Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have adamantly opposed Turkey’s bid to join the European Union on the grounds that Turkey, a Muslim nation, does not belong in Christian Europe. They worry that the inclusion of Turkey, coupled with Muslim migrations into Europe and the declining European birthrate, will undermine the Christian character of Europe. They believe that Europe is in danger of losing its soul, because “the identity of Europe is incomprehensible without Christianity.”*
What is worse, they believe that Europe has lost its capacity to defend itself against the Muslim menace, because it suffers from a serious case of relativism that has paralyzed Europe and rendered it defenseless. Since relativism teaches that all creeds, values, and civilizations are of equal worth, Europeans are unable to affirm their heritage. They are unwilling to declare the superiority of their own civilization over others. Hobbled by relativism, Europe does not have the courage to declare that its civilization is better than Islamic civilization, that a liberal constitution is better than sharia, or that a sentence by an independent tribunal is better than a fatwa. Apparently, the disease is so pervasive that it has infected Christian theology. Protestant theologians regard Jesus as one prophet among others and Christianity as a religion equal to other religions. Even Catholics are not immune; though the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) acknowledged that Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life,” it stopped short of saying that he was the only way, and it invoked parallel roads to salvation. For John Paul and Benedict, this is simply “contrary to the Church’s faith.” Moreover, this “widespread indifferentism” is a serious symptom of disease. It explains why Europe failed to acknowledge its Christian roots in the Preamble to the European Constitutional Treaty. In so doing, Europe has committed a “silent apostasy.”
Benedict blames the decadence of Europe on the servility of the Protestant churches, which were willing to accept subordination to the state. He contrasts these servile churches with the free churches of the New World. Like the Catholics, America’s evangelical churches refused to succumb to the pressures of secularism. They transcended all denominational distinctions to create a consensus that amounted to a Christian civil religion in the United Sates. Benedict attributes the “country’s sense of a special religious mission toward the rest of the world” to the freedom and power enjoyed by America’s evangelical Christians. He believes that they are the reason that America, unlike Europe, is willing to fight for its Christian values in the face of the Islamic threat.
Benedict informs us that a war against the West has been declared and calls on Europe to defend itself. He offers the following strategy. He thinks that Europe needs a united front of Christians and secularists to tackle the Islamic menace. Once secularists understand that the identity of Europe they cherish has its roots in Christianity—constitutionalism, rule of law, equality before the law, abolition of slavery, independent judiciary, freedom of religion—they will realize that secularists and Christians are not enemies, that they share a common interest in preserving the heritage of Europe against Islam, and that the only hope of securing Europe against the threat of Islam is to affirm Europe’s Christian heritage.
I would like to make four objections to this papal analysis of the political predicament of the West. First, the assumption that the Christian idea of equality before God is the basis of the secular idea of equality before the law, universal human rights, and the abolition of slavery is logically and historically false. Logically speaking, no supernatural revelation is necessary to realize that equality before the law is a necessary component of natural justice. If two people commit the same crime under similar circumstances—for example, stealing—they should be subject to the same punishment, even if one of them happens to be a “lord.” Historically speaking, the church was an implacable enemy of the rule of law. The Magna Carta, which the English barons forced King John to sign in 1215, making the king subject to certain laws and limitations, was vehemently opposed by Pope Innocent III. He regarded the king as the church’s most powerful instrument and had no intention of limiting that power with anything as inconvenient as the rule of law. So the Catholic Church cannot take any credit for the institutionalization of the rule of law and the limitation of arbitrary power.
When it comes to equality and justice, it is a matter of historical record that the “glad tidings” of Christianity did not inaugurate a new era of equality and justice. The church did nothing to abolish the most egregious manifestation of inequality and injustice—the institution of slavery. After all, there is nothing in Christianity that is logically incompatible with slavery. The otherworldly nature of the faith makes it logical to accept all sorts of abominations as appropriate for the fallen nature of the world while waiting for redemption in the world to come. This explains why, despite its power and influence, the Catholic Church did nothing to end slavery. The antislavery movement was inspired primarily by the utilitarian and secular ideas of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill. It is a gross historical error to attribute to Christianity the achievements of modernity.
Second, even though I am no relativist, I think it is more reasonable to think of Christianity as one religion among others. To think of it as the only custodian of truth and justice is not to eschew relativism but to embrace a fierce fanaticism. There is a huge difference between asserting the universality of rational principles of law and justice and asserting the singular, universal, and exclusively redemptive message of Jesus Christ. One has its source in reason while the other is based on a culturally specific revelation. Even though liberal constitutions are much more likely to promote human happiness and well-being than sharia law, and independent tribunals are more likely to serve justice than a fatwa, it is unreasonable to launch a crusade against the Islamic world in the name of these principles. It makes no sense to bomb countries to secure the happiness of their people. Like the West, the Islamic world must come to its own realization that theocratic rule is odious and should be replaced by more rational principles.
Third, the pope is a master of doublespeak, which allows him to blur the distinction between freedom and dominance. What Benedict calls freedom is not simply freedom to practice one’s religion unmolested by secular powers but dominance over the rest of society. Benedict admires the evangelicals, because they have created an almost irresistible pressure group with unmistakable political clout, commonly referred to as the Christian Right. Like the Catholic Church, the evangelical churches will settle only for dominance, not freedom. Benedict is right to think that America is more Christian than Europe, but that explains why it is also more aggressive. America believes that its form of government is the only one that is legitimate or divinely sanctioned, and it is often willing to use force to impose it on others.
Fourth, an alliance between Christians and secularists to save the West from the Muslim menace is unlikely, because the premise on which it is based—the shared Christian values of the West—is fictitious. What is much more plausible is the neoconservative approach, which calls for the unity of all faiths against the nihilism of secular liberal culture. In the 2006 election that made Stephen Harper the prime minister of Canada, Harper courted Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh voters, because he knew that they were inclined to share his social conservative agenda on the death penalty, abortion, same-sex marriage, and the like. The real conflict is not between the West and the rest but between faith-based public policies and a moderate secular approach.
In conclusion, Islamic migration into Europe constitutes no threat so long as the immigrants respect the secular laws of the countries that welcome them and are content to practice their religion within the limits of the law. But if religious leaders such as Benedict and the imams continue to incite the faithful to jihad against modernity, and if neoconservative politicians continue to be as shrewd as Stephen Harper, and if immigrants insist that religion trumps secular law, then we are in trouble. What we stand to lose is not Christian values but something more fundamental—peace, order, security, and stability.
Shadia B. Drury is Canada Research Chair in Social Justice at the University of Regina in Canada. She is the author of Terror and Civilization: Christianity, Politics, and the Western Psyche (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). Her newest book is Aquinas and Modernity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).