In 2001, William T. Cavanaugh Ph.D. '96 took part in Duke Magazine's inaugural Campus Forum, talking with his former professor Stanley Hauerwas about fame, the modern church, and September 11.
During that conversation, Cavanaugh served largely as a foil for star scholar Hauerwas, who is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of theological ethics at Duke. But Cavanaugh, an associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, has continued to make a name for himself working as a scholar at the intersection of religion and politics.
With his 1998 book, Torture and the Eucharist, Cavanaugh got in on the ground floor of an area of scholarship that would soon gain additional relevance in the U.S. with media coverage of abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. The book examined from a theological perspective government-sponsored torture during the Augusto Pinochet regime in Chile, where Cavanaugh lived in the late 1980s.
"In the book I try to say that torture is not something limited to barbaric regimes," Cavanaugh says. "There is a dynamic to it that is part and parcel of modern states. I used to have a harder time making that point. Now it's become a little bit too easy."
On the basis of that book and scholarly articles on the topic, Cavanaugh was invited last year to speak at the founding conference of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. His speech, published in a Theology Today theme issue on torture, compares what he'd seen in Chile with what is happening now in the U.S.
He notes the ways in which torture works to define the person tortured as dangerous and foreign, an "other." He explains how "American exceptionalism" (the belief that we, as Americans, are above torture but, at the same time, reserve the right to use extreme measures under extreme circumstances) permits—even promotes—torture. As a result, he writes, "expecting the state to be the champion of human rights may be like asking the fox to guard the henhouse."
He suggests the church as an alternative watchdog, pointing to the success of the Catholic Church in Chile in combating torture by denying the Eucharist to torturers. But he acknowledges that there are difficulties to overcome, not least the blurry lines between politics and religion. "The church is an international body and shouldn't be corralled into nationalist-type projects," he says.
"Unfortunately it's a constant temptation of American Christians to think that this is a Christian country and somehow Christianity and Americanism go hand in hand."
Cavanaugh's next book, on theology and economics, is due out late this year.
"Faith Fires Back": Update
January 31, 2007