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Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Wednesday, February 04, 2004
 

European politics getting religion - what is this guy on?


Geitner Simmons, who I had thought I read was away writing a book, is, on the contrary, very much on the clock, with a piece [1] by George Weigel.

I acknowledge a deal of humility when the names of Comte, Feuerbach, Marx and Nietzsche are being bandied about - on the grounds that I have read none of them. It is entirely possible that I have missed the guy's point entirely.

But - initial impression - I don't like it [2]. Weigel's shtick is a tarted up version of 'Europe went bad when it lost religion'.

He says
Over the course of twelve years of research and teaching in east-central Europe, I've been impressed by what might be called the Slavic view of history.

Obscurantism and authoritarianism: great! Why the cultural tourism?

He namechecks some Slavs, including John Paul II - a leading purveyor of obscurantism and authoritarianism and continues:
The common thread running through these disparate thinkers is the conviction that the deepest currents of history are spiritual and cultural, rather than political and economic.

I've not analysed the piece in detail, but it seems to me that there is an absence of historical references between Saint Augustine and the Third Polish Partition of 1795 - except for a reference to the defence of Vienna against the Turk in 1683, in connection with his suggestion that a Europe swamped with Moslem migrants will be Finlandised into going soft on the rolling jihad from Al Qaida and the like.

Amazing that a Catholic enthusing over the religious dimension of politics should not take in the several hundred years around 1000 during which European religion and politics were inextricably intertwined, and when the Pope (plural for a time, of course) was a secular as well as religious power.

Amazing, unless one looked at the politics of the time, and - most particularly - at the effect of religion on politics. Cringing Islamophiliacs point to the Crusades - and they were nasty enough, with as much violence between those who had taken the Cross than against the Infidel [3]. But religion was scarcely conducive to continental peace. An irreligious Europe (were there any contemporary secular societies? I doubt it.) would probably not have been more bloody. But it could hardly have been much less so.

The Reformation opened up new opportunities for civil war within the Christian religion, which were eagerly grasped; wars between Catholics and Huguenots in France, and (in part, at least) in the Thirty Years War and the English Civil War.

And the English were the first (perhaps) to get the point: in the aftermath of the ironically named Glorious Revolution of 1688, they decided that the state should embrace religion to suffocate it. The Church of England was part of the state; but it was a church with, so far as possible, the religion taken out.

In other countries, where the Catholic church continued to be vigorous - France, notably - that continuing power spawned radical anti-clericalism.

So, in today's European politics, secularism reigns [4], and, if there is a way back for religion to have a large influence, I don't see it.

Weigel, though, says we'll die without it:
the long-term answer to the demise of Europe will only be found in a revitalization of Europe's Christian roots and the rebirth of Christian conviction in Christianity's historic heartland. Europe, in other words, needs something like a Great Awakening-by which I mean, not necessarily a fourth wave of the Wesleyan revolution, but a rebirth of life-transforming and culture-forming Christian conviction, especially Catholic conviction.

At last, an issue on which weasels and poodles can agree: in the time-honoured phrase of the housewife to the brush salesman, Not today, thank you.

Whilst he doesn't suggest that this re-conversion can be achieved by politicians, he does suggest that
American public diplomacy could also be far more helpful. The failure of American embassies in Europe over the past two years to systematically engage the European media, European universities and research institutes, and European voluntary organizations-all those places where European opinion is molded-has had serious and damaging results.

Poor old Powell gets it in the neck again!

No doubt, there has been a failure of diplomacy on both sides of the Atlantic [5] in recent years. But the idea of Europe getting religion in its politics, whatever the quality of the American diplomatic interventions, is, frankly, ludicrous.

On first reading, I wonder why the FT bothered to print such an absurdly druther-ful article?

I suspect I have failed to grasp the nuances here. Wouldn't be the first time...

  1. Simmons' piece is February 3 - can't find his permalink.

    [Geitner Simmons kindly emailed to point that the permalinks on his site are to be found in the titles of each piece. Followers of the RSS saga will scarcely be surprised at your humble blogger's incompetence in so technical a matter...]

  2. The piece comes to the plate two strikes down on account of the grossest non-disclosure: his little bio at the bottom says
    George Weigel is Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, where an earlier version of this article was given as the Center's Third Annual William E. Simon Lecture.
    But does not point out that [according to this]
    Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian...
    That is like a paper running a review by Barbara Amiel of Conrad Black's Roosevelt book and not mentioning that she's his wife!

    To mention the Ethics and Public Policy Center does not cover the point: for one thing, its angle turns out to be as unspecific as the Judeo-Christian moral tradition; and most readers would in any case not know the organisation. As is it, it is journalism well below Jayson Blair standard.

  3. I've been reading John Gillingham's book on Richard I - a king unduly neglected by scholars as being both popular and constitutionally unimportant, it seems; most of the cast list are nasty pieces of work. Religion is more than a mere pretext for warfare; but it scarcely emerges as an influence for peace and justice.

  4. More or less - one has Christian Democrat parties in various European countries, but the religious impact on politics in most places most of the time is, I would suspect, limited.

  5. When was there a good time for transatlantic diplomacy? I have a book somewhere by a Foreign Office dissenter from the mid-1930s on, who painted a dismal picture of British condescension and American arrogance in post-war diplomacy. The un-diplomacy surrounding the 1956 Suez crisis is a case in point. Some special relationship!

MORE

Excellent American history pieces as ever chez Simmons: on February 2, for instance, a piece on Abraham Lincoln in harm's way at Fort Stevens in July 1864, and a reconstruction done for the Discovery Channel to see just how much danger Lincoln was actually in from Confederate sharpshooters.


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