Europe’s Present, America’s Future?

Published April 27, 2005

What do Konrad Adenauer, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and the two Augustines (Hippo and Canterbury) have in common? Or Bach, Bacon, Becket, Bede, Benedict, Bernini, Bonhoeffer, and Borromeo? What about Calvin, Caravaggio, Charlemagne, Columbus, Constantine, and Cromwell? Or, to stop this promiscuous alphabetizing, what’s the thread linking Dante, William Wilberforce, Galileo, Dominic, Joan of Arc, de Gasperi, Luther, Rublev, Thomas More, John Wesley, Mozart, and Hieronymus Bosch?

The envelope, please.

And the answers are:

1) They are all Christians who, acting precisely as Christians, had a profound impact for better or worse (and sometimes for both) in making “Europe” what it is today.

2) Their contributions to Europe’s evolution as a continent committed to freedom, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law were willfully omitted from the preamble to the new European constitution, which takes the strange position that Christian culture had no significant impact on the civilizational formation of today’s European Union.

Is Europe “Christophobic?” Neither the formulation nor the suggestion are mine; rather, they come from one of the world’s foremost international legal scholars, J.H.H. Weiler of New York University, a practicing Orthodox Jew. I think Professor Weiler is right, at least in terms of European high culture and European public life. I’d take his claim one step further, though, and suggest that Europe’s present incapacities – including the demographic suicide that is stripping the continent of population at a rate unseen since the Black Death in the 14th century – are related to its Christophobia. And that, in turn, is a by-product of what happened in the most influential intellectual circles in 19th century Europe, when atheistic humanism jettisoned the God of the Bible in the name of human liberation.

That, at least, is the argument I unwind in my new book, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God (Basic Books). In retrospect, it was a 1997 visit to the “Cube” – the Great Arch of La Défence, a starkly modernist human rights monument in Paris – that got me to thinking about these things. The guidebooks I consulted all boasted that the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, towers and steeple included, would fit comfortably inside the Great Arch. So some questions occurred: what culture would better protect human rights and secure the moral foundations of democracy? The culture that produced this stunning, rational, symmetrical, but essentially featureless cube? Or the culture that produced the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the stained glass and holy “unsameness” of Notre-Dame and the other great Gothic cathedrals of Europe? Who could give a better account of their commitment to the freedom of others today – the people of the Cube, or the people of the Cathedral?

These questions are immensely important for the United States as well as for Europe. Here, as well as in the countries from which America first grew, prominent voices argue that the God of the Bible is a threat to human freedom and that Christian moral conviction has no place in the public square. Here, as well as in Europe, courts and bureaucracies attempt to impose a utilitarian ethic on society – which, truth to tell, more than a few of our fellow-countrymen endorse. There’s too much blather these days about “Red America” and “Blue America,” but the affinities between Blue America and Europe – ideological, cultural, demographic – are too striking to be merely accidental. (Moreover, there’s our neighbor to the north, Canada, which is, for all intents and purposes, a European cultural salient in North America: the Ice Cube, if you will.)

Is Europe finished? Not necessarily. In The Cube and the Cathedral, I sketch briefly a scenario in which Europe is revitalized through the new evangelization. But that’s precisely what it will take to bring Europe out of its present political, cultural, and demographic nose-dive: a rediscovery of the Christian roots of European civilization. A robust Christianity in America, capable of translating religiously-informed moral principles into a vocabulary that can be engaged by all men and women of good will, could help show the way to a rebirth of civilizational morale throughout the West.

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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