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The Great God Divide: European Secularism and American Religiosity

Speaker: George Weigel, Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center; author, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics without God
Presider: Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
February 22, 2006
Council on Foreign Relations Washington, DC


Council on Foreign Relations

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD:  (In progress)—and I should tell you that both George and I were talking before the meeting; we decided we don’t like the word “religiosity.”  I hope we can do better.  To me, it has the connotation – it’s like grandeur is a good thing, grandiosity is a bad thing.  And maybe we need a neutral term here.

But—and also I think George and I agree that the line does not exactly run between a European secularism and an American religiosity or religieur, if one prefers, but actually there’s a line that, you know, in both—on both sides of the Atlantic, both points of view have a representation.

Anyway, I’d like to welcome you to the meeting.  This is part of the council series on religion and foreign policy, a series of meetings that I guess has been going on for all of this year and has covered a variety of topics—Islam, has covered some issues in American evangelicalism, and today we’re turning to a point of view that has its roots, certainly, in a Catholic theological background, but I think has meaning and interest far beyond it.

George Weigel, who is the star of the show today, is a well-known writer.  I won’t bother you with his biography because, in accordance with council custom, we have a biography included in your packet.

Please remember to turn off your cell phones, BlackBerrys and other wireless devices.  I was once at a council meeting in New York with Neil Ferguson, and when I made that remark, Neil started sternly lecturing everybody about what a terrible, rude thing it was to have your cell phone go off in the middle of a meeting and how glad he was I made that point.  Twenty minutes later, I was delighted when his cell phone rang.  (Laughter.)  So please avoid such a fate today.

This meeting is on the record.  The format of the meeting will be that, for about the first 20, 30 minutes, George and I will have a conversation with each other where I’ll basically be trying to draw him out and present to you the lineaments of his thinking on some topics.  And in the second half of the meeting is Q&A, and you’ll have a chance to focus the conversation and the questions as you go.

George has written many books.  The most recent one I have here, “The Cube and the Cathedral:  Europe, America and Politics Without God.”  It’s been widely reviewed.  I recommend it to you all.  I’ve read it myself.  It’s an excellent and very thought-provoking book.  And I’d like to start by asking you maybe to clarify for the audience or say a little bit about it.

You make a big difference, it seems—a big distinction between two topics of modernism and their impact on the relations between modernity and Christianity specifically, but I think in general maybe any form of religion.  And there’s sort of a 1688/1776 modernity and a 1789 modernity.  Do you want to explain what you mean by those things?

GEORGE WEIGEL:  I will.  Let me begin by thanking you, Walter, for coming down and chairing this, and thanking Nancy and the council for making this possible.  I suspect we wouldn’t have been here 20 years ago.  This is a set of questions that simply was not on most of our radar screens, but it perhaps suggests the insight, since we have the French embassy here, of Andre Malraux, who famously said that “The 21st century will be religious or it will not be.”

Well, it’s manifestly religious.  Religion is a dynamic force for good and ill in world affairs.  And the question is how we will be religious and how we will be religious in a world of an infinity of interconnections.

To Walter’s question about different modernities, I think of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book of a year or two ago, “Three Roads to Modernity,” a fine piece of historical writing, in which she made a rather sharp distinction between the English and Scottish enlightenments, on the one hand, and the French enlightenment on the other.

The British enlightenments, the English and Scottish enlightenments, as she presents them—this makes a great deal of sense to me—were in some sense in continuity with the Christian history of the West, although they grew out of contentions within the Christian history of the West, and gave birth in 1688 and 1776 to new political forms and experiences that were not self-consciously over against that which came before but understood themselves as refinements—perfections, if you will—attempts at perfecting what had come before.

Seventeen eighty-nine, as Dr. Himmelfarb presents it, a product of the French enlightenment that was quite different, that consciously understood itself to be over against the Ancien regime in all of its forms, but particularly its religious form and particularly the enormous role of the church in state affairs.

What I suggest in this book is that that over-against has become virtually a matter of policy in the emerging EU  If one looks at this quite remarkable debate over the mere preamble to the European constitutional treaty, a debate which got virtually no attention on this side of the Atlantic but chewed up enormous amounts of op-ed space and energy in Europe, the question was, shall Christianity be mentioned in the preamble as one of the sources of contemporary European civilization and its commitments to human rights, the rule of law, tolerance, civil societies, et cetera?

And the draft preamble to the constitution simply ignored all of that, citing the classical heritage of Europe, the enlightenment heritage, and modern thought, as if nothing of consequence for contemporary European civilization had happened between, roughly speaking, Marcus Aurelius and Descartes.

This is a curious view of history, but I think it was a curious view of history that had a political program and an idea behind it, and that was the idea that the only European public space, save for pluralism, was a thoroughly secularized and indeed de-Christianized public space.  And the debate over the preamble was, in a sense, a stalking horse for that larger question of what is the role of religiously-informed moral argument in public life.  That in itself, it seems to me, is a playing out of this debate between the different roads to modernity that you describe.

MEAD:  Well, the politics of it, I think, are interesting, and not just in the light of the preamble to the European constitution, because one can look at two models of relationship of, let’s say, faith and state rather than church and state, because that gets a little simplistic, in the world.

One of them more or less comes out of the 1789 view, and that would be the kind of lay state that the French republic set up.  Ataturk’s secularization in Turkey, it seems to me, is very much of a piece with this kind of 1789 modernism; the Mexican revolution.

It’s a fairly classic form where religion—the power of religion is something that the supporters of a lay democratic state see as necessary to keep under limits in order to secure the safety, independence and democracy of the state, while in this Anglo-American tradition, which is by and large where this is restricted, the state is sort of seen as more benevolently neutral toward all forms of religion rather than coldly neutral to them.  Is that a—

WEIGEL:  I think that’s a fair distinction.  And I think in the present circumstance, we’re beyond questions of cold neutrality and into a kind of imposed secularism as the house ideology, if you will, of the emerging EU

This is a very interesting phenomenon to me in that it takes place—it took place, this debate over the constitution and all that that implied, it took place less than 50 years after another ‘89, in this case 1989, where, in a complex of forces that brought about what we now call the revolution of 1989, religious conviction, consciences set afire by religious conviction, consciences set afire to the point where they could create new forms of non-violent resistance to totalitarianism, manifestly played a significant role in the collapse of the communist project in Europe.

When I first proposed that idea in the early 1990s, it was received somewhat roughly, perhaps.  But I note with some interest that in John Lewis Gaddis’s “New History of the Cold War,” which I just read last week, he makes the claim—and he has no particular dog in this fight—that the beginning of the end for European communism came precisely where I had identified it; namely, in June 1979 with the return of the late Pope John Paul II to Poland and the igniting of the revolution of conscience throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

So why are we having this somewhat old and tattered argument about what some have called in our country the naked public square, in a public space in Europe that is what it is today, a Europe reconstituted without an iron curtain, without an enormous political divide, precisely in part because of the capacity of religious conviction not to run the state but to foster the kind of culture that can create the kind of people who can make democratic politics work?

MEAD:  I think one of the most controversial and, therefore, obviously also most interesting directions that you take this last book and some of the other writing is you argue that this 1979 dogmatic modernity, if one wants to call it that, of totalizing modernity is really at the root of a lot of the social problems that Europe faces today, and then, going beyond that, is at the root of some of the tensions in U.S.-European relations.  Do you want to expand on that for the folks?

WEIGEL:  I came to this book, or at least to the set of thoughts that led to this book, several years ago.  The immediate trigger was reading a book that I’m sure we’ve all read, Bob Kagan’s book “Of Paradise and Power,” trying to understand why Europe and America seem to see the world so differently today.

And while that was an interesting analysis, it seemed to me not to drive the argument deep enough into the sub-soil of culture, if you will, where so much of politics is formed.  But in an even slightly longer autobiographical retrospect, my thinking about all of this began in 1997 when I was in Paris for the World Youth Day, an enormous gathering of almost a million Catholic young people from all around the world.  I was in the process of preparing the biography of John Paul II at that point and thought I’d better see one of these things up close and personal.

I hadn’t been in Paris in almost 35 years at that point.  So I went to see the Great Arch of La Defense, President Mitterrand’s monument to the bicentennial of 1789.  It’s the cube on the front of this book.  I’m sure many of you have seen it.  It’s an enormous, colossal marble, Carrara marble cube, at the west end of the axis that runs along the Champs Elysees, a quite striking piece of contemporary design.

And as I was wandering around the top of it, which has a spectacular view of that wonderful city, I was reading some of the guidebooks, all of which bragged that you could fit the Cathedral of Notre Dame—towers, spire and all—inside the Great Arch of La Defense.

And that put a question in my head which brewed for a number of years, and that is the question, which culture would better—which culture could give a better account of its commitments to the rights of men, which was being memorialized here, the culture that produced this rational, striking, but essentially featureless cube, or the more complicated culture that had produced gargoyles and flying buttresses and crosses and the holy unsameness, if you will, of Notre Dame.  And that’s the metaphor that I’ve been working with throughout.

It’s not, in a sense, a question of either/or.  It’s a question of what a society loses when it completely and self-consciously cuts itself off from those civilizing and civilizational roots, represented in this case by the cathedral, and attempts something that I think is quite unprecedented in human history; namely, the creation of democratic political community on an essentially religiously featureless social and cultural terrain.  I don’t think that’s ever been attempted before, and it’s an interesting project.  But whether it works is, of course, the question before the house.

MEAD:  And do you think it does work?  And, if not, why not?

WEIGEL:  I don’t think it can.  I mean, I think any attempt at creating new forms of political community that simply throws over the traces of the past, that severs one’s roots to a cultural and civilizational heritage, is a dubious project to begin with.

I’m also struck, and have been struck, in the course of thinking through what became this book, about some of the social impacts, not simply of Europe’s advancing secularization over the past century and a half, but of what one might call a deliberate de-Christianization, its claim that the God of the Bible is, in fact, the enemy of human freedom and has to be thrown overboard in order to create genuinely civil, tolerant, free societies.

This seems to have had some interesting results in European society.  Is there no linkage at all between this radical de-Christianization, for example, and Europe’s remarkable demographics at the moment, which are beginning to get more and more attention, as we see what the results of generation after generation of below-replacement-level birth rates are?

This is a big question, it seems to me.  What is happening in a culture, in a civilization, which, at a moment when it is healthier, wealthier and more secure than ever before in its history, is declining, seemingly deliberately as a matter of choice, to create the human future in the most elemental sense of creating a future—namely, creating successor generations who can carry on that civilizational project?

We’re all aware, I’m sure, in the policy world of some of the policy implications of contemporary European demographics—the simple fiscal impossibility of maintaining womb-to-tomb welfare states, generously funded state health care systems, when you have a shrinking number of workers and an increasing, rapidly increasing number of retirees.

But I’m trying to push to some deeper questions about what I call in this book civilizational morale.  Has something been lost in Europe’s sense of self-confidence, in its sense of the European project, the project of the West, as something worth giving an account of and defending?  Those are some of the questions that I think are posed by the things we’ve been talking about here.

MEAD:  I think a lot of defenders of the cube approach would argue that Europe’s long history of wars of religion and wars of ideology make the kind of break with the past not only sort of maybe a good thing on its own terms, but just a simple necessity; that if Europeans can’t put behind them these questions that have divided them into hostile camps for centuries, they won’t be able to build a united Europe or a democratic Europe.  So there’s a very stark difference in the historical—

WEIGEL:  But this seems to me, at least in a pan-European sense, Walter, a very new phenomenon.  What we call today the EU began, as we all know, in the late 1940s and early 1950s with the coal and steel community, the common market, et cetera.

Who were the key figures in reaching the agreement that ended, in effect, the thousand-year conflict between the west Francs and the east Francs, France and Germany, to come together in a new European political-civilizational configuration?

Well, it was Robert Schuman and Jide (ph) de Gasperi; it was Konrad Adenauer, all of whom consciously understood themselves as Christian statesmen reaching back into the Christian roots of the European civilizational heritage to create something new and nobler after the wreckage of the mid-20th century.

So the notion—it would have come as a complete incomprehensibility to the founding triad of the EU project, the claim so urgently pressed during that debate on the constitutional preamble, that the only Europe public space imaginable that was safe for pluralism and democracy was a public space scoured of religiously-informed moral judgment.

Now, that’s the second time I’ve used that phrase.  Let me unpack that.  What I mean by that is not a formal role on some medieval or renaissance model for the churches in the business of governing democracies.  I mean the presence in the public square of religiously-informed moral argument and the understanding that genuine tolerance does not mean avoiding differences as if differences made no difference, but in fact engaging those differences with civility and respect, because it’s understood that God wills that we be tolerant of those who have a different understanding of the will of God than we do.

Now, that, it seems to me, what I’ve just described, is the view that Schuman and Adenauer and de Gasperi brought to the project of the reinventing of Europe after the catastrophe of the mid-20th century.  Somehow that has gotten lost.  That idea has gotten lost.

We’ve been talking about various dates here.  One might want to ask the question, what did the experience of 1968 do to that?  Nineteen sixty-eight was a tough year all over the West, but it was experienced differently here than in Europe, where I think there was a sense of the genuine fracture with the civilizational past.  And perhaps that’s part of what’s playing out here today as well.

MEAD:  Well, to bring it into a practical realm, I think to some degree, if you look at—obviously it’s not universally true, but the people who were talking in the European debate, saying, “We need to stress the Christian roots of modern Europe,” tend to oppose Turkish entry into the EU  And, you know, does this view of Europe as a Christian civilization, does it complicate or compromise or perhaps even block the idea of that?

And then how do you integrate the idea that Europe’s central social task may be to integrate Muslim immigrants on a large scale?  How do you work all that stuff out?  Doesn’t it mean you need more of a cube, because there are a lot of people around who really hate the cathedral?

WEIGEL:  (Laughs.)  Let me just change a verb here, if I may.  I don’t think it was a question so much of stressing Europe’s Christian roots as simply acknowledging the formation of modern democratic societies is obviously a complex process in which validly secular thought has had a significant role.

To say that it has had the only role is, to my mind, both a falsification of intellectual history and cultural history and it is a prescription for a kind of future which is, in fact, an intolerant future, because it says certain people’s deepest convictions have no place in the ordering of public life.

The Turkish question is one, obviously, for the EU to sort out.  It is, I think, true that those who understand the EU simply as an arrangement for economic and some political and perhaps some defense and foreign-policy purposes are more inclined to see Turkey—which, after all, has been in most respects a faithful NATO ally and participant in the North Atlantic alliance—brought within the tent of the new Europe.

Those who have raised questions about this, including prior to his election this past April as pope, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, have in effect said, “If we go this route, then we are saying that this is not a project that, in fact, emerges as de Gasperi, Schuman and Adenauer imagined it, out of the classic Judeo-Christian civilizational enterprise called Europe.  This is a set of contemporary political and economic arrangements that is going to be necessarily built on an extremely thin cultural foundation.”

Now, I get into this – that’s not an argument that it’s my business to sell.  I once flippantly said that perhaps the whole argument would change if the Turks agreed to change the name back to Constantinople.  (Laughter.)  I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.  And it does raise important questions, as you said, about Europe’s capacity and the American capacity to validate a form of Islam that can sustain democratic polity, as the Turks have managed to do with some difficulties over the last several decades.

But the deeper question here, I think, is the question of tolerance and the roots of tolerance.  If the only account that contemporary Europeans can give of their commitment to toleration, social pluralism, the robust interchange of conviction, is that “We’re tolerant because it works better, because it’s less sloppy than knocking heads constantly,” that, it seems to me, is a rather thin foundation on which to sustain commitments to tolerance when, as we know from the experience of London in July, France this past fall, et cetera, things get really edgy.  And those edges have profound religious and cultural roots to them.

The point that the late pope, John Paul II, was making during this debate on the preamble was really a point about the roots of tolerance.  Isn’t it a more secure foundation for pluralism, civility, all the things that we understand by civil society, when people believe and are prepared to put their lives behind the conviction that God wills us to be tolerant of those who have different conceptions of the will of God or different understandings of Christian doctrine, et cetera?

You mentioned the European wars of religion.  This always and inevitably comes up in these discussions, and with reason, and with perfectly good reason.

MEAD:  And I could have sharpened it by talking about the long-time Catholic opposition to the idea of tolerance as a matter of principle.

WEIGEL:  Right.  But that—

MEAD:  And it—(inaudible)—on the table a little (bit ?).

WEIGEL:  It is.  But the second Vatican Council marked a genuine development of social doctrine on the part of the Catholic Church which I believe transformed the Catholic Church from—this is not actually my analysis; it was Michael Howard, the British historian, who said to me once, “The second Vatican Council transformed the Catholic Church from the last bastion of the Ancien regime to the greatest institutional defender of basic human rights at work in the world.”  That’s a rather dramatic transformation.

But here, let’s just go back to 1648, another golden date, as my high-school history teacher used to call them.  Most of us, observing what we might call the Whig view of history as youngsters, were taught that 1648 was a great triumph in which it was finally—in which a way to stop this religiously-grounded bloodletting was finally arrived at through the principle of cuius regio eius religio; that the religion of the prince would be the religion of the state.

And I must say, I never really thought about that very critically until I started seriously hanging out in Poland right after 1989 and started writing about the transformation of Central and Eastern Europe and then during the biography of John Paul II.

Poles have a very different view of 1648.  There were no wars of religion in Poland.  There were lots of Protestants in Poland, interestingly enough.  Nobody remembers that.  Most of the Polish gentry class became Lutheran for a substantial period of time.  But there were no wars of religion in Poland.  There was no coercive state enforcement of religious orthodoxy.

And to many Poles, who look at history from literally a different angle than we do, not viewed from the Atlantic looking east but from, if you will, the (vestigial ?) of looking west, 1648 was the first moment in the emergence, in their view, of what eventually became totalitarianism.  This is the first time state power was deployed in a massive way to coerce consciences and to enforce a state-sanctioned ideology.

That is perhaps a too-simple view from that angle, as the Whig view of history is from our western angle.  But it’s something we never heard.  And it’s something worth thinking about, it seems to me.

MEAD:  All right.  Well, we have been ranging pretty deeply into golden dates and the past, but I hope showing that there is some relevance to some of these historical events and developments to things that we are concerned about today.

But now I’d like to throw the event open for questions and discussion.  Please remember, in the council style, to wait until you get the microphone and then to identify yourself and your organization before you ask your question.  And I guess let’s try to keep them as questions rather than as interventions so that more people will get a chance to participate.

Yes, back there; the lady on the aisle.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Francine Kiefer from the Christian Science Monitor.  There was a lot of discussion about tolerance, and I wondered whether you have identified any countries or areas in Europe that you feel are successfully or at least moving in the direction of tolerance of Muslims or, dare we say, even integration of Muslims in their society?

WEIGEL:  Several years ago, I might have said the United Kingdom.  But facts have rather challenged that view.  This is a very, very tough business.  I don’t think one can point to a European country where there has been a thorough-going and successful assimilation of Islamic immigrant populations.

Now, I mean, one might say that’s an impossibly high standard.  One could look at Italy and perhaps see a different circumstance than we see in France, the Netherlands, the U.K. or Germany.  But I’m not sure that one could point to that right now.

We have to remember that these immigrant populations are at best in their second or third generations.  But the bad news seems to me—and here the British example, I think, is the—or, I mean, it’s not clear to me that the unpleasantness in France this past fall should be attributed entirely to Islamic radicalism, perhaps even primarily to that.  But just stick with the British 7/7, July 7th.

The bad news is that these were second- and third-generation people.  These were citizens of the United Kingdom who had been full beneficiaries of British education, health care, social service, et cetera, and who seemed to have formed not an attachment to their country of passport but a profound contempt, not only for its politics but for its culture.

This is a very, very worrisome business, it seems to me.  And so I think it’s hard to point to a place where that has, in fact, taken place successfully.  I think one has to look at other places in the world to see forms of Islam that seem more or less capable of functioning within a pluralistic social and political environment.

Malaysia is no poster child for democratic process in its full sense, but there’s something different maybe afoot there.  Indonesia has had its problems, but something different may be afoot there.  It may be, when one disentangles Islamic theology, the Islamic idea of society from a particular passion for the Arab-Islamic world, that different forms of Islam can emerge.

But this is one of these areas where I think ultimately—and this sounds like professional special pleading; I don’t mean it that way—I think the ultimate questions are theological.  However badly Christian churches live this, the notion that one should render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, a formulation which puts limits on what ought to be rendered unto Caesar, puts profound limits on what ought to be rendered unto Caesar.  That is deeply embedded in the—what we might call the deep structure of a Christian construal of the world, of a Christian theological understanding.

There is nothing that I’m aware of that is as deeply rooted in an Islamic understanding of God’s intentions for the world.  And one of the huge questions for the 21st century is whether reformist Muslim legal scholars, religious leaders, intellectuals, activists can tease out of the complexities of Islamic tradition a genuinely Islamic case for, if not religious freedom in the full sense in which we understand the term, then at least for the next several hundred years religious tolerance, in the hope that some Islamic theory of religious freedom may emerge out of that.

I think the hope in some parts of, dare I say, our State Department, that the answer to these civilizational issues is to transform 1.2 billion Muslims into good Rawlsean liberals—good, naked-public-square Rawlsean liberals—is a fantasy, and perhaps a dangerous fantasy, at that.

MEAD:  Yes?

QUESTIONER:  Juliana Pilon, Institute of World Politics.

Your talk is a very interesting complement, if you will, to David Galertner’s talk at the American Enterprise Institute last week.  But you do distinctly differ, and I wonder if I may ask how you would—how you do—react to another approach to American religiosity, if you will.  David is just the latest in a long string of people who have stressed the American nation’s—the American national imagination as being rooted in the Old Testament.  And the reason I ask that, and so I wonder what your response is—the reason why that appears on the face of it to offer a—perhaps a more solid, if you will—(laughs) – I’m trying not to put too much emphasis—not to seem partial to him, so—but nevertheless, let me make the best case.

Insofar as the Old Testament emphasis is on Adam having been the descendant (sic) of us all and therefore obviously the Abrahamic religions would easily be—well, not easily, but arguably—be part of this concept, it would in principle at least allow for the toleration of Islam in a way that Christianity somewhat more narrowly understood, perhaps might not.  It’s also another way of asking you to address America and why it is doing, presumably, a relatively better job than Europe in accommodating a variety of different religions, and Islam in particular.  It’s very refreshing to hear this—(chuckles)—when anti-Americanism is supposed to be the big problem, and indeed it is.

MEAD:  So she wants you to talk about why America is more religious than Europe because Europe is more interested in the New Testament, to twist it slightly.  (Laughter.)

WEIGEL:  I mean, I wasn’t at this talk, but I’ve read some of David Galertner.  I’m a great admirer of his insight and intelligence.

Before—I think there’s—I mean, there’s obviously some truth to that.  One of the Founders, I think it was Washington, proposed that the Great Seal have on it Moses leading the people of Israel out of Egypt, led by a pillar of fire by day and a cloud by night—or the other way around, pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.

MEAD:  She’s right.  (Laughter.)

WEIGEL:  Whatever, fire, cloud.  And certainly that form of Scottish enlightenment that played such a large role in the American founding was deeply rooted in Old Testament understandings of moral obligation.  The Great Awakening of the mid-18th century that preceded the American Revolution was in some sense a spreading of that on a mass/popular basis.

But I wouldn’t push that quite so far, perhaps as, at least in your accounting, Juliana, David is doing.  I think the last 20 years of scholarship on the religious convictions of what really was the greatest generation, the generation of the Founders, has made clear that these were not primarily and overwhelming a group of deists with the occasional evangelical thrown in for flavor.  These were, in fact, in the main men of great Christian conviction, with a strong Old Testament—strong foundation in the King James Bible as part of, you know, a primary source of their cultural identity.  But they did understand themselves to be Christians, and I do think that one can trace through the complicated patterns of the history of ideas and their effect on politics the working out of the distinction between what is owed to God and what is owed to Caesar in the notion of limited government, in the notion of constitutional limited government, that we’re not going to assume that the national government has plenipotentiary powers and then we’re going to carve out social space within that.  No, it starts the other way around:  the state is at the service of society.  That’s the 1688/1776 understanding, and I think that has profound New Testament roots to it.  However, as I say, those roots got—confusedly sprouted different things over 1,500 years of history.

Why America, seemingly alone in the worlds-within-worlds of modernity has not only maintained a high level of religious conviction and practice, but has actually seen that grow over the past 100 years—and I’d say it’s much more religious today than it was in the late 19th century.  I think, you know, most measures of practice would bear that out.  That question has kept about five generations of sociologists of religion in business in our country.

For our purposes, for questions—for the question of understanding how this has undergirded a commitment to and a practice of genuine toleration and an affirmation of social and cultural pluralism as the foundation of a democratic society, I mean, one obvious answer is that there was no established church here in the sense in which establishment existed in Europe.  Yes, individual states had their state establishments.  I think Connecticut had one until 1812 or 1815.  But there was no overwhelming presence.  There was a market, if you will.  Rodney Stark’s work on this, I think, is very interesting.  There was a genuine religious market in the United States which, among other things, both made for the experience of toleration and community amidst plurality, called pluralism, and created incentives for individual religious communities to work harder to attract converts and to retain people who were born into those communities.

MEAD:  Yes.

QUESTIONER:  I’m Andreas Krueger from the German Embassy.  Thank you for a very intriguing talk.

I just wonder, how do you square what you call the imposed secularism of Europe with the fact that in all European nations, with all the differences, churches and also other religious groups play a huge role in the public sphere?  Governments actually actively search—seek the advice of churches on kinds of difficult matters, let’s say from education to genetically modified food and whatever other questions modernity imposes on societies.  And this role of the churches is—and that’s maybe the most surprising aspect of it—this role of the churches and other groups is actually accepted, even by people who don’t go to the churches.

WEIGEL:   Sure.

QUESTIONER:  Even they think, yes, the Protestant, the Catholic Church, the, whatever, Council of the Jews, should, you know, be a dialogue partner for governments in these difficult questions of modernity.

WEIGEL:  I can’t square it, which is—and it can’t be squared—which is precisely what was so bizarre about the argument, and precisely why the argument seemed to me to be an argument against not only the historic experience of European societies, but the contemporary experience of European societies.

Now it may be that in the nature of these kinds of debates the extremes got more attention than they deserved, but it wasn’t simply the extreme de-Christianizers/radical secularizers who were making the case against the mere acknowledgement of the contributions of Christian civilization to European civilization.  It was the president of France.  It was numerous parliamentarians from all over the continent.  And as you say, this is over against the actual lived experience of European societies.

Now it also has to be said that despite these formal linkages, or quasi-formal linkages that you’re describing, despite your tax law—which I happen to think has been very bad for the churches—I mean, they have tons of money, but there’s nobody there on Sunday morning.  What is wrong with this picture?  Now it’s also true that the generosity of German taxpayers, through the church tax, keeps the Catholic Church in the Third World afloat financially, but that tells us very little about practice, about conviction.  So I accept the point that things are different on the ground, but I think that only underlines the oddity of this attempt from the top—from Brussels, if you will—to impose a kind of naked public square in the sphere of moral argument within Europe.

Now this is going on today.  Walter and I were talking about this yesterday.

Two weeks ago, the government of Slovakia fell.  It fell because a proposed concordat, a treaty between Bratislava and the Holy See—the Vatican—contained within it a conscience clause whereby the Slovak Republic agreed that doctors would not be compelled by law to perform elective abortions if their consciences precluded them from doing that sort of thing.

In December, the EU Independent Network of Experts on Fundamental Human Rights (sic)—there’s a mouthful for you—issued a 40-page report bitterly critical of Slovakia, Poland and Lithuania for having these conscience clauses in their national law, and declaring those conscience clauses a violation of fundamental human rights.  Now, this is the coercion of consciences in the name of the defense of fundamental human rights.  Something is wrong here.  Something is wrong here, and it seems to me an example of the kind of imposed secularism that I’m raising a caution flag against it.

MEAD:  Yes, sir.

QUESTIONER:  Dane Smith from American University.

In thinking about this divide between Europe and America, I’d like to ask about whether you see any signs of rebirth, whether Catholic or otherwise, on the European side, keeping in mind the lack of attendance and seeming observance in Europe and, of course, the new pope’s emphasis on re-evangelization of Europe.

WEIGEL:   Right.  Well, the new pope drew a million young people to Cologne last August for the World Youth Day.  My understanding is that 800,000 of them were European young people.  That suggests a rather potent network of a post—the children of the 1968 generation, who may be able to reignite patterns of Christian conviction in Europe.

If that happens, my sense is that it will not happen through the ordinary structures of Catholic or Lutheran or Reformed life; that while it is true Christian churches have lots of structures in Europe, those structures do not seem to have been able to ignite a rebirth of Christian conviction.  And therefore you have to look outside the structures at various renewal movements, new forms of out-of-the-mainstream Christian community for the energy—for the spiritual energy; the spiritual entrepreneurship, if you will—to begin to fill in this hollowness that seems to be one facet of—religious hollowness—that seems to be one facet of European cultural life today.

I don’t think the new pope expects any re-ignition to come out of the bureaucracies of European Catholicism.  In fact, I’m quite clear, from the last conversation I had with him three years ago, that he doesn’t expect that; that he looks towards, if you’ll take the adjective in its broadest sense, the more charismatic, non-institutional elements of the church—a kind of Great Awakening, if you will, that kind of model—a bottoms-up model rather than a top-down model.

MEAD:  Franciscan rather than Jesuits, or—

WEIGEL:  That would—well, I don’t wish to get into all of those ugly businesses—(laughter)—but yeah.  Right, exactly.  I mean—and you know, one can never bet on these things.  I mean, Francis of Assisi is perhaps the one figure in European history that everybody agrees was an admirable figure.  (Laughter.)  And he came out of absolutely nowhere; I mean, he came out of nowhere.  There was no way to predict that such an individual would have emerged in 12th century Middle Italy.  So one—you know, there’s limits to what—you know, the future forecasting that can be done here.

I was also struck by my experience in Rome this past April.  I work for NBC News as their Vatican analyst, and was over there from the day after the pope died until a week after Pope Benedict was elected.  And the demographics of the crowd, at least as I could, you know, read them by observation, was interesting.  It was—the population of the city of Rome doubled in 72 hours, from 3 million to 6 million.  And of those additional 3 million, my observer’s guess is that 60 percent of them, at least, were under 30 years old.  And obviously the great majority of those were from Europe, kids who somehow had experienced a form of spiritual paternity in this old Polish priest that they had not experienced elsewhere, and who wanted to say goodbye, to say thank you, to be with each other, to mourn in a way that was like nothing I had ever experienced in my life.

MEAD:  Here.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  Hattie Babbitt from the Hunt Alternatives Fund.

I wanted to ask you about this business of imposition from the top in Europe versus what I would say happened in Spain, from observation of the old, old, old, old days; that is, when I was a student in Spain in the ‘70s.  It really looked like a Catholic country; I mean, everybody there was Catholic, Franco was Catholic, everything revolved around the Catholic Church, the laws of the country were Catholic.  As soon as that stopper came off and Franco died, it—this isn’t a place that just decriminalized homosexuality; this is a place that’s just legalized gay marriage.  I mean, there really is—just a real switch has been turned.

WEIGEL:   Right.

QUESTIONER:  How does that happen in a—

WEIGEL:  It’s a great question.  There is a—I have long thought that there’s a wonderful book waiting to be written about Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Quebec, which is the North American analog to the other three.  Four societies, intensely Catholic, deliberately delayed encounter with modernity and all of its challenges, authoritarian forms of government—although the forms of democracy prevailed in Quebec and Ireland, they were essentially—

MEAD:  I see the headline, “Ireland Equals Franco,” from a popular scholar.  (Laughter.)

WEIGEL:   Yeah, right.  Well, you know De Valera was had his authoritarian elements to him—okay—and a very close connection between the formal structures of the church and the ruling party or the ruling figure.  And in each of those four cases, when, as you say, the stopper came off, you had complete meltdown.  Quebec, when I was a boy in the ‘50s and ‘60s, was at least as intensely religious as Guadeloupe.  Quebec today is the most religiously arid place in the Western Hemisphere between Point Barrow and Tierra del Fuego.  (Scattered laughter.)  I mean, this is astonishing, in two generations. 

I think it has something to do with that, I will say, insidious embrace between the church and state authority, where the church leans on state authority to buttress its truth claims, gets flabby and lazy in the process, becomes identified with authoritarian forms of government.  The present pope has said on numerous occasions that the best thing that happened to the papacy in the last 200 years was the loss of the papal state—that this freed the papacy to be a kind of global, moral and evangelical actor in a way that was simply impossible when the popes were civil rulers as well as the bishop of Rome and the head of the Catholic Church.

QUESTIONER:  Is there something to learn here for the—(inaudible). 

WEIGEL:   There sure is.  But the problem, of course, is that, as Jay Tolson – Jay’s not here, I don’t think; most people know Jay from U.S. News & World Report—once put it to me, he said the problem was, Mohammed was his own Constantine.  I mean, you have, right from the beginning, this nexus, tight nexus formed between charismatic religious authority and coercive if not state power then political power, in some form.  And the question, as I said a moment ago, is whether one can begin to disentangle that by reaching to other, more complexifying parts of the Islamic legal and theological tradition.

It’s not easy to see where those are, but if they aren’t found, then we’ve got a real problem here.  (Chuckles.)

MEAD:  Well, we have a tradition at the council of closing our meetings on time, and I believe this is time.  So I’d like to thank our speaker and thank you all for attending.  (Applause.) 

WEIGEL:  Could I just make one last recommendation to people?  I thank Walter for his plug for the book, but as a demonstration that some of the concerns I’ve been raising are not simply those of a Catholic theologian, there’s a new book out—again, from Basic Books—called “Without Roots.”  It’s a dialogue between the new pope and Marcello Pera, the president of the Senate of Italy, a nonbeliever, a philosopher of science by trade, who has a remarkably, if I may say, similar analysis to the European situation as the one I offer here.  So it’d be interesting for people to read that, coming from someone who doesn’t have a particular theological optic but a more cultural analysis. 

QUESTIONER:  What was the name again?

WEIGEL:  It’s called “Without Roots.”  “Without Roots.”  Sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to get that in. 

MEAD:  No, not at all.

WEIGEL:  Thank you all very much.







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