On chapter 1: To start with, I agree with many of Cavanaugh’s conclusions and policy recommendations. He favors local government, limited government,On chapter 1: To start with, I agree with many of Cavanaugh’s conclusions and policy recommendations. He favors local government, limited government, and devolved power, in conjunction with revived civil society and associational life. So do I. One of the political principles I believe in most fervently in is the devolution of power. This is the theme of an essay of mine (attached.) Cavanaugh is concerned about the inexorable growth of state power, about the tendency of states to ask for ultimate loyalty, etc. I’m in agreement with all of this. I disagree with how Cavanaugh gets there, and with the broad scope of his conclusions. I think his argument applies best only to some kinds of states; not all of them; and that the classically liberal state (not the contemporary progressive state, mind you) is precisely the one best positioned to avoid some of the evils he describes.
To start with, I think Cavanaugh is wrong on history. He argues that state sovereignty is an invention of the early modern era and a unique feature of contemporary “nation-states.” Yet even he recognizes that states used Roman law in their effort to construct sovereignty. That’s because Rome—and, I’d argue, all other ancient polities—was sovereign. Sovereignty is not a modern concept; it is a perennial concept inherent in the nature of government, which is as old as recorded history. The Medieval period was unique in the breakdown of sovereignty, an aberration that Cavanaugh treats as normative but was simply another phase in a long history. He praises its vibrant associational life and the diffuse, overlapping jurisdictions of plural authorities, but there is no reason to take the Medieval model as any more natural or theologically justified as the models of sovereignty that came before or after it. He repeatedly denies that he is romanticizing the Medieval era, but that is exactly what he is doing.
In fact, Cavanaugh admits that the local and traditional associations he admires so much “tends to be delegitimated because such groups tend not to be representative; that is, based in consensus.” Well, yes. That’s the great virtue of the liberal state that Cavanaugh seems to entirely overlook. Traditional and tribal society isn’t very friendly to women, the poor, religious and ethnic minorities, or others. How does Cavanaugh plan to respect the individual dignity of all people in the neo-Medieval world he yearns for?
Second, Cavanaugh indicts all states for what are, in fact, the sins of only some states. He takes aim at “nation-states” and criticizes nationalism for imposing an artificial universality on society and culture. I agree with Cavanaugh (and Leithart) in viewing nationalism as an evil (though there is room for a milder patriotism) and as a false religion that has stolen the sacred devotion rightly due only to God through the church. But look at the world today. Nationalism has been an abject failure and few states actually try to be nations anymore. Even most European states, who birthed nationalism, have bent over backwards in the name of multiculturalism to undo much of the work of earlier nationalists. Cavanaugh cites widely from the literature but seems oddly unaware of the fact that there are almost no true “nation-states” in the world today (Japan is the possible sole exception). Virtually every state in the world is multiethnic and multilingual. I skimmed this list of national languages, and only about a third of the world’s state have a single national language. Something close to two-thirds have multiple languages, including an impressive number that allow regions to set their own official languages. And there are some states, including the United States, that have no national language—probably the ultimate expression of abdicating national identity.
Cavanaugh’s argument, like Leithart’s, is theologically deterministic. In rooting his criticism against overbearing statehood in theology, he ends up condemning all states for simply being states, instead of recognizing that there is a vast range of states who act and behave differently. He claims that the “sheer size” of states is a weakness. That’s a nonsensical argument in a world where the largest state has a population of 1.3 billion and the smallest has a population of 800. There are some three dozen micro-sovereignties in the world today that, I daresay, are probably a lot like the local governance that Cavanaugh should find acceptable. He is blind to this reality in his eagerness to criticize all modern states. The median size of states in the world today is about 20 million, if memory serves, far smaller than the United States 320 million.
Cavanaugh laments the decline of civic associations, but here his argument is insufficient. I am very sympathetic with the argument he is making about the importance of civic associations and their lamentable decline. But I think he is wrong about the inevitability of the decline of civil society under the rule of states. He notes that states arose, and civic associations declined, and asserts causation based on his theology of the state. But he does not demonstrate a causal connection with empirical data. In fact, there is good evidence that some kinds of states are better for civil society and some are worse. Cavanaugh makes no differentiation among types of states. I’d note in particular that the United States prior to the passage of the 17th amendment was still a significantly decentralized government with a flourishing civil society. The problem isn’t that the US government asserts sovereignty; it is that during the progressive era it massively expanded the sorts of powers it claimed it had title to.
He seems to have a problem with the modern liberal state not promoting the good, but only creating space for individuals to pursue the good as they define it. This seems an odd criticism for someone who wants to shrink government’s powers. I would be terrified of living under a government that defined the good for me. Taking the power to define the good away from the state is one of the most important ways of limiting its power and reserving something important not only for individuals, but also for churches and other organizations.
Cavanaugh quotes Lippman saying that there is no theoretical difference between the claims of communists, fascists, and liberals. This is the best expression of the part of Cavanaugh’s argument that I find so objectionable. He is simply wrong, and offensively so. The implication of Cavanaugh's argument is that every state in the world today is totalitarian: that to claim sovereignty is, in principle, tyrannical. This is an abuse of language. To equate sovereignty with totalitarianism is ludicrous. Fascists claimed the power to determine citizenship based on ethnicity; to mandate a national language; to define the good for all citizens; to demand cultic worship of a national leader; to censor newspapers; to forcibly unite churches into a state-regulated institution; to ban entire categories of people from the polity; and they overtly celebrated violence. Liberal states claim none of these things. Like Leithart, Cavanaugh is riding roughshod over vast difference between different kinds of states and ignoring basic facts to make the world fit his theological framework.
This is a bit disappointing because Cavanaugh makes a great point about consulting empirical data about statehood; he clearly fails. He also falsely claims that states created nationalism, not the other way around. In some cases, that’s true. In others, like Italy and Germany, it’s not. He wrongly traces American nationalism to the Civil War. Most historians trace it to the War of 1812. He argues capitalism and states arose at the same time, but also claims nation-states arose in the 19th century, well after the rise of capitalism.
Ch. 2, I think Cavanaugh may be misreading Augustine here, identifying the "City of Man" too closely with earthly government. They are distinct, but Cavanaugh's conflation of the two enables him to borrow Augustine's condemnation of the City of Man and apply it to all government, which I don't think Augustine intended. Cavanaugh also has a throw-away phrase about the task of the church is to "build the city of God," which sounds suspiciously postmilennial.
Ch. 3. Cavanaugh really loses credibility when he says "the intervention of the United States in Iraq [was intended] to benefit corporate oil interests." This is simply untrue. I dug around for more detail after that email and found an interesting article from the New York Times. It documents that US firms got nothing from 2003 to 2011. In 2011, one or two U.S. firms got concessions (of a couple dozen that were given out), and more U.S. oil services subcontractors got business from the other majors. Notably, this didn't happen until after the US withdrawal was nearly complete and the concessions were given out by the sovereign government of Iraq, not US occupation authorities. There is no evidence that the US military intervention was motivated by, or at all benefited, U.S. oil interests. It is appalling that an otherwise educated and intelligent scholar like Cavanaugh can get away with repeating scurrilous libel like this.
Cavanaugh also talks about the "military imposition of Western models of economics and politics in the two-thirds world." Pardon me for asking, but where, exactly? Look at all the cases of democratization in the past three decades -- all of eastern Europe, South Africa, two dozen states in Africa, most of Latin America -- and tell me which of them was the result of U.S. military force. The United States has not imposed, by military force, "Western models of economics and politics" anywhere. The best possible candidate for that accusation is Japan, where a US general wrote the constitution and enforced it with an occupation force of 500,000 troops. If that's what Cavanaugh is condemning, I'd like to understand what his preferred alternative would be in 1945. The occupation and forced democratization of Japan is one of the best advertisements possible for US empire, if that's what he insists on calling it. If Cavanaugh believes Iraq or Afghanistan are examples of the US militarily imposing its model, he doesn't know much about those wars. In Afghanistan, for example, the new 2004 constitution was not modeled on the American or any other western constitution. It was a copy and paste job from the Afghans' own 1964 constitution-- a democratic monarchy that they adopted and used for a decade in an early effort to modernize and adopt democracy on their own, without "western" pressure. But that's not something Cavanaugh would know anything about, because he seems uninterested in anything except condemning US foreign policy.
I also note that Cavanaugh's only specific policy recommendations boil down to opposing US immigration policy--in fact, practicing civil disobedience to resist the enforcement of immigration law--with not even a fleeting reference to Romans 13 and our obligation to obey the law.
Ch. 4. I have no objection at all to Cavanaugh's, or Leithart's, condemnation of the idolatry of American excpetionalism. I only point out that just because American exceptionalism often becomes idolatrous doesn't mean America isn't exceptional. We can, and should, recognize the simple historical facts that distinguish the United States from most other great powers in history, and we can do that without falling prey to the idolatry Cavanaugh and others rightly warn against.
Ch. 5. Cavanaugh claims the United States has "the largest military in history." Again, false. "Most expensive" would be true. But North Korea, China, India, Vietnam, Russia, and Bangladesh have "larger" forces, measured by the number of troops in their active and reserve components.
Broad comments on Cavanaugh's theology: I think I'm in broad agreement with much of what he says. I've nitpicked the factual errors and blatant partisanship, but I should say that I find a lot to agree with. While I'm still chewing on a lot of this stuff, I am drawn to the idea that the church is a public, that Christianity is not a privatized, interiorized, ethereal thing, that there are social, cultural, and political implications to our faith. It is just so regrettable that Cavanaugh the theologian and Cavanaugh the political talking head seem so different, as if the rigor and thoughtfulness of the former just goes out the window when the latter steps on stage....more
The first section of this book is actually quite good. For the rest, if you want a better treatment of US diplomatic history from a critical perspectiThe first section of this book is actually quite good. For the rest, if you want a better treatment of US diplomatic history from a critical perspective, try Walter McDougall's Promised Land, Crusader State or Christopher Layne's Peace of Illusions. I think McDougall and Layne are wrong, but at least they know what they're talking about....more
At times this reads too much like a series of book reviews pasted together. Kirwan name-drops all the authors he's read and makes sure to list all theAt times this reads too much like a series of book reviews pasted together. Kirwan name-drops all the authors he's read and makes sure to list all the dense books he waded through. Look past this irritating feature of his writing, and there is a a good overview of ideas here.
"Political theology" as a discipline seems to be caught up in a few silly questions. 1) is political theology a good thing (as most theologians think) or a bad thing (like Mark Lilla thinks)? Obvious answer: it depends on what theology you are talking about and what God you invoke. 2) is the proper work of political theology to criticize or legitimize the state? Answer: it depends on the state. Some states need damning; others need blessing. 3) is the ultimate aim of politics to achieve justice and free the oppressed, or merely to stave off anarchy and cobble together a rough order? Answer: a little of both, recognizing that neither is sufficient and both have dangers.
Calvin and Hegel had a baby, and it was Kuyper. What a strange book. Kuyper approaches history in a way you can't quite believe, but you can't take yoCalvin and Hegel had a baby, and it was Kuyper. What a strange book. Kuyper approaches history in a way you can't quite believe, but you can't take your eyes off either. He comes up some some really amazing insights right alongside pure quackery. ...more
First reaction: Niebuhr is less profound than his reputation suggests. He dresses up obvious truisms (power corrupts) in overly-complex language. He lFirst reaction: Niebuhr is less profound than his reputation suggests. He dresses up obvious truisms (power corrupts) in overly-complex language. He layers on the skepticism about American power and virtue all the while claiming that he isn't falling prey to cynicism, but offers only a few lines reaffirming the goodness of American aims and beliefs, which gave me the impression that Niebuhr really is, in the end, the theologian of cynics. And not much of a theologian, by the way: he rarely invokes explicitly Christian concepts or doctrines. He is more of a sociologist or political theorist writing from within a religiously-informed framework than a theologian. Add in his shockingly stupid comments about the unfitness of "Oriental" cultures for democracy (writing in 1952 he summarily dismissed the possibility of democracy pretty much anywhere outside the Atlantic community, one of the all-time worst predictions considering the record of India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and many others), and you have one of those books that is far less than it should have been.
So why four stars? Because, at heart, the message is still broadly on target. America should be wary of all concentrations of power, including its own. We should always be cognizant of our own limitations. We should not set ourselves up as the "masters of destiny" or the directors of history (though, in another annoying habit, Niebuhr simply asserts that "we" try to act like the aforementioned masters of destiny, without any evidence to back that up. Who are "we"?) And, at the same time, even while maintaining those limits and that wariness, we should still strive and aspire and never give up on ideals, because that is what makes our goals worth pursuing....more
A primer on the promise and peril of great power and the importance of democracy. Not particularly well written. Many of the arguments made here are mA primer on the promise and peril of great power and the importance of democracy. Not particularly well written. Many of the arguments made here are more eloquently made, for example, by J.S. Mill in On Liberty and by Hamilton and Madison in The Federalist Papers--to whom, inexplicably, Niebuhr makes no reference. But Niebuhr adds a religious sensibility which is missing in the others and which makes this a valuable contribution. Full review: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/schaeffe......more
A brilliant takedown of one of the most pervasive intellectual fashions of our era. Anything worthwhile that postmodernism and deconstruction have toA brilliant takedown of one of the most pervasive intellectual fashions of our era. Anything worthwhile that postmodernism and deconstruction have to offer is readily available without the broader commitments of those movements. This book should be required reading for anyone who ever went to college. It is also a superlative example of how to conduct an argument and how to write clearly....more
Christian writing on postmodernism tends to fall into two camps: uncritical acceptance, and uncritical condemnation. This book is a little closer to tChristian writing on postmodernism tends to fall into two camps: uncritical acceptance, and uncritical condemnation. This book is a little closer to the latter, but by and large a pretty good, even-handed assessment. It is a little dated and is not a scholarly treatment, so some of its cultural references are both out of date and sometimes shallow and crotchety. Look past that and you'll learn something from this surprisingly good book....more
O'Donovan is a terrible writer but a brilliant thinker. If I understand his main argument, I think he's basically right. Someone should rewrite this bO'Donovan is a terrible writer but a brilliant thinker. If I understand his main argument, I think he's basically right. Someone should rewrite this book in English....more