The Myth of Religious Violence

A Response to Brad Isbell and Other Modernists

Brad Isbell, yet again, confirms his captivity to the modernist-liberal conceptual plain. His entire reality is constructed by it. He does not understand current debates because he does not want to—it is hard to conclude otherwise at this point. It is all rather tiring. As the Presbycast “debate” between myself and Stephen Wolfe, and Darryl Hart and Miles Smith–with Isbell pinch hitting for Hart–showed, Isbell isn’t really interested in real discussion or even real debate. What a shame–I mean that. And, apparently, he just discovered the Thirty Year’s War (1618-1635).

He further accused Christian nationalists of ignorance of this history in a brief Substack post. Strange given that people like me and Stephen Wolfe have constructed our views almost solely on historical precedent.

There was nothing but Christian princes in Christendom, so this isn’t big news. More importantly, the fact that Isbell bifurcates “religion and politics,” coupled with concern over such admixture, when discussing the Thirty Year’s War is pure anachronism and exposes his inability to engage in any reconsideration of modern liberal assumptions.

Moreover, he accepts the thin gruel of liberal historical myth and psychology.

Isbell falls in line incessantly warning of religious fanaticism, of pathological politics. What’s really fanatic and pathological, however, is to deny political reality as has been demonstrated for nearly all of human history and only lately memory holed in this fleeting experiment we now inhabit. The experimental element being the rejection of true anthropology and, thereby, true politics; pretending a secular, neutral, bifurcated life is sustainable. Man does not live by bread alone.

Christian nationalists are simply reasserting pre-modern assumptions about politics, one of which is that the organization of life together (symbiosis) must be sensitive to and in service of human nature, which is inescapably religious. Moreover, civil authorities must be just, both to man and to their source of power, God. In all of this, the body cannot be detached from the soul. Meaning, the ends of politics cannot be ignorant of or detached from the final end of man nor his own metaphysical dualism.

Isbell, like a good liberal, wants religion privatized. He may say he doesn’t but, in effect, by any historical measure, that’s what he wants, except for Christian participation in a fair and equal marketplace of ideas. And he definitely does not want any ruler to posses, much less act upon, religious conviction—too presumptuous. No promotion or protection of true religion or the true church, that’s for sure. Because, like, how could we know? There are too many options at the buffet to choose from. It’s like religion Buc-ee’s out there! Blessings of pluralism. Thousands of flowers are blooming in the face of pesky sectarian bigotry!

But of course, this is to deny the duties traditionally assigned to civil authorities (n.b., check the confessions, even the revised ones)—it is to deny something metaphysical, inherent in the nature of the thing. No wonder we struggle to define a woman at this point when we’ve already cast aside so much else about human reality.

Worst of all, however, is Isbell’s affirmation of the liberal myth against the strong gods—the things they fear most. Serious commitment to anything other than the state qua state is, in this story, the source of all human suffering. Such things must be eradicated (i.e., relegated to private life, i.e., inactionable). Before you try to thread the needle, the relegation of the strong gods to the periphery has created a vacuum and the state qua state is the only thing waiting in the wings to fill it. There is no other option.  

As such things return to the political fore, liberals prophecy genocide and the rest, as if the secular century we are in has been sanitized of suffering and strife. As if the 16th and 17th centuries were uniquely violent.

But, of course, 1) we can say with Chesterton that while all violence is lamentable and to be avoided, it is perennial, and fighting over religion is far more rational than fighting about anything else. And 2) the entire liberal narrative Isbell regurgitates is, as our current papist prince would say, total malarky.

The vision cast by Isbell is that of early modern psychopaths running around murdering each other out of sheer sport or zealotry.

This never happened, of course. But, again, to assert this thesis tells you everything you need to know about Isbell’s position, the position of the majority today, to be sure—that’s the only reason it’s worth engaging. Namely, that religion would never be worth war and that anyone operating under the contrary assumption is certifiably crazy. Isbell is the Massachusettensis to our Novanglus. War is never desirable. Anyone lusting after a civil war today is not to be taken seriously or trusted. But the notion that the existence of Christian rulers and Christian polities is per se causally related to violence is bizarre. No survivors? Then where did all the stories come from, I wonder?

Further, that the violence allegedly created by religious zealotry is uniquely brutal, its scope singularly expansive. Otherwise, all Isbell has done is identified that war happens and that its bloody—not very groundbreaking. For Isbell’s modernist position to stand, religion must occupy a unique causal relationship with violence. Again, our secular century debunks such a theory, but so do the 16th and 17th centuries. (We are ignoring the bigger issue, viz., that protection of true religion never justifies state-sanctioned violence, e.g., it was always wrong to combat the Ottoman advance, etc. if predicated on religious grounds.)

As real scholars have shown, the myth of religious violence in the 16th and 17th centuries is just that, a myth.

First off, how is causality discerned when potential motivating factors are not easily separable? In a fully integrated life, unlike our modernist bifurcated one, motivations and interests are more thoroughly blended. Religion is not relegated to its own “sphere.” It is wrapped up in a people’s way of being, their life, just as it is in their relations to their neighbors. In that case, a political interest is never secular even if, from the modern perspective, it does not appear overtly religious. A well-integrated society cannot consider the parts apart from the whole and vice versa. Isbell can prefer a bifurcated life all he wants but he cannot indict all of Christian history up till about five minutes ago as insane on the basis of his own novel view. Moreover, he cannot attribute certain modern material comforts, like, say, fast food, to this bifurcation. Of course, such comforts have more often than not proven to be less than healthy, shall we say. Pointing that out, however, as an indictment of liberal modernity would be unfair. People being unhealthy and dying is nothing unique to our moment. We just find new ways of doing it. The same goes for war.

Second, Isbell’s position assumes the liberal definition of “religion.” That is, in a non-functional, essentialist sense. Is not “secular” neo-liberalism zealous and faith-based? What of the greatest opiate of the 20th century: Marxism? What of our incumbent ruling orthodoxy—diversity, equity, inclusion, and the whole litany of licentiousness of the rainbow cult? Religion or neutrality? The rainbow flags littering the air and earth of our national capital?

One contention of Christian nationalists is that all nations are governed, explicitly and implicitly, by an orthodoxy, a morality, a religion. It is a question of which, not whether. The perfect political nirvana of a neutrality equilibrium simply does not exist. It cannot because humans are not that way, nor is it desirable that they should be. And no, “common sense,” or whatever, is not a sufficient substitute. Public reason, common customs, et cetera are always conditioned by the prevailing religion. Violence is almost never motivated by cold, amoral, “political” calculation.

This point is easily demonstrated by the recent kerfuffle over the life, death, and burial of the constitution. Claiming the latter was blasphemous to many. Why? Because the constitution has occupied sacred status, interpreted rightly only by the magisterium, since the days of our first progressive president, Abraham Lincoln. It’s functionally a religious text. No longer is it conceived as a practical contract constructed of concessions. Evaluating its relative effectiveness is like questioning the inerrancy of the Bible now, even for many Christians. Suggesting our framers were statemen and not prophets is even more offensive. A realist perspective need not apply; never mind that’s exactly how our eighteenth-century forbears thought.  

In any case, scholars less motivated than myself by any particular positive vision for Christian society have roundly refuted the religious violence myth. Not only does the charge of religious violence to prior eras impose an anachronistic perspective on the past, but the charge also doesn’t pass muster on more direct, obvious grounds.  

William Cavanaugh’s well-known work, with which I have quibbles irrelevant here, provided the definitive smack down on this front.

As Karen Armstrong wrote in 2014, if religious bigotry was the cause of the Thirty Year’s War, then why did French Catholics fight the Hapsburgs and why did Protestant princes support them? Maybe because it was more about combating imperial rule than anything else.

War happens. It’s brutal. Atrocities are committed. Pointing out that Christian princes engaged in any of this is not interesting unless it could be shown that, say, Obama never ordered drone strikes on civilians or orchestrated Middle Eastern upheaval. To paraphrase Tucker Carlson, all rulers kill. It goes with the territory. That moderns don’t have the stomach for former times is also not surprising—most of us don’t. But none of this provides either good historical analysis or contemporary proscriptions.

William Cavanaugh on the effect of the “religious violence” thesis.

“The idea that religion has a tendency to promote violence is a variation on the idea that religion is an essentially private and nonrational human impulse, not amenable to conflict solving through public reason. In the contemporary context, therefore, the idea that there is something called religion with a tendency to promote violence continues to marginalize certain kinds of discourses and practices while authorizing others. Specifically, the idea that public religion causes violence authorizes the marginalization of those things called religion from having a divisive influence in public life, and thereby authorizes the state’s monopoly on violence and on public allegiance. Loyalty to one’s religion is private in origin and therefore optional; loyalty to the secular nation-state is what unifies us and is not optional.”

Exactly right. Have we not seen it? The relegation of religion to private life is the beginning of the end. Jefferson gleefully predicated that indifference on part of government toward religion would be the death knell of the latter. Pluralism would sanitize the political of denominational claims. That is, make politics only half human and intentionally ignorant of inescapable socio-anthropological realities.  

If anything has been uniquely violent it has been sacramental liberalism. But its violence exceeds physical body count. It is an assault on the soul and the possibility of real human politics. More to the point, the vision of Christian society and government—once standard for Protestants—is not tantamount to genocide or whatever else Brad Isbell imagines. As I’ve requested before, let’s please be adults about this. Also, on what basis do we get to maintain our confessional inheritance on all other doctrine but utterly reject as outdated one pillar of ecclesiology, viz., what Turretin called “the political government of the church”? Prudence and context must govern application but that is not the same as wholesale rejection, unless, of course, we really do think we’ve reached the end of history. I suspect that’s the real explanation for all this. After Darryl Hart demanded New Testament proof texting for Christian magistrates, he made it known that he was an adherent to “limited government,” as if that truism possesses inherent, stable content. But where is the New Testament proof text for that one?

And if Isbell or anyone else is able to tell me why the assumptions and prescriptions of our confessional inheritance are wrong in principle and within our shared tradition—i.e., without fearmongering born of sloppy historical narratives—then I am all ears. But I will not hold my breath.   

Image: Gustavus Adolphus at Breitenfeld in 1631 (Wikimedia Commons)

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

3 thoughts on “The Myth of Religious Violence

  1. The above consists of a certain amount of gaslighting in terms of minimizing past Christian violence by either relegating some of the condemnation of past Christian violence to anachronisms or a half-hearted acknowledgment of past violence. We should note that Christian violence was not only conducted by states, but by the Church as well as by groups and individuals. And so the past tragic history of Christian violence is not just concerned with past wars, of which there were quite a few, but with violence practiced by mobs, individuals, and by the approval of Church leaders.

    The victims of past Christian violence included victims of anti-Semitism, intramural and other religious intolerances, as well as racism and sexism.

    What do many Reformed Christian Nationalists want? They want a society and system of laws meant for a religiously homogeneous population to be imposed on today’s pluralistic society.. In fact, part of the Communist Manifesto aptly describes what many American Christian Nationalists want for today. This is evident when we substitute the conflict between secular liberalism and Christian Nationalists for the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the working class (a.k.a., proletariat) along with the setting of law making for capital and production. The only remaining difference is that many Christian Nationalists are not big fans of centralization.

    We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy.

    The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.

    Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.

      1. Ryan,
        Did you ever consider how anti-rational your responses are to me? For the most part, your comments are designed to have people reflexively reject everything I say. That reflexive response is neither rational nor biblical.

        I am waiting for a rational dialogue with you as a fellow believer in Christ.

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