Europe's Empty Cathedrals

Does freedom require religion as religion requires freedom, and what do Europe's empty cathedrals have to do with the question?  Mitt Romney thinks that freedom requires religion, and said so plainly in his much discussed speech about his faith and the role of faith in the life of a nation.  His contention has drawn its share of criticism, most recently from Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post.

Krauthammer's criticism was part of a larger point he made about the presidential candidates' failure to grasp the distinction between the establishment and free exercise of religion.  Yet, in a time where history isn't taught very well in public schools, or with a pronounced leftward tilt on college campuses, and given that too many of the nation's elite are disdainful of, or hostile toward, religion, Romney's speech was refreshingly instructive and served well to advance the argument that men and women of faith have played, and will continue to play, important roles in the public square.          

As to freedom requiring religion, Krauthammer challenged the idea, characterizing it as "nonsense." He did so by citing the passage in Romney's speech where the Governor mentioned Europe's empty cathedrals.  Europe, Krauthammer contended, though having witnessed the "most precipitous decline in religious belief in the history of the West" is quite free, tolerant and harmonious -- unprecedentedly so. 

But to read the entire passage from Romney's speech is to learn that he was highlighting the effect that the establishment of religion had on the practice of faith in Europe.  From the time of Emperor Constantine, who opened the door leading to Christianity as the official religion of Rome, through the ensuing centuries of religious wars, forced adherence, persecutions, reformations and counterreformations, Europeans -- especially Western Europeans -- have evolved a marked wariness toward churches and churchgoing.  Romney was quite explicitly affirming the importance of religious liberty to the vibrancy of religious practice. 

Despite Krauthammer's blithe decoupling of faith and religious practice from freedom, the Governor's contention is worth deeper consideration, and may profit from a broader interpretation, to wit: "What contribution does faith and its practices have to the life and health of any society or culture in any time?"

Faith and religious practices have been intrinsic to great cultures and great nations throughout history.  Whether, for example, it was the paganism of the Egyptians, Incas, Greeks or Romans, or the Christianity that underlay Europe's empires or America's founding, or the animism of earlier cultures, east and west, religious belief, though varied and imperfect and, at times, abused, has been vital to the flourishing of peoples.  Religion certainly hasn't been the only factor that drives a people forward: developments in philosophy, the sciences, commerce, agriculture, government and the arts are critical as well.  But none of these elements in any society have stood alone; they are interwoven, have informed one another and have nourished and defined the people they serve. 

Yet, throughout history, most people have not been free, certainly not by modern Western standards.  It would be just as easy to conclude that religion has more to do with servitude and slavery than freedom.  But, then again, that conclusion would ignore the important ameliorative and humanizing effects of religious belief over the expanse of human history.  It could be said that religious belief entered the world dimly, but with successive generations has grown brighter.  In particular, the Judeo-Christian experience is one of valuing and respecting the individual, having compassion for the lesser among us and acknowledging the free will of every human being.  And if human beings are free willed how great a leap is it to understanding that freedom is the natural condition for humanity? 

Judeo-Christian teachings and the Enlightenment (with its rediscovery of classical thought), combined, are the birthplace of the modern Western understanding of freedom.  Today, though, there are those in and out of the West who challenge either the universality of freedom or the truth that freedom is the natural state for human beings.  It is interesting to note the conceit of some elites in the United States and Europe who argue that Iraqis or Iranians or Syrians haven't the need or capacity for the freedom enjoyed by Brits or Americans or Germans, as if the former are somehow a lesser or different species. 

As Krauthammer concedes, post-1945 Europe is a decidedly less religious place.  Secularism is ascendant in Europe, and by secularism, what is meant is support for the radical segregation of religious belief from civic life and public affairs.  To secularists, religious belief is a lot like smoking: you can do it if you have to, but don't do it in sight and don't talk about it.  While secularists could hold religious beliefs but judge them to be a very private affair, it is most common that they are, at the very best, agnostics or, more likely, atheists.  Many are socialists, who owe more to Marx than God.  They tend to have a vain appreciation of their own powers and the power of a vanguard to order society.  Whatever proclamations they make about the will of the people, tolerance and diversity, they are, in fact, centralizers and hierarchical and very intolerant of diversity that falls outside their definitions (read conservatives of all stripes as well as the religiously minded).  For secularists, religion is the residue of the primitive mind.        

Throughout human history, religious belief and practice have been the norm.  In the much shorter and recent history of free societies, religion has been a pillar.  It is no accident that the authors of the Declaration of Independence made clear "that [all men] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" (emphasis added). 

Secularism is a very new phenomenon with its roots substantially in the twentieth century.  The Soviet Union was the first to try it, albeit in a militant and bloody form.  That empire was officially atheist.  Churches were shuttered or destroyed.  Clerics and worshipers were persecuted or sent packing to the Gulag.  Some clerics were co-opted, their churches allowed to remain open as a show of tolerance by the state, though their speech and actions were proscribed and closely monitored.  And it is worth noting that a major contributor to the fall of the Soviet Union were the actions of Polish Catholics led by Cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyła who became Pope John Paul II.   

Secularism in Europe today, at least Europe to the west of Russia, isn't about thuggish repression.  The nations of Western Europe, and most of the nations in recently liberated Eastern Europe, are, as Krauthammer writes, free, tolerant and harmonious.  But for how long?  Europe faces significant underlying long term problems, beginning with dramatically low birthrates.  Twenty-odd million Muslims are largely unassimilated and growing restive.  Thanks to welfare statism and socialist economic policies, Europe's economies are slow and burdened by chronic high unemployment rates.  And as George Weigal writes in his excellent "The Cube and the Cathedral," Europe suffers a "crisis of civilizational morale."       

There is no long history to point to of successful free societies dominated by secularist practices.  Europe's secularist experiment is quite novel.  We shall see, perhaps sooner rather than later, if free societies that shun and marginalize religious belief can long endure.   
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