I can't recommend it highly enough.
Cavanaugh's argument has three basic parts. I find the first part convincing. The second part seems reasonable but is way outside of my knowledge, so my ignorance prevents me from endorsing it. The third part is... well, you'll see.
First, Cavanaugh argues that the classic picture of the "wars of religion" is completely wrong. Typically these early modern conflicts have been depicted as the last gasp of medieval religious violence--wars motivated and fueled by religious zealotry. In this telling, the modern state was essentially invented as a result of the terrible violence wrought by religion. It stepped into religious chaos to become the neutral "peacemaker" standing between Catholic and Protestant hatred.
Cavanaugh argues, instead, that the "wars of religion" are better depicted as a fight between the old ecclesial order of the medieval world and an emerging absolutist state which required religion to be relegated to the private sphere. In other words, the modern state was not a peacemaker between the two sides but was instead itself one of the sides in the conflict--and, as it turns out, the victorious one.
One implication, which he does not make explicit, is that, rather than being the last gasp of medieval warfare, the "wars of religion" are actually the first modern wars and are better lumped in with, say, the world wars of the 20th-century than the Crusades.
His second proposition is that the concept of "religion" as a general term for (private) religious beliefs is a modern invention, and that this innovation came hand-in-hand with the rise of the absolute state. As I implied before, this seems reasonable, but I don't know the period well enough to pass judgment at all.
And then comes the third part. Here's an excerpt:
In an article entitled "War Making and State Making as Organized Crime," sociologist Charles Tilly explores the analogy of the State's monopoly on legitimate violence with the protection rackets run by the friendly neighborhood mobster. According to Tilly "a portrait of war makers and state makers as coercive and self-seeking entrepreneurs bears a far greater resemblance to the facts than do its chief alternatives: the idea of a social contract, the idea of an open market in which operators of armies and states offer services to willing customers, the idea of a society whose shared norms and expectations call forth a certain kind of government." States extort large sums of money and the right to send their citizens out to kill and die in exchange for protection from violence both internal and external the State's borders. What converts war making from "protection" to "protection racket" is the fact that often States offer defense from threats which they themselves create, threats which can be imaginary or the real results of the State's own activities. Furthermore, the internal repression and the extraction of money and bodies for "defense" that the State carries out are frequently among the most substantial impediments to the ordinary citizens' livelihood. The "offer you can't refuse" is usually the most costly. The main difference between Uncle Sam and the Godfather is that the latter did not enjoy the peace of mind afforded by official government sanction.Whew. More:
The State is involved in the production, not merely the restraint, of violence. Indeed the modern State depends on violence, war and preparations for war, to maintain the illusion of social integration and the overcoming of contradictions in civil society. [...] The use of the Church's own practices of binding and loosing is not, however, a call for the Church to take up the sword once again. In fact, it is precisely the opposite. I have contrasted Church discipline with State discipline in order to counter violence on behalf of the State, which has spilt so much blood in our time. Contesting the State's monopoly on violence does not mean that the Church should again get a piece of the action, yet another form of Constantinianism. What I have tried to argue is that the separation of the Church from power did nothing to stanch the flow of blood on the West's troubled pilgrimage. The pitch of war has grown more shrill, and the recreation of the Church as a voluntary association of practitioners of religion has only sapped our ability to resist. The discipline of the State will not be hindered by the Church's participation and complicity in the "public debate." Discipline must be opposed by counter discipline.And the conclusion:
We must cease to think that the only choices open to the Church are either to withdraw into some private or "sectarian" confinement, or to embrace the public debate policed by the State. The Church as Body of Christ transgresses both the lines which separate public from private and the borders of nation-states, thus creating spaces for a different kind of political practice, one which is incapable of being pressed into the service of wars or rumors of wars.Think on that for a while, as I am doing right now, and then go read the whole thing (again, you can get it in PDF form here). Then, consider reading his 2009 book titled The Myth of Religious Violence, which I would love to find time to read myself.