JULY 14, 2003
Martin E. Marty
Europeans are having fits about the place of religion in Europe-as-Europe, and what they fight about may throw light on American discontents. In last Friday's Wall Street Journal (July 11), Brandon Mitchener in "Birth of a Nation? As Europe Unites, Religion, Defense Still Stand in Way" reports that while drafters have come up with a constitution for the European Union (EU), delegates are still arguing about the place religion and Christianity should or should not play in it.
In 1957, the drafters of the Treaty of Rome, the first EU treaty, made no reference to God or Christianity. But in 2003 the world, Islamic and non-Islamic, has heated up religiously and there is more conflict about God than there was in 1957. Christian Democratic parties like the word, so do Poles, and so does the pope, so why not put "Christianity" into the new documents? Church-going Giscard d'Estaing was lobbied by the pope, to whom he had to say that "there was almost a riot in the convention" when some tried to insert the word. The term "religious" was all right, along with "cultural" and "humanist" as part of the continent's heritage, but the many millions of Muslims in Europe, the fewer Jews, the believers in other faiths, and non-believers certainly did not welcome the notion that being a real European meant honoring Christianity. They went on to insist that they did not even want to be reminded of Europe's Christian past.
Ireland and the Netherlands have pitched in on the battle, but are not likely to win. Mitchener quotes Yassin Hartog, who represents Muslim interests in the Hague: "For God's sake, let's have a look at the shared norms and values which bind us." Singling out Christianity, however potent its past in shaping Europe, is "too exclusive."
Without question, the pro-Christian-God partisans have a point, or a million points. From New Testament times to the present, the faith and its culture were shapers. In the 1930s, Hilaire Belloc could still get a hearing for his exclusive and provincial, even blinded, assertion that "Europe is the faith. The faith is Europe."
There are still millions of Christians, some of them practicing, in Europe, but the Christian-shaping today is going on in the poor world of sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Asian subcontinent. And the Christianity in Europe is hardly a shaping influence in public life today.
Two levels of argument appear in Europe, as here, when these debates open. It would hardly satisfy Poland, Ireland, and the Netherlands to have a mere reference to history. You can get history out of books without stomping it into constitutions with these citations. Barely hidden behind the historical reference is an attempt, as old as European establishments of religion, to say, in effect, "This is our place and you are at best a guest." Or: "We have bragging rights here for what goes right. Don't bring up our failures, past and present." Or: "We belong, and you don't. Let us set the terms."
The U.S. keeps "In God We Trust" on our evidences of Mammon, an assertion that strikes the rest of the world as merely hypocritical. It would be hard to have it removed, since there is now more passion for privileging religion and seeking a common creed than there was back in a more innocent age when "In God We Trust" came to coins of habit. Today it, and its cognate assertions, are raised in an "in your face" way by politicians who can always exploit piety.
God does well without coercion; Christianity does less well when favored or privileged. Dear EU, try drafting a godless Constitution; ours has worked very well and religion has prospered. Perhaps we should insert a "therefore" before "has" at the end of that sentence.