The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 1 (Spring 2014)

The Strange but Necessary Suppression of Europe's Christian Roots

Christian Joppke

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.1 (Spring 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 1)

In light of the 2008 financial crisis and its sovereign debt sequel, it seems luxurious to muse on what the identity of Europe could be. If there ever was a “European” moment in the making of Europe, analogous to the “Italian” moment described by the nineteenth-century statesman Massimo d’Azeglio—“We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians”—it was short and it has passed. The current reality is angry Greeks waving swastikas at the German chancellor and utter incomprehension in Europe’s thriftier north toward the economic woes of the south. As the economic nuts and bolts of the European project are put into question, not to mention the European Union’s growing unpopularity even in its historical heartland, France and Germany, it seems almost anachronistic to ask last decade’s question about the “society” and “identity” that might undergird the European polity.

Untimely as such reflection may seem, I wish to argue that it is simultaneously plausible and futile to ground the identity of Europe in its Christian roots. It is plausible because before the era of nation-states Europe was much more of a social and cultural unity than it is now, and the content of that unity was the Christian religion. In God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis (2007), historian Philip Jenkins writes that “the very concept of Europe as a cultural rather than geographical expression emerged in the eighth century, during the conflicts between us—Latin Christian Europeans—and them, African and Asian Muslims.” As Jenkins’s observation immediately suggests, the Christian identity option is futile because, among other reasons, it does not facilitate the integration of the twenty million Muslims who live in Europe as a result of immigration.

However unviable a Christian identity may be for political reasons, one still must acknowledge the formative power of Christianity in the making of Europe. The everyday reality of Europe’s most unified moment ever, which was during the High Middle Ages, is vividly described by sociologist Philip Gorski: “Because the territories of (Western and Central) Europe shared a common religion, an English prince could marry a Spanish bride, a monk from Leipzig could study in Padua, and a poor traveler from Lisbon could receive public alms in Antwerp.” Indeed, this never again achieved degree of European unity was made possible, as John Meyer has written, by “Christendom as a general civilizational frame.” Even today, David Martin argues in his seminal work A General Theory of Secularization (1978), “Europe is a unity by virtue of having possessed one Caesar and one God, i.e. by virtue of Rome. It is a diversity by virtue of the existence of nations.”

Yet when the European Union had a chance to define itself, in the preamble of its never-realized constitution, a reference to Europe’s Christian roots was refused, though not without a fight. All one finds in this document is an anemic acknowledgment of the “cultural, religious, and humanist traditions of Europe.” Even the U.S. Supreme Court, though heavily constrained by the separationist legacy of the First Amendment’s establishment clause that has no parallel anywhere in Europe, has recently moved toward a “recognition of the role of God in our Nation’s heritage,” a recognition that makes the European refusal appear all the more puzzling. Certainly a ready explanation is at hand, in terms of the proverbial secularization of European societies that contrasts sharply with the unique vitality of religion in America. After all, the legal and political elites in a democracy cannot be immune to the different temperatures of religion in their respective societies. However, the matter is more complicated, because at the level of institutions European states are also connected to religion to a degree that could not be fathomed in the United States, even in the latter’s current post-separationist phase (that is the result of three decades of political campaigning by the Christian Right). England, for instance, still has its (Anglican) state church, as do several Scandinavian countries. For their part, Germany, Austria, and Spain, all adhering to an open, accommodating neutrality, grant public status to society’s main faiths (including, in the latter two, Islam). Concretely, it was, of course, the veto of France, America’s sister republic in matters of religion-state separation, that wrecked a reference to Christianity or God in Europe’s draft constitution, which had been pushed by German, Italian, Polish, and Slovenian delegates.

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Christian Joppke is the chair of general sociology at the University of Bern, Switzerland, and the author of Legal Integration of Islam: A Transatlantic Comparison (2013) and Citizenship and Immigration (2010), among other books.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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