beiner, What’s the Matter with Liberalism? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 20-28. Beiner also describes how the rhetoric of pluralism masks a numbing uniformity in American life. We eat the same things, wear the same clothes, talk the same, worship the same, coast to coast. Toqueville made similar observations 150 years ago. In private life people tried to assert their independence through “numerous artificial and arbitrary distinctions”; Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Mentor Books, 1956), p. 248. In public, however, uniformity reigned and the opinions of the majority were a “species of religion” (pp. 148-49). The medieval consensus on the good did not simply fragment into a pluralism of different conceptions. Pluralism exists on the private level. The medieval consensus was replaced by a new consensus, that of liberal society. Wars are now fought on behalf of this particular way of life by the State, for the defense or expansion of its borders, its economic or political interests.

I will argue, however, that the Church needs to reclaim the political nature of its faith if it is to resist the violence of the State. What this may mean, however, must go beyond mere strategies to insinuate the Church into the making of public policy. If this essay is a plea for the social and political nature of the Christian faith, it is also a plea for a Christian practice which escapes the thrall of the State.

In an article entitled “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” sociologist Charles Tilly explores the analogy of the State’s monopoly on legitimate violence with the protection rackets run by the friendly neighborhood mobster. According to Tilly “a portrait of war makers and state makers as coercive and self-seeking entrepeneurs bears a far greater resemblance to the facts than do its chief alternatives: the idea of a social contract, the idea of an open market in which operators of armies and states offer services to willing customers, the idea of a society whose shared norms and expectations call forth a certain kind of government.”4 States extort large sums of money and the right to send their citizens out to kill and die in exchange for protection from violence both internal and external to the State’s borders. What converts war making from “protection” to “protection racket” is the fact that often States offer defense from threats which they themselves create, threats which can be imaginary or the real results of the State’s own activities. Furthermore, the internal repression and the extraction of money and bodies for “defense” that the State carries out are frequently among the most substantial impediments to the ordinary citizens’ livelihood. The “offer you can’t refuse” is usually the most costly. The main difference between Uncle Sam and the Godfather is that the latter did not enjoy the peace of mind afforded by official government sanction.

Building on Arthur Stinchcombe’s work on legitimacy, Tilly shows that historically what distinguished “legitimate” violence had little to do with the assent of the governed or the religious sentiments which bind us. The distinction was secured by States’ effective monopolization of the means of violence within a defined territory, a gradual process only completed in Europe with the birth of the modern State in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The line between State violence and banditry was a fluid one early in the State-making process. [Hence Augustine’s story above about Alexander the Great and the pirate.] Eventually the personnel of States were able to purvey violence more efficiently and on a wider scale than the personnel of other organizations.

The process of making States was inseparable from the pursuit of war by the  power elites of emergent States. As Tilly tells it, “the people who controlled European states and states in the making warred in order to check or overcome their competitors and thus to enjoy the advantages of power within a secure or expanding territory. To make more effective war, they attempted to secure regularized access to the money and the bodies of their subjects. Building up their war-making capacity, and the birth of standing armies, increased in turn their power to eliminate rivals and monopolize the extraction of these resources from subject populations.

The State is unlimited in another sense as well, for it demands access to our bodies and our money to fuel its war making apparatus. The State is implicated in much more than the maintenance of public order. The State is involved in the production, not merely the restraint, of violence. Indeed the modern State depends on violence, war and preparations for war, to maintain the illusion of social integration and the overcoming of contradictions in civil society.

The virtues are acquired by disciplined following of virtuous exemplars. Discipline is therefore perhaps best understood as discipleship-, whereas the discipline of the State seeks to create disciples of Leviathan, the discipline of the Church seeks to form disciples of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. For this reason our discipline will more often resemble martyrdom than military victory. Oscar Romero, the day before he was martyred, used his authority to order Salvadoran troops to disobey orders to kill.5 Romero understood that the discipline of Christian discipleship was in fundamental tension with that of the army. He put it this way: “Let it be quite clear that if we are being asked to collaborate with a pseudo peace, a false order, based on repression and fear, we must recall that the only order and the only peace that God wants is one based on truth and justice. Before these alternatives, our choice is clear: We will follow God’s order, not men’s.”

To recognize Christ in our sisters and brothers in other lands, the El Salvadors, Panamas and Iraqs of the contemporary scene, is to begin to break the idolatry of the State, and to make visible the Body of Christ in the world. We must cease to think that the only choices open to the Church are either to withdraw into some private or “sectarian” confinement, or to embrace the public debate policed by the State. The Church as Body of Christ transgresses both the lines which separate public from private and the borders of nation-states, thus creating spaces for a different kind of political practice, one which is incapable of being pressed into the service of wars or rumors of wars.

Please click on: Wars of “Religion” and Enlightenment Bias

Visits: 80

  1. Opening statement: If protection rackets represent organised crime at its smoothest, then war risking and state making – quintessential protection rackets with the advantage of legitimacy – qualify as our largest examples of organised crime.

    WN: A classic instance of Charles Tilly’s contention is the founding and perseverance of the modern state of Israel.[]

  2. Nonviolence is put against the backdrop of what is possible For example, the declaration states “Persons who hold political power must work within the framework of a just order and commit themselves to the most non-violent, peaceful solutions possible And they should work for this within an international order of peace which itself has need of protection and defense against perpetrators of violence” “Towards a Global Ethnic,” ρ 6. Did the Parliament of World’s Religions have in mind here an endorsement of the U S ‘s prosecution of the Gulf War?[]
  3. See, for example, John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness Political not Metaphysical,” Philosophy & Public Affairs (Summer 1985), ρ 225, Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1984), ρ 5, Jeffrey Stout, The Flight from Authority Religion, Morality, and the Quest for Autonomy (Notre Dame, In University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), ρ 13, pp 235-42.[]
  4. Charles Tilly,War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Bringing the State Back In, Peter Β Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Theda Skocpol, eds (Cambridge Cambridge University Press, 1985), ρ 169.[]
  5. Archbishop Oscar Romero, “The Church Defender of Human Dignity” in A Martyr’s Message of Hope (Kansas City Celebration Books, 1981), ρ 161. The relevant part of his sermon on March 23, 1980 reads as follows: “I would like to issue a special entreaty to the members of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers and sisters, you are our own people, you kill your own fellow peasants. Someone’s order to kill should not prevail, rather, what ought to prevail is the law of God that says, ‘Do not kill.’ No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God, no one has to fulfill an immoral law. Why, in the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise up to the heavens every day in greater tumult, I implore them, I beg them, I order them, in the name of God: Cease the repression.'”[]


Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.