The Advent of the Modern State and Civil Society

As suggested previously, to approach the state and civil society from the vantage point of a present where those realities have attained normative standing is to foreclose consideration of a crucial theological judgment regarding the character of Christianity's political presence and thus to conceal the determinative division in political theology today. Toward the end of illuminating both that judgment and that divide, this section presents a brief genealogy of the modern state and civil society that highlights contrasting interpretations of those realities.

In discussions of Christian political engagement, terms like "the state" are often invoked as if they were static realities that have changed little over time. Thus we speak of the early Christian attitude toward the state, or we read Augustine as purveying a theory of the church and state, or we study the medieval theory of church and state. In each of these cases, even as a certain historical fluidity is attributed to the Christian attitude, "the state" is granted a stability that seemingly defies such development and change. It is taken as self-evident that the state is that ensemble of institutions that exercise public authority, enforced through a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Such a habit of mind, however, reflects the ways our imaginations have been so thoroughly shaped by our contemporary experience of the state; the state so defined is of recent historical vintage. It is the distinctly modern nation-state.

Indeed, it is anachronistic to speak of the church and the state as if these were two distinct social entities prior to the advent of modernity (Ladner 1947). On the contrary, medieval Christendom consisted of a single social body, in which the ecclesial and the civil marked not spatial jurisdictions or even modalities of rule, but ends. Ecclesial authorities were concerned with the supernatural end of human community, while civil authorities concerned themselves with the temporal ends of that same community. Society was an organic whole, governed by two parallel and universal powers - the Pope and the Prince. In fact, when "the state" first appears in general use in political discourse in the fourteenth century, it refers neither to the ruling institutions and apparatuses nor to a geographically bounded space over which princely rule is exerted, but rather to the state or condition of the temporal princes themselves.

The wars of religion and civic peace: Two visions of the state's advent

What is today recognized as "the state," namely a centralized power holding a monopoly on violence within a defined territory, appeared in the midst of the bloodshed and turmoil that convulsed western Europe over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The standard account of these events and their relation to the rise of the modern nation-state, which is widely repeated not only by historians and political philosophers but by theologians as well, identifies those conflicts as "wars of religion" and attributes to the modern nation-state a veritable redemptive significance insofar as it is commended for delivering us from the bloodshed and brutality of religious disagreement. In the wake of the Reformation, the standard account goes, Catholics and Protestants were locked in conflict and, as religious passion mixed with political power, a bloodbath ensued. Consequently, horrified by the excesses of armed religious fervor, Europe developed a political order whereby religion would no longer have access to the weapons with which to work its woe. Henceforth, religion was construed as a private matter and the public, political realm was to be watched over by a sovereign and secular state charged with keeping the peace.

This particular way of construing social space, dividing it into a public, political sphere presided over by a sovereign state and a private, religious realm is developed with compelling clarity by the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), whose work has been tremendously influential in setting the terms for the development of contemporary political theology. Weber embraced the distinction between religion and politics, noting that we inhabit various "life-spheres," each of which possesses its own laws and ethical functions. Of course, he noted, to draw this distinction is not to suggest that the realms do not interact. On the contrary, the realms are complementary. In particular, Weber noted that religion was principally about the task of furnishing ideals, whereas politics was a fundamentally about the manipulation of means in order to attain, not the ultimate end or ideal, but what was pragmatically possible. Moreover, and of particular interest to us, politics was defined as statecraft. Politics, Weber wrote, is about "the leadership, or the influencing of the leadership, of a political association, hence today, of a state" (Weber 1946: 77, emphasis in original). As we shall see, Weber's construal of religion as a private, apolitical sphere that serves as a repository of values or ideals that then must be instantiated in the political realm by means of statecraft largely defines the problematic for the dominant tradition of contemporary political theology.

In recent years, the standard account of the advent of the modern state has been challenged on historical and theological grounds. Historically, it has been suggested that the conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are not accurately described as "wars of religion" and that the modern nation-state did not emerge from the fray wearing the mantle of the benign peacekeeper with which it is so frequently adorned, in retrospect, today. According to this counter-reading, these conflicts were not principally instances of interreligious conflict waged between Catholics and Protestants over confessional differences; on the contrary, in the course of these wars Catholics and Protestants frequently fought on the same sides and just as frequently ended up facing one another across the battle lines (Cavanaugh 1995).

That the battle lines do not simply correlate with confessional identities and differences suggests that the conflicts were about more than religious differences, which brings us to the theological challenge to the standard account. Whereas that account holds that the modern state evolved in the aftermath of these conflicts to secure civic peace and deliver us from the cruelties of religious conflict, the alternative account contends that a more accurate theological appraisal, and one that more closely corresponds to the contours of the historical record, is that the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century conflicts were in fact the birth pangs of the modern state as it struggled to break free of the remnants of the medieval order, as it strove to subsume all other social groupings under its sovereign authority. In particular, these conflicts were about the replacement of a public church, which as the font of the virtue religio united medieval society, with a sovereign state. In other words, it is as a result not of ecclesial incivility but of an ecclesial defeat at the hands of an ascendant sovereign state that a Weberian world appears, in which the church is shorn of its public, political presence and politics becomes a matter of statecraft. For the emergent tradition of contemporary political theology, it is this theological shift in how the nature and mission of the church are understood that defines the problematic of Christian political engagement.

The taming of Leviathan: The emergence of civil society

Civil society is a middle term of sorts, a semi-public space, classically understood as referring to a mediating realm between the state and the individual, which is inhabited by a host of voluntary associations. It is frequently associated with organizations like the family, neighborhood groupings, the business corporation, and the various social associations with which people voluntarily affiliate. What distinguishes civil society from the state is precisely the voluntary, noncoercive nature of its government. Whereas the realm of the state is ultimately delimited by the (ideally unspoken but always implicit) threat of state violence, civil society is a space of self-government, a space where people associate and interact that is ordinarily free from the threat of state violence and coercion.

With regard to contemporary political theology there are, broadly speaking, two ways of approaching civil society, two models of civil society. According to the dominant model, civil society is fundamentally a space of freedom. Mirroring the presentation of the state as a space of freedom from the inevitably violent political pretensions of religion, this model envisions civil society as a space of freedom (usually understood in terms of pluralism, democracy, and/or a laissez-faire market) meant to protect the individual from the totalitarian proclivities of the state. Civil society stands over against the state, restraining it. One could say that it tames Leviathan. According to this vision, civil society is the source of the state's legitimation. The state draws its authority from civil society insofar as it finds its calling in protecting and preserving civil society and draws from that society moral guidance and direction. Weaker versions of this model suggest that social change is effected when, through the organs of civil society, people influence and guide the state; the state serves as an instrument of the popular will. Stronger, more libertarian versions assert that civil society itself is the locus of social change and that the state's proper function is not to effect change but only to protect civil society and perhaps, in rare circumstances, address certain needs and problems that civil society proves incapable of handing. The church's relationship to civil society varies in this model. Some versions recognize the church as a fully fledged participant in civil society, alongside other voluntary organizations; other versions ignore the church or place it outside the mediating realm of civil society in the realm of the individual.

The alternative reading casts civil society in a decidedly less benign light. Far from establishing a space of freedom, a buffer between the individual and an overweening state, civil society, according to the counter-vision, is understood as essentially a disciplinary space. It is a space where persons are shaped and formed in the state's image, in the image that corresponds to the state's end (which is now increasingly an economic one). Through a vast array of disciplines, learned not at the hands of government officials and bureaucrats, but "voluntarily" through the ministrations of experts, managers, and therapists, people "freely" and gently and, for the most part, willingly find their place in the dominant mythos. As such an educative or disciplinary space, civil society is but another species of the power exerted by the state in its victory over the medieval public church. Accordingly, civil society is understood here as a component of Leviathan's taming of society and the church, in particular. This is not to say that civil society is the instantiation of some dark conspiracy led by a monolithic state but rather that civil society, no less than the modern state, is a political correlate of the modern mythos about how human communities are organized, a mythos that deprives the church of a forthright, concrete political presence. Hence, this model does not embrace civil society as a legitimate space for the church. Stronger versions of this approach tend to cast civil society as intrinsically antithetical to the Christian mythos, whereas weaker versions suggest that civil society is not intrinsically but only contingently opposed to the church's proper political presence. That is to say, the weaker version holds out hope that civil society, no less than the modern state, could conceivably coexist peaceably with, and perhaps even serve the mission of, the church.

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