Liberalism claims to have emerged as a peacemaking power onto a world ravaged by religiously motivated wars between Catholics and Protestants. Judith Shklar tells the common tale, writing:
Liberalism… was born out of the cruelties of the religious civil wars, which forever rendered the claims of Christian charity a rebuke to all religious institutions and parties. If the faith was to survive at all, it would do so privately. The alternative then set, and still before us, is not one between classical virtue and liberal self-indulgence, but between cruel military and moral repression and violence, and a self-restraining tolerance that fences in the powerful to protect the freedom and safety of every citizen…
Similarly, it is Jeffrey Stout’s enlightened opinion that
Liberal principles were the right ones to adopt when competing religious beliefs and divergent conceptions of the good embroiled Europe in the religious wars … Our early modern ancestors were right to secularize public discourse in the interest of minimizing the ill effects of religious disagreement.
Put simply, the secular state was a much-needed cure to the ravaging plague of religious violence.
However, such an account of history is more like a propagandistic fantasy than a sober retelling of past events. The so-called “Wars of Religion”, the catalyst to which liberalism claims to be the unquestionably necessary harbinger of peace, are best understood as wars undertaken in order to construct the secular state. As William Cavanaugh summarizes, “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”.
Violence was not the inevitable result of heated arguments over theology. Rather, the decisive issue over which blood was shed was the legitimacy of the secular state. “For the main instigators of the carnage, doctrinal loyalties were at best secondary to their stake in the rise or defeat of the centralized State”. In the “Wars of Religion” Protestants fought against Protestants and Catholics against Catholics. The issue which allowed no common alliance was the role of the state in European politics, the state whose greatest boast was thought to be the ability to instill religious tolerance and secure peace.
Further absurdity is added to the notion that the state came about in order to make peace between warring religious factions by the reality that the very category of “religion” is the creation of the state. Holding that the rise of the state was a response to wars between different religions is an example of the most ludicrous anachronism. The problem with the common sense notion of religion is that it treats as natural and inevitable a determination that arose only according to particular configurations of power in modernity. The category of religion understood as a transhistorical, transcultural genus with the various species of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism etc. is a device contrived by the state in order to domesticate the Church by transforming Christianity into an essentially private, interior impulse without civilizational heft.
A self-understanding as religion is not native to the Catholic tradition. The most likely ancestors of our modern word “religion” is the Latin religio and religio does not at all mean what our modern word “religion” does. For historical details see William Cavanaugh’s superb book, “The Myth of Religious Violence”. For now, it suffices to say that the idea of religion as an abstract genus with various species such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism is only about two hundred years old. In none of the world’s “religious” traditions is there a self-understanding as religion that pre-dates modernity.
The modern notion of religion as something abstract, interiorized and universalized is a phenomenon that arose according to the particular structures of power that legitimate the secular nation state. Before “religion” in the days of religio, it was not possible to think in terms of a strict divide between religious and secular action. There could be competing liturgies between Christians and statists but no sense that the “religious” and the “secular” understood as two clearly defined boundaries could harmoniously coexist.
There simply was no contrast between the civil and the secular until liberals like John Locke invented it. “The very claim that the borders between religion and non-religion are natural, eternal, fixed and immutable is itself a part of the new configuration of power that comes about with the rise of the modern state”. There simply was no such thing as a distinctly religious realm until the state invented it to be contrasted negatively with the supposedly enlightened, rational, peace-making realm of the secular.
It should now be obvious just how wrong is liberalism’s foundational claim to be the bringer of peace onto a scene dominated by religious violence, as it was liberalism that invented the very category of religion and then defined it as something essentially private that, when brought into the public square brings with it an ever-present threat of violence. “The idea that there exists a transhistorical human impulse called religion with a singular tendency to promote fanaticism and violence when combined with public power is not an empirically demonstrable fact, but is itself an ideological accompaniment to the shifts in power and authority that mark the transition from the medieval to the modern in the West” says Cavanaugh. The concept of “religious violence” is a tautology as “religion” is not a neutral description of the world but a term put to ideological use in order to brand a particular tradition as irrational, volatile and to be excluded from the public square lest society decay into violence and anarchy.
The various “world religions”, therefore, are best understood as the civilizational competitors to the hegemony of liberalism, various world orders that liberalism has managed to portray as violent and irrational, as “religious”, and therefore unworthy of a foundational role in civilization. In fact, it would be to the benefit of liberalism to portray all of its competitors as religions (in fact, I saw Bill Maher make the case to Ross Douthat on Maher’s show that the problem with communism was that it was a secular religion. It could not have been clearer that Maher’s definition of religion was anything that causes violence or challenges the hegemony of liberalism).
The common-sense listing of the world’s religions is not a naturally given, intuitive grouping. Instead, it is a catalogue of the enemies of liberalism that have been defeated.
In order to resist liberalism, it is necessary for us as Christians to realize that Christianity is not a privatized set of beliefs (a religion) but an intrinsically public, political phenomenon that has immediate and radical consequences for the organization of world order.