There is an interesting set of posts over at Political Theology between Bill Cavanaugh and Brad Littlejohn over a review Littlejohn gave of Cavanaugh’s body of work. (The link takes you to the last post – work backwards from there if you’d like). Littlejohn’s essential point is that Cavanaugh is overly critical of the modern liberal state and seems (though doesn’t quite come right out and say it) “invert” the modern political soteriology associated with liberalism (e.g. religion caused the terrible wars of the 16th and 17th century and secular liberalism saved us or just go read Stephen Pinker) and make the development of the modern state itself a kind of Fall that can 0nly be “saved” by the Church. Cavanaugh’s response is to deny that the liberal state is all that it’s cracked up to be and also deny that he’s romanticizing the pre-modern West.
Of the two, I think Littlejohn’s got the better of the argument, quite honestly. Canavaugh’s Myth of Religious Violence is indeed a nice effort at puncturing the idea that religion and religion alone was responsible for the terrible wars of the early modern period. (Though he probably plays down too much the fact that the nationalizing princes who “used” religion could do so because there were plenty of people motivated by religion to do their bidding). Where he goes wrong, I think, is the notion that there is something sui generis about the modern state, a point that Littlejohn seems to miss as well (or at least only gestures at at the end of his post). Cavanaugh has this idea (one that I think John Milbank shares) that there is something utterly new in the modern idea of sovereignty.
Of course, there is something new in the Hobbesian idea of sovereignty, but as a practical matter, it hardly seems plausible to suggest that the late middle ages, with their overlapping spheres of authority, represented the norm. Rather, it seems more plausible to think they are the exception. Ancient city-states, empires, and the like were hardly models of shared or divided sovereignty, and while Hobbes may have pretended to do away with the conflict between the divine and the political, that conflict is (and until the eschaton always will be) with us. The real problem with Cavanaugh’s work is that he thinks there is something unique and uniquely bad about the modern state. That’s implausible and, in my view, makes serious criticisms of modern liberalism harder, not easier.