European, Not Christian
An aggressive secularism sweeps the Continent
For a while last winter, Ruth Kelly, Britain's newly appointed education secretary, had to feel that she was getting the Buttiglione Treatment. Rocco Buttiglione, that is: Italy's nominee to the European Union's executive commission, who had only a few months before come under sharp attack--both from EU parliamentarians and the press--for his traditional Catholic views about the sinfulness of homosexual acts. He tried to hang in, but ultimately the controversy compelled him to stand down.
So what was Kelly's problem? She had been receiving spiritual counseling from the Roman Catholic organization Opus Dei. The British press went to town with lurid myths and half-truths about that organization, from its past associations with Franco's Spain (even though there were Opus Dei members opposed to Franco) to the fictive portrait of the murderous Opus Dei "monk" in Dan Brown's wildly popular novel, The Da Vinci Code (even though there are no monks in Opus Dei). The suggestion, clearly, was that anyone under the influence of such an organization could not support her party's position on such things as abortion and condom use.
Tough crowd. While Kelly survived the mini-tempest, her experience captures what many say is the prevailing attitude of European elites toward religion, particularly traditional religion and particularly in the public sphere. From the ban on the wearing of visible religious symbols in French public schools to the refusal of the EU to include specific mention of Christianity's influence on Europe's distinctive civilization in its first constitution, a mountain of anecdotal evidence suggests that an aggressive form of secularism--what the British religion writer Karen Armstrong calls "secular fundamentalism" --is afoot in Europe.
Numerous analysts suggest that the spreading "Christianophobia" is tied to a Europe-wide spiritual malaise that is pushing the Continent toward broad cultural and economic decline. Others describe a more complicated process, in which--as the last vestiges of established religions are disappearing in various European nations--a new spiritual awakening may be taking place. Either way, popular attitudes toward religion in Europe now stand in bold contrast to those in the United States. While 59 percent of Americans say that religion is very important in their lives, only 11 percent of the French, 21 percent of Germans, and 33 percent of Britons do, according to the Pew Research Center. More to the point, a growing part of the U.S. electorate--and not just those associated with red America--would like religious values to play an even more prominent role in shaping the nation's laws and public life.
This sharp divide between American and European attitudes is anything but reassuring to George Weigel, a theologian and senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. In his new book, The Cube and the Cathedral, Weigel makes the case that Europe's problem "is also ours," and not only because it exacerbates differences between Americans and Europeans on matters like foreign policy. In Weigel's view, American high culture is vulnerable to the same kind of spiritual and philosophical amnesia that he believes has afflicted Europe. The culprit, in his telling, is the atheistic humanism that took shape in the 19th century. Whether in the form of Auguste Comte's positivism or Karl Marx's materialism, it attempted "to exclude transcendent reference points from cultural, social, and political life." In specific, it reversed the view that the Hebrew and Christian God was the source of human freedom and dignity and proposed that this God was the obstacle to both.