Culture above power – the liberal mistake

I am only part way through William Cavanaugh’s book The Myth of Religious Violence, and it is plainly obvious this book is deeply compatible with absolutist political theory. I have previously linked an article by the same author from which the book developed, and it is made clear from Cavanaugh’s book that the issue of religion is a foundational one to liberal political theorists. It is also made clear from the book that liberal political theorists are fundamentally wrong on every possible point, they have no idea what they are talking about at a deep level and are collectively worthless.

Cavanaugh’s argument is centred around the issue of religion, but its application is more far reaching than he allows, and this is an area in which De Jouvenel and Moldbug provide greater depth. Cavanaugh appears to be arguing that the entire concept of religion is a modern invention that is explainable by power arrangements. Readers familiar with this blog will be familiar with this line of reasoning as it is fundamentally one which places power above culture. Cavanaugh notes that Hinduism didn’t even exist until the 18th century, and that Buddhism is a 19th century western invention. Christianity as a religion is a 15th/16th century invention. Religion as a concept is really that new, and Cavanaugh makes the argument that it is an invention definable by power arrangements. Prior to this invention, the term religio was used, and even then, it was used in specific circumstances with a specific meaning nowhere near comparable to “religion”. This is an area of investigation that is clearly fruitful and worth pursuing, as religion appears to have been invented in conjunction with the modern state to facilitate a secular/ religious divide which simply makes no sense in any other circumstances. This can be filed along with those other questionable modern concepts – capitalism, ideology, free speech etc. Instead of Christian life being intertwined with rites and actual practice, “secular” rulers promoted purifying sects that decried these rites and practice as pollution of internal spiritual pursuit, rendering Christianity an optional set of beliefs, and thereby an epistemological issue. The reader may note this overlaps with MacIntyre’s complaint of the rise and dominance of voluntarism.

If this mechanism was at play with the concept of religion, then there is no reason not to assume that it is at play in all aspects of life and culture. The political system is key to all. If Cavanaugh follows through the implications of his own theory, he will find that this is an irresistible conclusion, at which point he may wish to review not just the history of religion, but also the history of human rights, the history of the Civil Rights Era, the history of political theory etc.

The issue of political systems being above culture is such a foundational one that its importance cannot be overstated. It is implicit in all liberal theory that culture is above power precisely because to be liberal is to completely misunderstand history and how society functions. All Liberal theorists from Locke to Fukuyama rely on a willful blindness to the active role of powerful actors in promoting strife as means to enact control, instead taking the strife itself as the foundational problem being brought into being spontaneously and from private errors. In reality, the very same secular power that the likes of Locke, Hobbes, Rawls and the rest call into being to adjudicate and solve the in-commensurable goods of various “religions” was the very one which caused the problem in the first place.  But they cannot see this, because culture is above power obviously.