William T. Cavanaugh is senior research professor at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology and professor of Catholic studies at DePaul University. His books include Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire and the recently-released Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church.
I suppose a theologian like me should be happy now that everyone seems to think a global resurgence of religion has occurred. The resurgence certainly makes it easier to convince a classroom full of tweeting undergraduates that their required classes in religion are of renewed importance in today’s world. A scant decade after an obituary for God appeared in The Economist, the editor-in-chief of the same magazine published a book entitled God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World. Some think it’s a good thing, some think it’s a bad thing, but everyone seems to agree that religion is back.
I would be one of those who would think that the return of religion was a good thing, if only I believed it had happened — but I don’t. I have no doubt that faith is alive and well in today’s world, but I don’t believe that it ever went away. The Western world, we are told, was secularized for a time. But anyone formed in the biblical worldview should be highly suspicious of any claims that people are ever truly faithless. Jews and Christians, at least, should know that people are spontaneously idolatrous; go up Mt. Sinai for a brief chat with God, and the whole community will be throwing themselves at golden calves by the time you get back. Jesus knew that people will make a new master out of anything, including Mammon.
Since the September 11 attacks of 2001, there has been a lot of hand-wringing about the dangers of religion being mixed with politics. According to Mark Lilla’s book The Stillborn God, the modern West had achieved a fragile “Great Separation” between theology and politics, a separation that is now threatened not only by the kind of people who fly airplanes into buildings, but by anyone who wants to bring theology back into the public arena.
The overall argument of my new book, Migrations of the Holy, is that this “Great Separation” never existed. Rather than a separation of politics and theology in the modern era, what we in fact witnessed was the transfer of faith to the modern nation-state. As public Christianity declined in the West, the modern nation-state took on, in different ways, the role of both church and God. This is seen most clearly in the migrations of lethal energy. Today in the West, killing for Jesus or for Christianity is universally considered repugnant, yet the worthiness of killing for one’s country or for an ideal such as “freedom” is generally taken for granted.
Paying particular attention to the United States in the new global order, I explore in my book some of the functional idolatries of the state — and the market. I explore the possibilities and limitations of the church’s own creation of alternative spaces of peace and justice in the world — though I also have a chapter on the sinfulness of the church, lest the church itself become just another of the idolatries that the Bible warns us against.