Democracy Without God

Published September 7, 2007

On September 6-7, EPPC Senior Fellow George Weigel participated in the seventeenth international Economic Forum in Krynica, Poland. Sometimes described as the “Polish Davos,” the Krynica conference brings together more than two thousand political, business, and cultural leaders from central Europe, eastern Europe, and the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus region and central Asia. On September 7, Weigel and Marcello Pera, professor of philosophy at the University of Pisa and member of the Italian Senate shared the platform at an “authors’ evening” exploring the question, “Democracy Without God?”


Friends tell each other the truth. So it was as a friend of Europe, deeply conscious of the debt the United States owes to Europe, that I wrote a small book called The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God, which raised some hard questions about Europe’s future: politically, economically, culturally, and spiritually.

In The Cube and the Cathedral, I suggested that Europe, and particularly western Europe, was suffering from what I called a “crisis of civilizational morale.”

This crisis manifested itself in several ways:  contempt in European high culture for Europe’s past, in which too many scholars (and political activists) can only see wickedness and evil (racism, sexism, nationalism, imperialism, etc., etc), rather than a complex tapestry that includes great civilizational accomplishments of value to the whole world; distrust in the future, and a politics sole focused on the satisfaction of present desires, to the point where it is impossible to take the concrete steps necessary to avoid what every sensible person knows is the impending fiscal crisis of the western European welfare state;  an appeasement approach to both external and internal threats to European democracy, the latter expressed through a multiculturalism that denies the very distinctiveness and worth of European democracy.

Now, there was very little nothing original in this analysis, nor was it some strangely American optic on Europe’s current situation. Elements of the analysis had been proposed by churchmen like Pope John Paul II and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger; by philosophers like France’s Pierre Manent and my friend and colleague, Marcello Pera; by historians like England’s Christopher Dawson and, more recently, Niall Ferguson and Michael Burleigh. If I managed to pull the various threads together into a whole, I was, nonetheless, weaving with materials made by others.

Today, I would like to suggest that there is another, parallel, way to describe the current political-cultural situation of Europe: and in doing so, I would like to borrow the concept of a “narrative” from the post-modernists to suggest that Europe is suffering from a “false story.”

Long before the post-modernists, of course, we knew that civilizations and cultures live from the stories they tell about themselves. Think of the impact of Homer on the ancient Greeks; of Virgil’s “Aeneid” on the Romans; of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” on all of late medieval Christendom. In some cases, like that of Poland, nations survive the loss of statehood through the stories they tell about themselves and to themselves: thus the importance of figures like Sienkiewicz, Mickiewicz, Slowacki, and others in keeping alive the idea of “Poland” when the Polish state had been eradicated from the map of Europe.

It is important, of course, that such national or, more broadly, civilizational stories disclose genuine truths about the human condition; for false stories can destroy, just as true stories can build.

And the French philosopher Remi Brague suggests that Europe’s current crisis of civilizational morale is due in large part to a false story. In a recent book (The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea), Professor Brague argues that Europe is confused about its past, present, and future because of one of those “grand narratives” by which modern men and women try to explain themselves to themselves: in this case the “grand narrative” or master-story which teaches us that modernity necessarily means that politics escapes from the domain of theology. In other words, and to be very specific, democracy, the rule of law, and the protection of human rights are quite possible without God; indeed, that all these good things we identify with the European freedom project are possibly only possible without God.

This “grand narrative,” Brague continues, contains several sub-plots:

It teaches us that a once-“enchanted” world has become “secularized.”

It teaches us that a once-clerical society and politics have been “laicized.”

And it teaches us that a once-united Church and state have been “separated,” such that religious conviction has nothing to do with public life.

None of this, Brague then suggests, is true.

“Lay,” Brague writes, is originally a Christian idea, originally meant to designate “the people” as “the people of God.” Translated into “public” terms, it designates human persons as men and women capable-of-citizenship, because men and women possess an innate dignity and value derived from their capacities to know and to choose.

As for “secular,” well, it only makes sense over-against that which it seems to deny: the “profane” only makes sense by hinting that something like a religious domain, a sphere of ultimate truth, value, and meaning, exists. Moreover, the world is quite obviously not becoming more “secular,” if by “secular”  we mean a dramatic decline in religious conviction and a parallel decline in the impact of religious conviction on public life.

And as for “the separation of Church and state,” well, there are obvious advantages to distinguishing between religious authority and political authority; but both religious authority and political authority are part of the same human condition, and to imagine that they can be kept

utterly distinct in hermetically-sealed containers marked “religion” and “politics” is to imagine something that is not only impossible, but that is inhuman.

If Remi Brague is right — if the current “grand narrative” or master-story telling Europe who and what it is — is seriously defective — then Europe needs a new story.

Or, perhaps better, Europe needs to recover and revitalize an old story: the “story” of European civilization as the product of the fruitful interaction of Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome — of Greek rationality, biblical religion, and Roman law.

Imagine “Europe” — not “Europe”-as-geography, but “Europe”-as-civilization — as a stool resting on three legs. In the 19th century, the “Jerusalem” leg of the three-legged stool called “European civilization” was kicked out. The stool then became wobbly, resting as it did on only two legs. Post-modernism has kicked out the second leg — “Athens” — by denying that there is any rationality that can get at the truth of things-in-themselves. And with two legs gone, the third leg cannot hold things up by itself. Indeed, in the impact of multiculturalism on Europe’s ability to enforce its own laws in the face of Islamist aggression, we can see that the collapse of “Jerusalem” and “Athens” means that “Rome,” too must collapse.

For Europe to be Europe — for Europe to be the civilizational beacon it once was, and the humanistic model it aims to be, Europe must recover all three of the subplots of its true story. Europe must re-engage Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. Europe must rediscover reason; it must rediscover the meaning of a rationally accessible and rationally defensible moral law that reflects moral truths built into the world and into us. And, ultimately, it must re-engage the God of the Bible.

That is why the “new evangelization” promoted by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI is so important.

But while that “new evangelization” is being attempted, Europe can and must also rediscover Athens: Europe must rediscover the claims of reason to be able to get at the truth of things, including the moral and political truths of how we ought to live together.

Indeed, if Europe could rediscover its faith in reason, it might be better equipped to rediscover the reasonableness of faith.

In any event, though, by recovering its faith in reason, Europe would have recovered the capacity to create a genuinely public conversation — among believers and non-believers alike — on the goods we ought to seek in public life, and the way in which we ought to seek them.

At the same time, a Europe rediscovering its faith in reason would be a Europe recovering its ability to defend itself — indeed, Europe would rediscover the need to defend itself — in the war of ideas that is at the heart of the 21st century contest between the West and global jihadism.

Europe needs a new story, and to do so Europe needs to recover its old story. In that recovery and reexamination, Europe can find the resources to build a future worthy of the great civilizational accomplishments of its past.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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