Is Europe Christian?

By Olivier Roy

Today, we are accustomed to debates about Islam and Europe, Islam and laicity, Islam and Democracy… But these debates are merely hiding a deeper controversy concerning the very nature of Europe  and its relation with religion in general. A severe crisis is happening in regards to European identity and how religion is seen, as shown by the radicalisation of Catholics in France surrounding the Manif pour Tous, or by radicalised secularism on the matter of the ritual slaughter of animals and circumcision.

Every state is secular in principle and tends to secularise religion. This historical process, emerging from the Peace of Westphalia (1648), has progressively defined Europe’s Christian identity precisely as “a secularised Christianity”. This definition has lasted for a long time despite the weakening of religious practice. However, the pertinence of this concept needs to be questioned in the light of the 1960s, and the breakdown of the moral consensus that used to be implied for both secular and christian faiths in the West. Since then, the state has not been able to convert its ‘values’ into norms, as these values have taken on separate lives within several competing political spheres. This represents a rupture with several centuries of an implicit common moral order, shared by the majority of citizens and which did not require proper legal codification. Confronted with this moral vacuum, some would like to codify and categorise the religious sphere, progressively limiting its space in the public domain. Yet such moves may only lend ammunition to the religious fundamentalists. It might be important, then, to re-socialise religion in a way that would make its visibility acceptable.

The legacy of religious warfare

The importance of Christianity in European history, and in the very idea of Europe itself, is undeniable. What we now call Europe corresponds with the space occupied by Latin Christianity in the eleventh century. In the same way, it is undeniable that the main legal and political concepts that structured the emergence of the state and the building of Europe were widely forged in a Christian environment. It is obvious that the first universities were religious institutions and that the first intellectuals were clerics. This Latin Christianity was not closed in on itself, and benefitted from Greek, Roman and Islamic influences among others, as mediaeval scholars were receptive to such exchange. I will not join in reconstructions of the Middle Ages which make Al-Andalus (Muslim Andalusia) the paradigm of religious ‘coexistence’: such reconstructions are by and large anachronistic (how can one talk about ‘multiculturalism’ during the Middle Ages?), tend to address modern concerns, and can be instrumentalised by the Left or the Right. While ecumenical festivals of sacred music are aesthetic success stories, they do not say much about relationships between religious communities.

The eleventh century is a key historical period: after the Great Schism that separated indefinitely Latin Catholicism from Eastern Orthodoxy in 1053, a violent conflict erupted between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor over the source of political power and legitimacy. This highlights the following question: what is the link between religion and politics, between authority (auctoritas) and power (potestas)? In the long run, the Emperor or temporal sovereign prevails. But not by a victory of the secular over the religious: rather by the ability to define power as the expression of God’s will. Power understood as will is legitimate in itself, that is, as a reflection of the will of God, power outweighs the authority of knowledge: later, it is this theologico-political matrix that will play a key role in the elaboration of both the concept of the sovereign nation and the Law as an expression of political will and not a reflection of natural law. All this was largely elaborated and debated during Middle Ages in a space de facto European, where clerics and ideas circulated independently of their ‘national’ belonging. At a very early stage in history, the Church had already defined a supranationality (but as the concept of the Nation-State was slowly built over centuries, I’ll ask you to excuse this anachronism).

The Nation-State’s genealogy solidifies itself with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. This was essentially born out of the great rupture of the Reformation, which shattered the ideal of the Church’s universality and put to an end its pretension to political control. This fundamental split still exists. However, to equate Americanisation (or globalisation) with the Protestantisation of our old Europe is a rather hasty move: Protestantism is extremely diverse in its form. A great deal separates Lutheranism’s tendency to de facto secularisation and the resurgence of evangelical Calvinism in America.

Nevertheless, it is true that the great European trauma can be situated around religious wars. These wars started on the basis of theological questions (God’s grace and salvation) considered as non-negotiable imperatives. The final two of Martin Luther’s 95 theses do not provide any room for compromise: “Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace” . Of course, we could explain how the Reformation expresses – more than it actually creates – a disruption of the social, cultural, and intellectual frameworks of that time in favour of new actors. Yet, it does not negate that, indeed, people kill each for the sake of dogmas and faith. Violence was religious in its core and staging, as shown by Olivier Christin and Denis Crouzet, for example. Despite relentless efforts from kings and emperors (Francis I of France and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, for example) there is yet no room for negotiation in order to bring theologians from both camps in order to find a compromise (Poissy, Worms, Regensburg). Religions prove to be unable to achieve peace as it is impossible to negotiate dogma, but only the public place of religion (notice to laïques who want to reform Islam!). As Olivier Christin shows, peace between religions was achieved by politicians who imposed the fact that politics had to decide of the place of religion. It is by no means a separation that occurs, as politics intervenes directly into religion (for example, Louis XIV’s Declaration of the Four Articles in 1682 affirms the superiority of a General Council over the Pope).

Today, interreligious dialogue continues to be promoted in order to oppose religious violence; but this does not work any better than it did during the sixteenth century. One will not solve religious conflicts by theological debates. Starting with the theological question is, in fact, a dead end. Little by little, the politicians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries realised that religious wars were unwinnable: therefore, the state decided to achieve religious peace by itself, organising the religious sphere, and thereby solving the old conflict between Pope and Emperor in favour of the latter. This is what is enshrined in the principle Cujus regio, Ejus religio: the sovereign decides in the religious sphere. It is the state that fixes the rules of the game when it comes to religion, to the present day.

In any case, even in a religious state like the Islamic Republic of Iran, politics govern religion. There is no autonomous, religious body that might dictate to the state what a religious state should be. In 1995, I delivered a lecture in Qom, Iran, at the Islamic University of Moufid, where I was asked to present an explanation of my last book, The Failures of Political Islam. I developed my thoughts and raised the question of determining who decides of the Islamic characteristic of the laws voted by the Parliament. As a matter of fact, a council of Guardians is planned by the Constitution in order to validate this characteristic or not. But the conflicts between the two institutions are continuous. Therefore, a third instance interferes, the Council of Experts, which has to bring both of them to an agreement. This latter instance is constituted by men of power, coming from the leading team that enacted the Revolution. I asked the traditional question: “Who watches the watchmen?” that is to say: “Who decides in last resort of the religious truth?”. Then, a mollah situated in the back of the room raised his hand and shouted “The Kalachnikov!” There was a very mixed reaction from the audience, but the point was rightly raised. Theologian would not knock without impunity at the door of a dictator, of a president, or of any representant of power in general, in order to protest the conformity of a political power on the basis of religious terms. This individual would invariably end up in prison, such as in Iran or in Saudi Arabia (and, before, on the pyre like Savonarola in Firenze).

Sovereignty and secularisation

Every state is secular, and this fact has nothing to do with the religious practice of the populations. Some secular states record high levels of religious practices, such as the United States where the First Amendment protects the separation between religion and politics. The difference with France consists in the fact that the American system protects the religious from the political, whilst France protects the political from the religious. Nevertheless, the United States remains a country that strictly separates the Church from the State. In France, the law of 1905 first separates the Catholic church from the Republican state. It does not represent a separation from religion in general. As a matter of fact, Israelites and Protestants supported the law at that time.

It is necessary to distinguish laicism from secularism: a completely secularised society can not be laic (United Kingdom, Denmark) and a very religious society can be laic (India, USA, Italy). ‘Laicity’ is not the mechanical consequence of the secularisation of society. Gallicanism forbade the Pope to exchange directly with Catholics (for example, a priest could not preach an official declaration from the Pope) without the king’s approval. The state was imposing itself against the papacy, yet Louis XIV was a great devotee himself.

Secularisation is not necessarily a form of dechristianisation either. But it happens that, in Europe, both were coupled. This dechristianisation was measurable by sociological means. For example, it was historically observed through the study of testimonies. Until the middle of the 18th century, men and women with a heritage tended to demise a more or less part to the Church after they died, in order to ensure the salvation of their soul. During the eighteenth century, women continued to will in the same proportion while men’s legacies decreased. During the nineteenth century, the phenomenon continued with the rise of sexual dimorphism within the Church. Although the clergy remained masculine, the parishes recorded an increasing feminisation of the assemblies, as well as a number of nuns surpassing the one of monks. During the twentieth century, sociologists established numerous objective criteria for the study of religious practices. Their work was greatly facilitated towards the Catholic Church as it constitutes a form of bureaucracy that keeps records. These records inform us about Mass participation in Peter’s Pence Collection, in baptisms, in confessions, etc. Nowadays, the Church has a register of conversions, which it does not show off too much in order not to create problems. For example, we are very much aware of the number of Muslims who convert to Catholicism every year. Statistics regarding Protestants are less rigorous.

So we have two forms of secularisation: the political kind, the one created by the separation between the Church and the State (as a form of legal secularism), and the sociological, which refers to the decline of religious practices. Most of the time, these two phenomena are concomitant. When the Peace of Westphalia and the beginning of political secularisation commenced, the whole of Europe was religious. It is during the nineteenth century that a sociological secularisation occured in France. But this observation does not replicate itself in every society. The case of Québec is interesting in this regard. Although a very catholic country until 1960, religious practice diminished in a decade. More recently, we can refer to Ireland, which has also engaged in a process of de-catholicism in the space of ten years. As the last bastion of the Catholic identity, Poland may be the next to do so.
However, the decrease of religious practices does not remove the relevance of the religious reference. As Marcel Gauchet famously wrote it, if “Christianity is the religion of the exit of religion”, thus the dominant European culture is a form of secularised Christianity. This thesis exists in various forms since Feuerbach, or even Hegel, and was largely used later by Max Weber and Pierre Legendre. It is not because people do not have faith, that the society is not Christian in its founding principles (its ‘inner self’), its values, and its institutions. One can still evaluate Christianity’s influence within law, or the role of Inquisition in the construction of the police investigation and the importance of the confession. Modern Europe’s artistic and philosophical cultures are well anchored in Christianity. Even Descartes spent a great amount of time trying to prove the existence of God, in order to be forgiven for his invention of the Cogito that made the truth autonomous.

L’Europe est-elle chrétienne ?

One can, at the same time, defend the idea of Europe’s Christian identity and foreground its ‘Christian roots’, while recording a fall of the religious practice and the erasure of faith. One can certainly reclaim its Christian culture and not believe in God, like Maurras or even Jean-Marie Le Pen. For these people, faith is not a concern but Catholicism plays a fundamental role in Europe, as the dominant culture is considered as a secularised Christianity. Incidentally, we often used the expression ‘judeo-christianity’, although it does not make much sense. What was transferred from Judaism to Christianity was what the Church allowed, and it didn’t allow much. As, for the Church, one of the worst sins consisted in ‘judaising’ Catholicism. Therefore, the Church policed what could come out of the ghetto. During the nineteenth century, when Jewish culture was transferred into dominant culture – what is metaphorically called the ‘exit of the ghetto’, sometimes with a more concrete aspect – it marks the rise of the great Yiddish culture. Although it is directly influenced by religion, it is a secular culture.
Until the mid-twentieth century, this idea that the dominant was a secularised form of Christianity was self-evident. People could discuss about Europe’s Christian identity without raising questions concerning faith, belief, or the Church as an institution. When the founding fathers of Europe Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, De Gasperi or Adenauer, began its construction, two thirds of their group were composed of devoted Christians, the last one being occupied by social democrats. If they never enshrined Europe’s Christian identity into the founding texts, it is not because they were secularists, or because they were afraid of triggering hostile reactions, but because it was completely self-evident to them that European culture was a secularised Christianity. They could not see the point of stating the obvious.

The question was asked in explicit terms at the end of the 1990s, when certain MEPs made a proposal for mentioning Europe’s Christian roots into the preamble of the European Constitution. But why would it be necessary to state what is supposedly obvious? If it is indeed necessary, it is because it is no longer self-evident. Of course, for numerous supporters of this reference to the religious roots, it is a way to resist Islam and the entrance of Turkey into the European Union. Since then, the renewal of the identitarian proposal seems to be entirely a kind of incantation and reaction: it is made so as to say that Islam does not have its place in Europe. But for the Popes who defended this reference (John Paul II and Benedict XVI), it was far from being purely talismanic: for them, it was a matter of bringing back Europe to its roots, turning their backs on a dominant culture being totally secularised, what Pope John Paul II referred to as a “culture of death” (the expression is quoted 12 times in the encyclical Evangelium vitae of 1995). To summarise, the Catholic Church believes that a Christian identity cannot exist without returning to Christian values, while populists from the North of Europe as well as secularist activists on all sides of the political spectrum uphold – under the name of the Christian Europe – the values born from the process of secularism (women’s and LGBT rights). The question of identity raises questions of values. And this is precisely where things get complicated. How can we state that the European culture is a product of the secularisation of Christianity if the dominant values are not secularised Christian values anymore? What does it mean to invoke a Christian reference in today’s Europe?

In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council saw the triumph of the self-secularisation of the religious. God talks in a secular way (in line with the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Priests dress like everyone else (while waiting for the scheduled end of celibacy). Churches do not have steeples anymore, they blend into the modern urbanism (just like train stations). The transfer of the religious service to vernacular languages weakens the vigor of the Latin dogma; in the afterlife hell empties itself whilst in our everyday lives, “hell is other people”. This is the triumph of secularism in the way that Habermas calls the translation. As secularists no longer understand the sacred, and they find the faithful to be weird at best, if religious people want to live peacefully with their convictions inside a secularised society, they must translate them into secular language. The Church understood this translation very well: the fight against abortion was turned into a ‘fight for life’. The fight for the traditional model of family became the refusal of a ‘anthropological revolution in Western societies’. Divine norms of God’s will are not mentioned anymore. The Church does not present its opposition against abortion on the basis of a text from the Holy Scriptures but on behalf of the ‘right to life’. Regarding Vatican II, it is interesting to hear the position of traditionalists, hostile to the Council. It is not because they are related to the right or the extreme-right that their arguments are fallacious. In response to the weakening of some Latin formulations, some prayers are nowadays only authorised in Latin, such as the prayer for the conversion of the Jews for example (oremus et pro perfidis judaeis), in order to save appearances (as such, perfidus is not translated as perfidious).

While engaging with its aggiornamento, the Church asked itself how to develop ministry in a society that became religiously illiterate. The authors of the 1905 law on French secularism knew the Church perfectly well, and certain members were former seminaristians, such as Émile Combes. If they had been asked about the definition of transubstantiation, of communion, of the Holy Trinity, they would have all have answered instantly. The last French president who used to be fluent on the matter of religion was Mitterrand. The present is characterised by this general illiteracy. If you ask someone on the street what the Trinity represents, it is highly possible that they would answer ‘Mary, Jesus, and God’. Do not even try to ask what the Eucharist is. As we know, Quebecers use a religious vocabulary when they swear (for example, they say “tabernacle”). A communication campaign was put in place in the 2000s by the diocese of Montreal in order to increase religious literacy. On the highway, a gigantic billboard had written on it “tabernacle”; a little further, another one showed “Do you know what it is?” (and the ‘logical’ answer being “what about it? It’s just a swearing word!”). Finally, a third billboard unveiled the last words: “Ask your bishop” and then asked the viewer to type the name of an online website bearing the word ‘évêque’ (‘bishop’ in French). People continued to swear without understanding the very meaning of the words.

I think that the 1960s are a key period of time, comparable to the one following 1517 and the publication of the 95 theses. After Vatican II, which was the triumph of the religious self-secularisation, the encyclical Humanae Vitae of 1968 defended a maximalist position prohibiting any sexual practice not intended for procreation. Catholics did not understand this decision that seemed to come out of the blue. Secularists were outraged towards this reactionary Pope. Why, while the Church had persevered in putting in place a theology of modernity, would it insist so much about this moral norm? Because we find ourselves at a turning point, a fundamental rupture which took place during the 1960s: the new values founded on individualisation, on freedom and the promotion of desire were not secularised Christian values anymore. Individual freedom overcame the transcendent norms. There was not a natural moral law anymore. The Christian values needed to return in the form of explicit norms as they were not understood, they were no longer commonly shared. But nowadays, as we shall see, it is the culture itself that rephrases itself as a system of explicit norms. In that sense, the ‘#MeToo’ phenomenon is the Humanae Vitae of secularists who finally discover their mea maxima culpa fifty years late: sex and sexuality require a norm.

Until the 1960s, while the dominant culture still was a secularised form of Christianity, a reference to the natural law – elaborated by Saint Thomas Aquinas among others – implies that there is no need to be religious in order to be morally good. Humanity shares a natural moral law precisely founded on this natural law. In his Letter to the teachers, Jules Ferry explains that they will find by themselves the words that will not offend any “family’s patriarch”. For him, it is obvious that a certain form of moral is shared by everyone; he compares it to arithmetic in the way that it implies the same kind of self-evidence. The struggle between the Republican state and the Catholic Church was political, not moral. But in the 1960s, this reference to the natural moral law disappears: for the new rebellious generation, it only appears as ideological windowdressing for the conservative and patriarchal order. People also blame capitalism without realising its compatibility with moral relativism. It is not so much that secularisation progresses (as society was already largely secularised), but that the grey zones between faithful and unfaithful people disappear; namely, a consensus more or less important regarding fundamental questions: the definition of family, the rejection of homosexuality, the division of roles between the sexes, the asymmetry regarding the way people see sexualities, etc. Of course, the 1950s represented a decade of intense political conflict in France between Catholics and secularists; however, this conflict was not about the values themselves but rather about the control of civil society. In the Western part of France, for example, two societies existed: the parish with its patronage and the laic sphere. Each of them had their own social institutions, their football clubs, their balls (as the groups needed to reproduce themselves), their cinema-clubs, their summer camps, their conferences. Mixed marriages between the two were rare. Nevertheless, the two societies were not really disagreeing about the question of the values. For example, in 1967, when the campaign for legalising contraceptives was launched, Jeannette Vermeersch, Maurice Thorez’s wife and star of the Communist Party, delivered an important statement where she presented contraception as a bourgeois conspiracy aiming to lower the birthrate of the working class. In Italy, people could fight over political issues but a consensus hold about private familial questions.

This consensus breaks down during the 1960s and the grey zones disappear (logically taking down with them the ‘lefty catholics’). Let’s have a closer look at the evolution of the territorial parish. Baptism in a parish automatically gave the right to access the services of the Church. It was a right to get married in the very church that saw you come to life. But from the 1980s, young priests were asking couples if they were part of the ‘community’ since they do not see them during Sunday Mass. There is a clear shift from the parish to the community, namely a group of people who share the same beliefs and who do not hesitate to change of church on the basis of their ‘sensibility’. Non-diocesan fraternities of ‘pontifical right are developing (in Italy, the Focolari, Communion and Liberation, Sant’Egidio). Faith communities define an ‘outside’ and an ‘inside’. Agnostics and mildly spiritual persons disappear. Only the ‘real’ ones are accepted within the community, those who fully engage themselves. Otherwise, one needs his special ‘ticket’ in order to get in, that is a formation given by priests in order to instruct future spouses what a Christian marriage is, etc.

The cultural crisis and the return of the norm

We do not share and rely on the same values anymore. What Americans call the “Culture Wars” are not cultural wars per se (nothing Huntingtonian here) but rather represent a war about values. In the 1970s, the political debate ceased to talk about the economy or foreign policy in order to concentrate on the issue of the ‘values’. Nowadays, conflicts highlight essential concepts such as the definition of the family, the gender issue, abortion, and same-sex marriage: all these issues have become central to the political debate. Consequently, the debate on immigration and refugees also relies on the question of ‘values’ and identity just as the sexual assaults in Cologne on the 31st December 2016 showed us.

As of now, the dominant culture is not secularised Christianity. Here, I distance myself from Marcel Gauchet or Pierre Legendre. The Church very early became conscious of the fact that Western population did not share the same values anymore – and this is the point of Humanae Vitae. During the debate surrounding same-sex marriage, this was the first time in France that Catholics took to the streets as Catholics since 1904. In 1984, for the defense of the Free School, they did not protest as Catholics and were far from alone in the streets. Since Cardinal Lavigerie’s Toast of Algiers in 1890, the episcopate, like the papacy, had always refused that French Catholics should organise themselves as a political party. Today, “Sens Commun” (“Common Sense”) is both an innovation and a rupture.

Nowadays, communities of faith have turned in on themselves. They consider that the world that surrounds them is not secular but profane, or even pagan. At the same time, the episcopate and the Vatican refuse to draw the necessary conclusions and seek to revise the Great Rupture. The last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, were the popes of the Reconquest: they considered that the dominant culture was a “culture of death” but that life would come out from the examination of its roots. In this way, John Paul II beseeched French Catholics by addressing this famous question: “France, what have you done with your baptism?” Benedict XVI was also constantly making reference to Christian roots. But for both of them, Christianity is not an identity, it is a faith. In order to restore its Christianity to the European culture, they think it is necessary to come back to the concept of faith or, at least, that it is necessary that a sufficient part of the population does so in order to reinvigorate the European soul.

It is clearly failing. Statistics about the attendance to World Youth Day (started in 1983) seem pretty encouraging as the participation keeps growing. But at the same time, fewer and fewer young men enter the seminary. It can mean two things: either the youth prefer to see the Pope rather than embracing the path of priesthood, or they seek for something different when they enter in contact with the Pope. Young people experience something great, a flash of spirituality, then come back to normal life while keeping contact to someone they might have met over there…

In fact, people who hold on to their faith and call themselves believers – specifically the ones we call ‘born-again’ and the converted – are not pursuing a cultural quest. What is of interest for them is not culture, nor the institutionalisation of the religious. It is an individual quest, possibly individualistic, between peers.

This fact goes hand in hand with the deculturation of the religious that I have described in La Sainte Ignorance. While the dominant culture is religiously illiterate, communities of faith have an issue with the culture which appears to them more pagan than profane and, as a result, threatening. Sometimes, then, some even forbid it, just like certain American evangelist high schools ban films in general, or like Lubavitch communities that prohibit the Internet. But it is very difficult to reconstitute a religious culture as people in faithful communities are uninterested in culture for its own sake. The Catholic Church organises ‘pastorals’ for various categories, sometimes with very baroque attempts to reconnect it to its very culture it dropped down (for example, the Christian rock). Others try ‘holy watery’ conservative novels, which are very popular among islamists in Turkey, where everything ends well (meaning, with a lot of children). One can see that on the matter of cultural level there is clearly a problem of adequacy.
Beyond the religious crisis lies a cultural crisis. If we still assume that the 1960s represents the turning point, everything begins in California: in this American state the hippie phenomenon as well as charismatic evangelical movements emerge. Nowadays, it is possible that everything converges once again over there. For the great paradox of the sexual liberation is not that it results in a reactionary ending but, instead, that it pleads for a punctilious normativity of sexual behavior coupled with a requirement for transparency of privacy. The latter is accentuated by the use of social media but it is mainly focused on a more general search for normativity, which requires constant explanation of itself.

Moral values return in the guise of the norm. There hardly exists a more normed place than California, which scrutinises everything from the height of grass to the ‘sexual gesture’. The whole culture allegedly called ‘of liberation’ finishes in an explosion of normativity. This is no traditional reactionary effect, as it is performed by exactly the same people. Those who advocated for sexual and cultural liberation in the 1960s are the ones who are involved in the #MeToo movement (either on the side of the offenders or on the one of the new ruler-makers). The new generation of victims does not ask for the return of moral conservatism but for the ability to standardise the sexual liberation. In that sense, it is impossible to talk about ‘puritanism’ except in a metaphorical way. Normativity against sexual harassment is precisely made in the name of the values of 1968, feminism and gender equality. It answers a real problem with a system of explicit norms. In American schools, for example, boys are given courses on how to behave with girls – and the opposite does not exist, except if it includes self-defense sessions. The point of all this is to enunciate norms for interaction. What matters is that everything must be explicit. Implicit and ambiguous grey zones disappear. Some like to accuse american puritanism, which represents an ideal scapegoat for many people. But I do think that this movement, although it first appeared in the USA, is in fact a more global symptom.

The norm is explicit while the value is implicit. Of course, one can translate values into norms. For example, one can translate the value of honour into a code of honour. Every culture has invented various codes for its own values. However, a need for absolute explicitness leaves no room for implicitness. Nowadays, everything needs to be explicitly stated and what is not appears to be suspect. The very term ‘unspoken’ is devalued thus provoking a crisis of the psychoanalytic discourse as it defines a certain irreducibility of this ‘unspoken’ which is now considered to be reactionary and patriarchal. The profound crisis of the culture is bound to the fact that we share less and less implicitly, although everything must be said and normed. It is no accident that this same imperative also attacks freedom of religion. In January 2018, the seal of confession was abolished by the Australian Parliament, and the circumcision of children for religious reasons is being seriously challenged in the Northern part of Europe as it does not rely on the child’s explicit consent.

At the same time, all fundamentalisms are based on a form of code, from Salafism to any kind of extreme evangelicalism. Although they appeal to an emotional register, they also codify it: one cannot go into a trance as one wants or when one wants. The codification of the emotional, from emoticons to great televised confessions, is a part of this imperative of explicit normativity.

The re-socialising of religion

Our societies react with an anguish provoked by the religious failure to conform to such codes, and therefore with a desire to codify the religious. People hate fundamentalism but pretend that everything related to religion is fundamentalist, in order at least to make religion appear clear and explicit. Therefore, religion is taken ‘literally’ (hence the fight over the Quranic verses about jihad or the Jewish people). People seek scandalous verses just like one would find a controversial tweet. Yet, to take the text in its literal, strict form is precisely the fundamentalist approach. In today’s debates, it is obvious that rhetorical style has triumphed over literary or philosophical substance.

Some think Sufism or spiritualism should be promoted. But modern states are unable to promote any kind of spirituality whatsoever. This is a structural fact: a State products norms and not values, which can only arise from a common culture. All European countries are talking at the same time about ‘European values’. Germany and Holland ask people who require visas to fill in surveys in their consulates in order to verify their acceptance of these values. In Holland, a photo of a topless woman is shown to the applicants who are then asked if it shocks them. If the answer is ‘yes’, the applicants are considered not to be in agreement with the Dutch culture. In Germany, applicants are asked if naturism is a ‘German value’. Luckily, Joseph Ratzinger never had to ask for a German visa! We speak about a Christian Europe without being able to move beyond an à la carte approach to what this means: the Christian identity is perceived and represented as a caricature of Christianity. We either enshrine within the European values what the Catholic church has fought (sexual freedom, equality between man and woman, same-sex marriage) or we rather give up the Christian reference.

This situation is marked by a form of total hypocrisy. Since the 1960s, none of the Christian values are to be found under the banner of ‘Christian identity’. Instead, new values are installed. It is remarquable, for instance, that populist parties in Europe are practically not Christian at all anymore. Some have abandoned the reference to the Christian roots, such as Geet Wilders’s party in Holland, which proudly fly the colours of 1968’s values. During a tour in Texas in front of local radicals, he is fervently cheered when he says that the issue with Muslims is that they refuse to acknowledge rights for homosexuals. This is not exactly how these Texans themselves approached Muslim people. The evolution of Marine Le Pen is equally interesting: although she inherited of a party which explicitly used to defend the Christian identity of Europe, Marine Le Pen decided to foreground secularism as the litmus-test of French identity. When she offers to defend churches, it is by transforming them into historical monuments, which perfectly serves their burial. In a Catholic country such as Italy, the Lega Nord (Northern League) is in a permanent conflict with the archbishop of Milan, who cannot accept xenophobia erected as a political principle. In Poland, the party Prawo i Sprawiedliwo (Law and Justice), which reclaims its Christian roots, organised ceremonial border closures with rosaries. The archbishop of Warsaw had to protest strongly in order to forbid priests to participate in these.
In Italy, the political and social situation in the 1950s was greatly divided, just like in France, between a strong Communist Party and a Christian Democracy, and two different civil societies – although the country recorded a bit more intermarriage than in France. There often used to be crucifixes in classrooms and a communist deputy would never have asked to have them removed. It took an atheist Finnish woman, worried about the harmful influence of the crucifix upon her son, to see the case being dealt by the European Court of Human Rights, which usually dislikes engaging with religious matters. The Court prefers kicking the ball out of touch by referring to the subsidiarity principle in order to leave the issue of religion being taken care of by the States. However, this does not work anymore precisely because these issues have gone global. Therefore, in order to defend the presence of crucifixes, the Italian government’s lawyers defined it as a national symbol of the Italian culture, which has nothing to do with faith. For the Italian government, the crucifix is essentially a cultural piece of wood. The State won but the bishops rightfully worried about this assimilation of a cultural symbol into a sort of cultural gadget. The crucifix case was won at the cost of a secularisation of religion. Thus, the choice is either to sacrifice the religion in order to be a part of the culture, or to be part of the religion by excluding the culture. The acculturation of the crucifix was at the expense of the religion.

I am looking forward to the next case that will soon be presented to the European Court in Strasbourg regarding the banning of minarets in Switzerland. The Swiss government, although officially against this ban, had to defend the result of the national vote in Strasbourg and used a skillful diplomacy for this purpose. The Swiss representatives argued that the ban was not against the Muslim community’s religious freedom, as minarets lie in the cultural field. Indeed, minarets did not exist at the time of Muhammad, were directly inspired by churches steeples, and appeared in various forms according to different regions; moreover, they are in no way necessary to the religious practice per se. All the ritual requirements of religion can be met without a minaret, and mosques without a minaret are not affected by the ban. The argument of the Swiss government merely contributes to de-culturalise traditional Islam. Although it is forbidden to build Turkish mosques in Switzerland, it is possible to build Swiss mosques (with a clock tower, for example). Moreover, only four mosques with minarets were already erected in Switzerland as Saudi or Turkish embassies, patrons of the said buildings, requested mosques similar to those of their country of origin.
Thus, judicial practices contribute to accentuate the separation between politics and religion, either by the culturalisation of the latter in order to make it disappear, of by its de-culturalisation so that only the element of belief remains.
Finally, we can evoke the case of the Frankfurt court’s prohibition of circumcision (2013), which was immediately made obsolete by a law of the German parliament explicitly authorising circumcision. This is, so to speak, a sort of legislative coup. If a law had to be passed soon after it, it was because the Frankfurt court’s argument was very consistent. Since the court cannot judge the beliefs, it only judges the conflicts between rights. The protection of the child, the protection of the bodily integrity and the freedom of conscience are essential rights, on behalf of which the court decided to prohibit circumcision. According to Frankfurt’s final decision, circumcision is described as a violation of bodily integrity, an indelible mark of religious affiliation imposed for life on a child who cannot refuse it, even if, once an adult, he decides to leave it.

The court proposed not to impose circumcision until the age of eighteen, and asks parents to leave religious freedom to their children. But what then becomes of transmission? This case leads to a definition of religion explicitly cut off from all form or culture. Following this approach, religion cannot be transmitted, but is merely a personal choice. It would imply raising children in the strictest neutrality so as to give them, once they reached their legal majority, the same kind of choice as choosing a bank. The judgment was blocked by the Bundestag’s new law. If it had to come to that, it is because the court’s decision was sound from the legal point of view and could have passed the Constitutional Court stage.

In Denmark, ritual slaughter is forbidden because animal rights now take precedence over religious freedom, according to the Minister of Justice. It boils down to making religious freedom a freedom like any other, but on a minor level. Yet, religious freedom is very a specific one.

The French law of 1905, for example, is neither a law on religion, nor on faith, nor on belief or private practice. It is a law on the exercise of worship, that is, on the public practice of religion. If we once again ask people in the street about the definition of secularism, they will invariably answer that it means that religion is a private matter. On the contrary, this law sets the organisation of religious practice in public sphere under the control of the State, which decides on the place of religion and does not dismiss its importance in society. For example, street prayers are not illegal in France, otherwise the police would have arrested those who have done it. It is only when it is organised as an event on public roads that it must be declared to the municipal services. But no law forbids the Archbishop of Paris to organise Stations of the Cross from Notre Dame to Montmartre.

Moreover, the legal instruments at our disposal to think about religion are all instruments that secularise it. The law states, for example, that no one can be discriminated against according to race, sex, or religion. Religion is there as part of the identity, but not at all as a practice. The freedom to think is related to the one of having “political, philosophical and religious” opinions. But for a believer, faith is more than an opinion. Opinions can be negotiated, not faith.

Because of this permanent separation between culture and religion, which has returned as a ‘pure’ form, the latter then appears as an oddity or, at worst, as fanaticism. Thus, the effort consists in secularising it. When the police investigates a porter candidate for the security badge in Roissy airport, as statistics show that most of them, being inhabitants of Seine-Saint-Denis, are of Muslim origin, one of the first questions concerns religious practice. The best way to cope safely with the question is to spontaneously affirm that you drink alcohol (this is a rare case where drinking facilitates hiring).

The intensity of the religious practice is seen as a sign of radicalisation (as also shown by the measures for detecting extremists as advanced by the French government in February 2018). But an intense religious practice does not come as a surprise for some believers, regardless of their religion (Luther was neither a liberal nor a simple intellectual mentor). Each religion tries to set up systems and institutions that can manage this intensity or radicality. Catholics have monasteries, a recognised and respected institution. Without any progeny, monks simplify the problem. But Salafists do not have monasteries, they live with their families, and preach in the streets, which precipitates of course the ‘scandalous’ aspect of the issue, namely the excessive visibility of the religion (which we find also with the case of the peaceful Lubavitchers).

In order that religion’s visibility alone does not appear as a provocation, the solution would be to ensure the re-culturation and the re-socialisation of religion. In France, the general public does not want this and, at every crisis, religion is expelled a bit further out of the public sphere. Last year, the presence of a burkini on a beach triggered a general ban of this garment in the name of Counter Terrorism (but remember that bad taste is not a crime). The more religion is expelled, the more it is drastically given to the radicals. Thus, beyond any legitimate questions about Islam that we can have, we first need to rethink the place of religion in our Western European societies, and then deal with the question of Islam starting this view of religion.

What conclusions can we draw for Europe ? The rupture between religion and the dominant culture is present everywhere under various forms. It ranges from the process of absolute self-secularisation of religion in Lutheran countries to the last cut ties between the Church and the State in traditional Catholic countries. In the Scandinavian countries, the Evangelical Lutheran Church (recognised as a State religion) is now obliged to conduct religious ceremony in the case of same-sex marriages, because the law of Parliament is enforced on the Church, which means that the absence of separation between the official religion and the State has killed former (or, rather, it has driven religion out of the public towards the private sphere, as a pastor can, on an individual basis, ask to be exempted from blessing a same-sex marriage). Therefore, legal secularism is not a necessary condition for the completion of the secularisation process. This statement confirms my original thesis that every state is secular… and secularises religion. In Catholic countries, the Church loses its privileged relationship with the State while possessing no political relays (for example, it is the Spanish political right that has voted for the legalisation of same-sex marriage). Christian democracy has disappeared (partly by attrition, and partly because the Church, through Pope John Paul II, no longer wanted an intermediary party, this political incarnation of the ‘grey zone’ we mentioned above). In contrast, the influence of the Church is developed through international associations of believers of pontifical right, which, as we have seen, are not territorial and not subject to the control of the bishop. Even in countries as deeply Catholic as Italy, the dominant Church is re-establishing itself as a community of faith and tends to live more and more as a minority, a phenomenon accentuated by the fact that the conservative and populist right has ceased to refer to Catholicism only to rely on a vague ‘Christian identity’ that has nothing to do with the values being ​​upheld by the Pope.

Therefore, this is the end of the diversity proper to the specific status of religion in each European country, as it has been gradually established in the wake of the Peace of Westphalia. The issues linked to the place of the religion converge everywhere but each country continues to manage them from a ‘traditional’ political imagination (in the sense of a reconstructed tradition): secularism in France, catholicity in Italy and Poland (where it is rebuilt as a State ideology), etc. But none of these nostalgias exacerbated by populism can manage the demand of religion, regarding faith, as expressed by individuals who join ‘communities of faith’ organised accordingly to other values ​​(Christian fraternities, Salafists, Haredims), or who might be tempted by forms of suicidal nihilism.

The problem of Europe nowadays is to promote not the expulsion of religion to the private sphere, but rather its re-socialisation and re-culturation.

Translated and edited from French by Lola Salem