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Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church.

William T. Cavanaugh
Published by Eerdmans in 2011

Review by Jeanne Schindler, Humanities, Villanova University

William T. Cavanaugh’s latest book, Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church, explores perennial themes of political theology in the context of contemporary political and economic questions. The book consists of essays written between 2004 and 2007 on a variety of subjects, some more historical, like the origin of the nation-state, some more theoretical, like the political nature of the church, some more topical, like the War on Terror. Despite the range of issues addressed, the volume as a whole exhibits a unity and coherence sometimes lost in collections of this kind. Cavanaugh’s style is accessible, lively, and engaging throughout, and his argument will be of interest not only to scholars of religion and politics but to anyone concerned with the relationship between the church and the state. In this vein, Cavanaugh hopes that his work will encourage Christians in particular to cultivate a more thoughtful view of citizenship, defying “the colonization of the Christian imagination”(5) by a state with imperial ambitions and building local and translocal forms of community that resist the gravitational pull of the centralized state and corporation alike.

From the outset, Cavanaugh advances a provocative proposal. Noting that partisans on either side of the “secularization thesis” commonly agree that for a period of time religion in the West went into decline, leaving a secularized public sphere, Cavanaugh suggests instead that the public sphere created by the modern nation-state arrogated to itself the kinds of religious devotion formerly associated with the church. This development, he insists, should trouble us for it represents nothing less than idolatry. Indeed, it is more insidious than earlier forms of this age-old sin, for it works by way of subtle co-optation. Appealing to a rich range of sources from Robert Nisbet to Carl Schmitt to Alasdair McIntyre, Cavanaugh argues that the modern nation-state has subordinated to itself a wide array of institutions that had constituted the pre-modern social order, one marked by a plurality of associations and orders from the family to kinship networks to the church to local political communities. With the rise of the nation-state, however, a stifling monism of authority emerged, with the centralized political power positioning itself as thesuperintendent of the common good and creator of a single public space in contrast to which other communities would be deemed partial or sectarian. In consequence, such communities like the church would be rendered “private” and, hence, politically marginalized. But the public square would not henceforth be naked; it would be clothed with the liturgical garb and symbols of civil religion, a move Cavanaugh finds especially disturbing as it provides a cloak for the state-sanctioned violence of war.

In contrast to such prominent twentieth-century expositors of the Catholic social tradition, such as John Courtney Murray and Jacques Maritain, Cavanaugh argues that the state is not natural and does not emerge organically as an outgrowth of society in order to promote the common good. Rather, the state is historically a latecomer, an artifact of modernity, generated to satisfy the greed and power lust of an elite and justified by the doctrine of sovereignty. The sovereign state determines the contours of society and the boundaries of membership, creating an artificial, territorial division between the citizen and non-citizen that narrows the scope of our natural human duties. It also increasingly absorbs the functions of other institutions, sapping the vitality of the social landscape and leaving what Mary Ann Glendon has aptly described as an “individual-state-market grid.”1 As Cavanaugh recounts, when the modern state arises, it effectively “‘creates’ society by replacing the complex overlapping loyalties of medieval societates with one society, bounded by borders and ruled by one sovereign to whom allegiance is owed in a way that trumps all other allegiances”(19). Armed with the ideological resources of nationalism, the ubiquitous and omnicompetent state presents itself as the institution uniquely capable of uniting a vast collection of individuals into a social whole.

Cavanaugh urges Christians to resist this maneuver and recognize that the human longing for unity can only be met by participation in a transcendent good, ultimately, the communion afforded by membership in the body of Christ, the church. He argues that the modern division of public and private, secular and sacred, serves the state’s interest in fashioning itself as the most inclusive community. But, absent a transcendent source of communion, the liberal state can only offer itself as the locus of unity—a counterfeit object of devotion and allegiance that preys upon both man’s desire for membership and his libido dominandi.

Cavanaugh maintains that there is an alternative social vision available in the Christian tradition that modern Christians should revisit: Augustine’s political theology. In contrast to the artificial divisions that distort our contemporary view of religion and politics (e.g., the notion that the state has control over temporal affairs, the church over things otherworldly), Augustine offers a subtler and more sophisticated account. The “two cities”—the city of God and the city of Man—do not concern this world and the next, respectively. Each, at least implicitly, concerns both, insofar as each reflects an existential orientation toward God and man that decisively informs what Cavanaugh calls their “performances”(64) on the world’s stage: the earthly city enacts a tragedy, epitomized by state violence, the heavenly city a comedy, displaying the folly of sin overcome by the joy of redemption. The two cities both concern themselves with ordering matters public in kind and make use of the same temporal goods, though in very different modes. In specific contrast to the modern bifurcation of sacred and secular, “Augustine complexifies space by arguing that the church itself is a kind of public; indeed, it is the most fully public community” (57).

The author builds upon this notion, recalling that the early church referred to itself not as a koinon but as an ekklesia, a term with distinct political resonance. The church as ekklesiaconveys the sense of a public community with catholic concerns for the whole ordering of life. In this vein, Cavanaugh insists that the church is political: it gives “order through law and ritual to the social life and everyday practices of a distinctive community of people” (124). The distinctiveness of the Christian community lies, among other things, in its refusal to accept the means of violence employed by the state, as well as its artificial designation of citizenship. A transnational “public,” the church is “the bearer of God’s politics” (139) within the Babylon of the modern nation-state. As Cavanaugh shows through an exposition of Stanley Hauerwas, the challenge is to do so in a way that avoids Constantinian rule on the one hand and sectarian withdrawal on the other.

He does not resolve this tension and to the extent that he does not, his insistence that the church is a political entity is not fully satisfying. While he effectively challenges the mar-ginalization of the church in contemporary politics and the faulty assumptions concerning the sacred and the mundane that undergird it, he is less successful in demonstrating how the church is political. As his argument runs, the church is to testify to a different way of exercising power, one that eschews state violence. But, of course, the church does not have responsibility for addressing the very things that provoke the coercive measures employed by the state. If it had such responsibility, if it had the burden of responding to crime and lethal threats to the community, how would Cavanaugh’s church respond? Given the fact that Cavanaugh’s main criticism of the state is its use of force, one would have expected from him a sustained defense of Christian pacifism, as well as an analysis of the concept of violence (does every use of force constitute violence, for instance?). These are not forthcoming. His brief defense of Christian pacifism in chapter eight hardly suffices. The notion that “we are not pure enough to direct history through violence” (169) fails to wrestle with the long and, arguably, mainstream Christian tradition of just war teaching. Relatedly, Cavanaugh’s contention that the state is unnatural rests on his consistent association of government with violence. This misses the strong contention in Catholic social teaching (to which Cavana-ugh is indebted) that political authority isnatural, part of the created order in its integrity, because there must needs be some organ of public life that has the specific responsibility for superintending the common good, and the state, not the church, has been recognized as the bearer of this responsibility. On these grounds, Aquinas insists (appealing to Augustine as his authority) that government would have been necessary even before the fall, though its punitive power would not. Political authority is essential for social life, though it is not essentially coercive. If Cavanaugh had attended to this principle, his examination of the state vis-à-vis the church would have been more satisfying.

The above criticisms notwithstanding, The Migration of the Holy makes an important contribution to contemporary political theology. Cavanaugh’s argument is immensely thought-provoking and is clearly born of theological seriousness and a deep concern for human welfare. His work reflects what was once said of the late Yves Simon, that he had “a conscience as large as the world.” One could hardly ask for a better inspiration for thinking about how we are to live together on this troubled but blessed earth.

Cite this article
Jeanne Schindler, “Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church.”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:4 , 424-426


  1. Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (New York: The Free Press, 1991), 143.

Jeanne Schindler

Review by Jeanne Schindler, Humanities, Villanova University