Ben Bartosik

February 21, 2023

Spent my long weekend quarantined in my room and reading William T. Cavanough’s Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of Church. It’s a reasonably quick read, comprised of 9 interconnected essays that explore the way nationalism in the West has more or less replaced religion. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of his argument was in his dealing with America, a nation where many might argue that the Christian religion is still alive and well.

Cavanough suggests that America as a nation came to view itself as God’s blessing to the world, replacing the priority of the church. In this way, American style freedoms are thrust upon the rest of the world with evangelistic zeal. In a particularly acute moment Cavanough suggests that “[America doesn’t] worship God, we worship the freedom to worship God.” This subtle distinction, I believe, really starts to help diagnose the state of American evangelicalism. It idolizes itself.

In a later essay he outlines the rules that allow this idolatry to perpetuate:

“American civil religion can never acknowledge that is is in fact religion: to do so would be to invite charges of idolatry. Here liturgical gesture is central, because gesture allows the flag to be treated as a sacred object, while language denies that that is the case. Everyone acknowledges verbally that the nation and the flag are not really gods, but the crucial test is what people do with their bodies, both in liturgies and in war.”

There’s a passage in the book of Isaiah that Jesus references. In it, the prophet condemns Jerusalem for coming near to God with their mouths and honouring God with their lips while their hearts were elsewhere. The thing about self-deception is we usually can’t diagnose it ourselves. I also think it’s fitting that that judgement is communal and not individual. Cities, communities, and especially nations often have narratives of self-deception woven in. These are places of belonging and identity making.

Cavanough’s overall brilliance in these couple essays is in highlighting the way the development of the nation-state generally has replaced the role of religion across Europe and North America and specifically how in the case of America, it has blurred the lines between nation and god.