I readily admit to being a Eurocentric Europhile.

Please bear with me as I detail some personal history to establish the background for why I make this statement.

  • My family roots are in Scotland, Holland and Germany, and my entire education, faith and upbringing, while quintessentially American, are deeply rooted in the European experience. My faith is founded in the Protestant Reformation that shook Europe 500 years ago.
  • I spent nine formative summers teaching and touring throughout all of Europe while I was in graduate school and as a young professor.
  • I still recall with wild enthusiasm my first trip to Europe in 1972 at age 19. I studied and took degrees and have lectured at European universities. I was a Deutches Austauschendienst at Kiel Universitat and was made an honorary member of the Christian Democratic Party of the Netherlands as early as 1979.
  • I was president of the four ancient Scottish universities trusts in the United States. I wrote a doctoral dissertation largely about European ideas – in politics, philosophy and economics.
  • I lived four years in Geneva, Switzerland, in an ambassadorial post in the U.N. in the late ’80s until 1992 when European history shifted and the Cold War ended. I had a front-row seat as deputy executive secretary of the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe. I was an executive board member of the World Economic Forum, which started as the European Management Forum for CEOs.
  • I was actually present at the Berlin Wall just days after it came down. My friends in Eastern Europe, the radical economists, all became leading figures – ministers, central bankers and prime ministers in their respective countries after the fall of the Soviet Union.
  • I was an adviser to the Polish government during its shock therapy and privatization. I speak several European languages, regularly read European books, magazines and newspapers and have been a firm supporter of the so-called Atlantic Alliance my entire life.

To steal a line from President Kennedy, “Ich bin ein Europaisch.”

So, it is with a deep sense of disappointment and true sadness that I have to say what I am about to say.

Adrift without a soul

Europe’s churches are empty. Mass on Sundays, in any Gothic cathedral, is virtually unattended, except for a handful of tourists, vacant. The actual celebration of Mass is typically conducted in a side chapel, fit for the dozen or so worshipers who show up for service.

Europe is adrift without a soul and evolving rapidly away from its moorings.

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In his book,” The Cube and the Cathedral,” George Weigel described a European culture that has become not only increasingly secular but in many cases downright hostile to Christianity.

The cathedral in his title is Notre Dame, now overshadowed in cultural importance by the Arc de la Defense, the ultra modernist “cube” that dominates an office complex outside Paris.

“European man has convinced himself that in order to be modern and free, he must be radically secular,” Weigel writes. “That conviction and its public consequences are at the root of Europe’s contemporary crisis of civilizational morale.”

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Recall the rancorous debate over whether or not “Christianity” should be explicitly acknowledged when drafting the European Union’s constitutional treaty.

By the time the draft constitution was completed, a grudging reference to “the cultural, religious, and humanist inheritance of Europe” had been shoehorned into the preamble’s first clause. This was about as much religion as Europe could stomach in a constitution that runs some 70,000 words.

Practicing Christianity in Europe today enjoys a status not dissimilar to closet status reserved for smoking marijuana or engaging in unorthodox sexual activities decades ago. Few Europeans will mind if you do so in private, but please have the courtesy to keep the matter private.

Today Christianity in the EU is considered at best a retrograde and largely atavistic practice barely tolerated in a self-described “progressive” society devoted to obtaining the good material life, including long holidays, short work hours and generous government benefits.

Dare we ask what is the deeper source of European antipathy to religion?

The problem goes all the way back to the 14th century, when scholastics like William of Ockham argued for “nominalism.” According to their philosophy, universals – concepts such as “justice” or “freedom” and qualities such as “good” – do not exist in the abstract but are merely words that denote instances of what they describe. A current of thought was set into motion, Weigel among others believes, that pulled European man away from transcendent truths. One casualty was any fixed idea of human nature.

If there is no such thing as human nature, then there are no universal moral principles that can be read from human nature. If there are no universal moral truth, then religion, positing them, is merely a form of oppression or myth, one from which Europe’s elites see themselves as now liberated. And they look down on their American and Third World cousins who continue to believe in such irrational flights of fancy.

I think the critics are on firm ground when they analyze Europe’s present condition, with its low birth rates, heavy government debts, Muslim immigration worries and tendency to carp from the sidelines when the fate of nations is at stake. Like Weigel, one could sketch the worst-case scenario – the “bitter end” – for a Europe that is religiously bereft, demographically moribund and morally without a compass: “The muezzin summons the faithful to prayer from the central loggia of St. Peter’s in Rome, while Notre-Dame has been transformed into Hagia Sophia on the Seine – a great Christian church become an Islamic museum.”

One need not find this scenario altogether plausible to feel persuaded by more measured arguments about Europe’s atheistic humanism. Without a religious dimension, a commitment to human freedom is likely to be attenuated, too weak to make sacrifices in its name. Europe’s political elites especially, but its citizens as well, believe in freedom and democracy, of course, but they are reluctant to put the “good life” on hold and put lives on the line when freedom is in need of a champion – in the Balkans, the Sudan, Darfur or in Iraq cum Syria.

The good of human freedom, by European lights, must be weighed against the risk and cost of actually fighting for it. It is no longer transcendent, absolute. In such a world, governed by a narrow utilitarian calculus, sacrifice is rare, churches go unattended and over time the spiritual capital that brought forth all that we know as the West is at risk of being lost.

Europe is a society adrift, untied from the source of its greatness – the very cultural foundation that provided the values making Europe great is disintegrating, leaving Europe (and soon the entire West) on sinking sand. More specifically, as the past is erased, re-written, or ignored, the rich Judeo-Christian history of Europe is being left behind. And at what cost?

As I ponder this thesis, I am reminded of Orwell’s quote, “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” It is obvious, “culture determines civilization.” Without its distinctly Christian history, Europe would not be what it is. Unfortunately, we may now have more accurately to write, “… Europe would not have been what it was.”

America is now alone in defending freedom and upholding the tradition of faith and reason.

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