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Big Religion, Big State: Reflections on DownsizingBig Religion, Big State: Reflections on Downsizing

Big Religion, Big State: Reflections on Downsizing

But one of the legacies of 9/11 was not just resurging religion, but the resurgence of its historical twin: the secular, sovereign state. Will Cavanaugh's thesis in The Myth of Religious Violence, coupled with Charles Taylor in A Secular Age, is that religion is an invention of the modern period. But it was a twin birth: with religion came the secular state. Neither existed in the way we know them prior to the Reformation.

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Big Religion, Big State: Reflections on Downsizing September 16, 2011  |  By Robert Joustra
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After the Cold War, international theory began to speculate on the end of the sovereign state. Globalization, transnational corporations, footloose capital, and increasingly porous borders all suggested that the state was waning as the practical force of power in most people's lives.

But one of the legacies of 9/11 was not just resurging religion, but the resurgence of its historical twin: the secular, sovereign state. Will Cavanaugh's thesis in The Myth of Religious Violence, coupled with Charles Taylor in A Secular Age, is that religion is an invention of the modern period. But it was a twin birth: with religion came the secular state. Neither existed in the way we know them prior to the Reformation.

So while 9/11 sparked a now well-recognized resurgence in religion, it also sparked a less well-recognized resurgence in the extension of the state. These twins are conjoined.

The state answered two major challenges in the last decade: the crisis of 9/11 and its accompanying international interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the continuing saga of the slow collapse of the international financial order. North American religion, and I emphasize that qualification, has meanwhile been busy meeting the threats of postmodern moralism, muscular liberalism and, especially in America, the deep political fracture and disenchantment of evangelicalism.

Most observers now recognize that in the last decade both state and religion probably suffered imperial overstretch. Take the more obvious problems of the state: overstretch is just one feature of the wars in the Middle East; financial tolls on market bail outs; surveillance and securitization; and a demographic crunch hitting an aging population rapidly becoming more unwilling to bear the burdens of a state without its benefits.

In Wednesday's Globe and Mail economist Vito Tanzi predicted an inevitable state downsizing in response, and Canada is leading the pack. He projects a future where governments require around 10 per cent of their respective GDP (or less) to fulfill their increasingly modest responsibilities. That modesty will light a few fires. Mr. Tanzi argues that the state operates essentially as a monopoly insurance company, insuring almost everyone against almost every risk and doing so inefficiently. That role is already ending.

Religiously speaking, the post-9/11 boom in religious politics is settling into the more banal work of accommodating deep pluralism, translating convictions into public and doing so in ways that have both the appearance and practice of justice. Christian evangelicalism in America and Canada is on the decline, as thinkers like Mark Knoll and Philip Jenkins have been predicting. The next Christians, frankly, are not American. And they certainly aren't hipsters.

The invention of religion and state is undergoing another interpretation, another iteration, and this one might be a bit more modest. Life, of course, will still be lived out of a series of worldview orientations which shape who we are, and what we will become—what is typically called religious content. But the separation of something called religion from, say, politics on that basis is an abstraction, and an incoherent one at that. That will be more clear. Metaphysical questions of meaning divorced from politics produces no politics at all.

And maybe, under the waning power of big religion and big state, simpler truths can be recovered: truths about God and politics, virtue and justice. Maybe, as the big Westphalian story of the secular state and the private religious unravels, we'll get more soul in western society. Something worth fighting for.

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