2020 is barely half over and we have already seen catastrophic bushfires in Australia, a global disease pandemic, and civil unrest around the world as the fight for the dignity and lives of black people intensifies. As the planet grapples with these seemingly apocalyptic events, I, probably like many of us, have questioned the value of the work I do on a daily basis. Do issues of religion, politics, and public life really matter when we are faced quite literally with issues of life and death?

I was plagued by these questions as I read Olivier Roy’s latest book, Is Europe Christian?. “Why does it matter whether Europe is Christian?”

Intonation makes a great difference here. This is not a dismissive question, but rather a critical one. Not “Why does it matter?” but “Why does it matter?”

It is not whether Europe is Christian or not that matters. What matters is who is asking the question and why they are asking it. These things matter because questions such as the one Roy focuses on in his book, and the way in which we go about answering them, reflect our position, power, and privilege in the world. They are questions about power, because, as Roy does throughout the book, they encourage exploration of how religious and secular actors compete for and contest influence and authority in historical and contemporary political settings. Roy highlights that the question of Europe’s Christian identity is important for populist politicians seeking to exclude people from immigrant (Muslim) backgrounds. It also matters, he argues, for secularists, who want to see all religions excluded from the public sphere. Europe’s identity further matters, and this is the group of most concern to Roy, for Christian institutions (with particular emphasis on the Catholic Church) and for the norms and values of European public life.

Yet, as Roy’s concern with this third group suggests, such questions are also questions of power—questions regarding who has the power to decide what “Europe” and “Christian” mean, who is included in and excluded from those categories, and how that in/exclusion takes place, who has the space, the time, or the need to care whether Europe is Christian and why.

Roy’s book is concerned with questions about power, specifically questions about the place of religion in European public life and the power of Christianity/the Catholic Church in Europe in relation to secular institutions, authorities, and values. Research and writing exploring such issues, however, are often plagued by two seemingly opposite yet related errors: religion’s place is either underemphasized, to the point that it is sidelined at best, entirely ignored at worst; or religion’s place is overemphasized, and religion is made the explanatory factor for almost everything. Almost immediately, Roy’s book suffers from the second, simply by virtue of the issue the book is concerned with—whether Europe is Christian—and its claim that the so-called “Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants” were the start of “Europe’s great trauma.” He reasserts much of the “Westphalian Myth,” that religious violence was ended, or at least privatized, with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. He further asserts that “Violence is religious in both its substance and its execution,” failing to address the numerous critiques of this view.

What connects these two tendencies to either under- or overemphasize the significance of religion is the assumption that “religion” is something that can be clearly identified and distinguished from other factors such as “culture” and “identity.” “We know religion when we see it,” because “religion” has some kind of unique essence that allows us to separate it from other such “profane” phenomena as culture and identity. This line of thinking also tends to assume that, as a result of this “unique essence,” “religion” does not change, and if it does, it ceases to be “religion.”

This same kind of assumption is evident throughout Roy’s book in relation to both “Europe” and “Christianity.” Neither of these terms is ever explored, contested, or explained in depth. It is simply taken for granted that everyone knows and accepts what these terms refer to. The failure to clearly and explicitly define what is meant by any of these concepts implies a particular kind of privilege: the privilege to not have to define or be defined.

It is this implicit assumption that definition is not required that also makes the book an exercise of power. Roy’s book is written from a position of privilege. It is a book that laments the loss of influence of the Catholic Church in European politics and society, the Catholic Church often being equated with “Christianity.” It is also, in some respects, an homage to an imagined European past, a past in which colonization is referred to as the “Age of Discovery” and First Nations are almost entirely absent from the history of European and Christian expansion. It is a call to “restore” that European and Christian past: “Europe is the only entity in which it remains possible to instill some spirit.” Roy deems the question of Europe’s identity “irrelevant” to Protestant evangelicals, since a “large majority of their adherents come from immigrant backgrounds,” a somewhat bizarre suggestion, when people from immigrant backgrounds face, almost daily, implicit and explicit indicators that whatever Europe’s identity is, they are not part of it. He further claims that a factor contributing to the increasing contestation of European identity is the arrival of Islam in Europe, since the late 1950s, when Islam has had a presence on the European continent since the Middle Ages at least, while others assert it has been much longer. All of this indicates that the story of Europe’s identity and its relationship with (a particular kind of) Christianity being told in the book comes from a specific position of power and privilege.

All research comes from somewhere. The idea of objectivity in research is in many ways a myth, since we cannot remove ourselves from our own context, upbringing, and experiences that shape the values and assumptions underpinning how, what, and why we research. But we can be more aware of those assumptions, interrogate them, and acknowledge how they influence our research, for better and for ill. Roy hints at this towards the end of the book, when he highlights the problematic ways in which the law has endeavored to regulate religious symbols in public life, blurring boundaries between what is deemed “religion” and what is considered “cultural and national heritage,” allowing some symbols to remain in public spaces and forcing others to be removed. Yet, his concern here seems to be the damage that is done to “religion” by “secularizing it” and the power that is taken away from “religion” (read Christianity) by shifting it from the realm of the sacred to the profane. The concern Roy highlights here, and throughout the entire book, is Christianity’s loss of influence (measured predominantly in church attendance and adherence to certain moral values, most notably abortion and same-sex marriage) in the European public sphere. His analysis focuses primarily on religious institutions and their associated rituals, rather than on the lived experiences of individuals. In this way, Roy disconnects religion from the people who practice it, from the socioeconomic, cultural, and political advantages and disadvantages people experience because of the clothing they wear, the food they eat, where they were born, the color of their skin. It holds to a fixed idea of what religion, in general, and Christianity, in particular, are, lamenting the perceived erosion of Christianity in that form. It also holds to a fixed idea of what “Europe” is, and that somehow “Europe” is weakened and less valuable when not intimately connected with a particular kind of Christianity.

By disconnecting both “Christianity” and “Europe” from real people and their lived experiences, Roy obscures the complex and compromised history of these concepts, the various sociopolitical institutions that have represented them and their consequences for people’s dignity and wellbeing. It masks the inequalities and injustices that continue to affect people’s lives on a daily basis. Yet, it also limits understanding of people’s agency, ingenuity, and innovation in religious, political, and cultural spaces and practices. This in turn conceals the possibilities for new relationships, formations, and movements that could arise out of transformed understandings and lived realities. In overlooking these future possibilities and instead focusing on reclaiming a lost past, Roy loses a valuable resource for the imaginative project he undertakes in the book—the future of Europe and the role of Christianity in that future.

Analyzing issues of religion, politics, and public life does matter. It matters not only because it enables us to understand existing power relationships, but also because it assists us in identifying how these power relationships are being maintained, as well as how they are being or might be contested, challenged, and transformed. This process in turn helps us to map the different futures that are being imagined and how those imagined futures may eventually become new concrete realities.