Rethinking Religion and Sovereignty (Part 1)

-- John Carlson

New windows of moral outlook have recently begun to open onto our political landscapes. Certainly this isn't the first time these ethical views have appeared in our political deliberations. Classical aspirations of politics often envisioned some notion of good human living as the centerpiece around which the polis was conceived and established. Consider, too, that in American history the case for democracy, as superior to monarchy, totalitarianism, and communism, has often been couched in a moral tone, reflecting deep-seated ethical convictions about human freedom, equality, and attendant individual rights.

More recently, though, with the advent of humanitarian interventions, war-crimes tribunals, and the preparation of an international court to try "crimes against humanity," ethical claims have been thrust to the heart of political decision-making. While Cold War language cloaked its hard-nosed realism with frilly moral window dressing (recall how combating the "evil empire" became super-added justification for robust defense of national security interests), the "new" moral vernacular in international relations grounds its petitions in seemingly few other interests than the concern to establish and preserve a certain moral state of affairs. Quite simply, a good bit of the world now seems unwilling to tolerate states that do not ordain for themselves *some* minimal threshold of political acts that are forbidden: genocide, ethnic cleansing, and the systematic use of torture, to name a few.

But what does it mean for one or more states to be "intolerant" of others, of states that refuse to enact such norms or prohibitions within their borders? And what has all of this to do with religion? We know that religion -- specifically religious pluralism -- played no small role in the violence and warfare that rocked sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. Skeptics of current interventionism might wisely remember that a great dividend of the Westphalian sovereignty scheme was the formation of the nation-state, now freed to regulate its domestic affairs without external interference.

Such seventeenth-century conceptions of political sovereignty (which have, after all, borne up until now) were designed and did in some measure function to limit and prevent wars -- at least violence inspired by religion. Today, though, sovereignty requires that one first pass the test of civility. So not surprisingly, with a growing list of sovereign nations who seem unable to police themselves in ways sufficient to appease interventionists, we are right to ponder the increased violence likely to ensue even when force is applied for moral reasons.

This still rather unremarkable story takes a somewhat ironic turn when one considers how religion -- or at least certain religious actors -- could be disrupting the modern sovereignty scheme that religion so violently first precipitated. Some particular religious and moral suasions I have in mind here are those who have labored to lay the scriptural and theological foundations for human rights, to speak out for the oppressed, to enshrine human worth and to enjoin political institutions to do the same. The "just war" tradition is one such likely "agitator" for it articulates that, in some cases, force may be required to defend the innocent or even to preserve limited human rights.

Thus, could it be religion that has spurred us on to once again take up the sword, albeit this time one with a humanitarian edge?  Moreover, national boundaries are not, according to either Augustine or the U.S. Catholic bishops, sacred matters. So when humanitarian responses entail the invasion of another nation, we might wonder whether religion is urging us to trespass against the cardinal premise and virtue of political sovereignty. In the end, is religion gesturing to reclaim sacred space from sovereign states? Or perhaps this story renders another telling, one with finer nuances, fewer unquestioned premises, wider outlooks, and more hopeful possible outcomes.


John Carlson is a doctoral student in ethics 
at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

This essay was originally published on September 7, 2000 in Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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