I finally got ahold of Cavanaugh's new book, The Myth of Religious Violence, and am just getting started on it. It looks likely to be a be a nugget of brilliance, just like Cavanaugh's previous works, and I hope to blog about it as I go along. In this book he completely undermines the increasingly standard attack on Christianity along the lines that "religion causes violence," but this apologetic is only a by-product of a much grander project. His argument strikes at the heart of modernity and the nation-state, by arguing not that religion is innocent of these charges but in fact that the whole notion of religion as an isolable transcultural phenomenon is a modern myth; historically, religion was part and parcel of a larger cultural/economic/political milieu, and in fact, it still is today. By ignoring that fact, we have been able to pretend that nationalism, capitalism, et al. are not religious, and so violence for these causes is "rational" unlike "irrational" religious violence. Crucial to this argument is the case that Cavanaugh has been making for years about the rise of the state and the "Wars of Religion"; namely, that these were not so much wars of religion, but wars in which "religion" was created as a apolitical category, and the loyalties that formerly belonged to the Church were translated to the newly-fabricated State.
A sample sentence from the introduction that sums up Cavanaugh's project eloquently: "The gradual transfer of loyalty from international church to national state was not the end of violence in Europe, but a migration of the holy from church to state in the establishment of the ideal of dying and killing for one's country."
If you're intrigued, but don't to read the whole thing, you can check out this lecture (text format; audio link is dead) that he gave a couple years ago on this topic.
When I first listened to this lecture, I was struck by how naively conservative Christians had embraced the rhetoric of denouncing the irrational, violent nature of the Islamic religion, and the need for it to be subjugated by the state. Don't we realize that we're shooting ourselves in the foot? Of course, Islam has had, and often still does have, violent tendencies (though these should be resisted with the gospel of peace, not the swords of the nations), but when we blithely buy into the notion that this religion is inherently irrational and violent, we unknowingly bolster the notion that all religions are inherently irrational and violent, including our own, and that a secular state is the only way of overcoming this violence. It has been remarkable how easily writers like Christopher Hitchens have extrapolated from the supposedly ubiquitous violence of fundamentalist Islam to the violence of all religions. And, as we learn here from Cavanaugh, conservative Christians have little right to complain when the myth is turned on them, since they embraced it so enthusiastically in the case of Islam.