Olivier Roy’s Is Europe Christian? is an account of the relationship between secularism, Christianity, and populism in Europe, and a reflection on the Catholic Church’s response to these dynamics in the continent throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Roy guides us astutely and with remarkable clarity across centuries of church-state relations on the continent, starting from the treaty of Westphalia in 1648, to the emergence of modernism as a cultural and political doctrine in the nineteenth century, the law on laïcite in France in 1905, and the events of 1968, which culminated in what Roy views as an anthropological turning point. This turning point marked the triumph of an “individualized biology” through birth control, euthanasia, and the sexual revolution. This latter period equally signals an important rupture between the Church’s attempts to restore a sense of transcendental moral values (with the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968), and the parishioners who opposed this conservative turn and would end up leaving the church.

The Catholic Church emerges in Roy’s account as an autonomous actor, who responds indecisively and uncertainly to these different changes, but whose perspective remains too often absent from traditional social scientific accounts on secularization. For this alone, it is an important book. But Roy’s book is not only an account of the changing position of the Church in Europe; it is ultimately a treatise about what he views as a “crisis” of the European identity. The seemingly unisonous defense of the Christian identity of Europe, generally lumped together as a “turn to the right,” is to Roy symptomatic of a broader quest for a European identity. And this quest is constituted by distinct political and sociological forces, i.e., populist and far-right movements who have turned Christianity into an identity project, secularists who oppose any presence of religion in the public sphere, and a Catholic Church that is struggling to reinvent itself in a highly individualized culture. To Roy, it is clear, the secularization of Europe and its individualization have opened up an existential inquiry into the nature of the European project. But the disenchantment of the European story has also produced an ethical and spiritual void on the continent, which is being supplanted by identity-based movements. Hence, to Roy, asking whether Europe is Christian also implies asking what Europe (still) is, and what keeps it together.

In search of a European “soul”

The inquiry Roy sets off to explore is not a new one. Ever since the EU was created as an economic and political project, following the post-second world war pacification of the continent and the resolution by France and Germany to establish a shared market, the question of its “soul” has been on the table.1 The raising of this question resonates with an often heard argument that holds the technocratic administration of the EU and its singular focus on the economy accountable for the various forms of Euro-skepticism the continent has witnessed. That skepticism ranges from Brexit to various populist movements gathered in the Identity and Democracy group that currently represents the fourth largest political formation in the European Parliament. By taking seriously the idea that the EU lacks a soul, Roy proposes an analysis that brings religion into the heart of the matter. If the continent is to find redemption, so the argument goes, it will be through resuscitating a set of values that have been lost through its liberalization and secularization. As Roy notes, “If Europe is to become Christian again, it is in need of prophets, not legislators.”

But what does it mean to link Europe’s tarnished soul with an inquiry into the Christian nature of the continent, as an attempt to fill a spiritual void? And what does it mean to ask whether Europe is (still?) Christian? The inquiry, as demonstrated in Roy’s book, is not an innocent one. One rarely asks with the same pondering tone whether Europe is Jewish, or Muslim: two traditions that have historically shaped the continent, yet which remain absent in the continent’s self-understanding that Roy sets out to reproduce. This omission on Roy’s part is surprising, for he is an eminent scholar of Islam. In the account he offers in this book, Islam remains a secondary actor, one that “has arrived in Europe, through immigration and, with Turkey’s application for membership of the EU, the proposed expansion of the continent’s borders.” Islam thus figures as an “external other” that catalyzes some of the internal tensions that he sets out to identify, but is not at the core of the changes and dynamics in the story of Europe.

I want to pause briefly at this all too familiar narrative that is reproduced throughout the book: the assumed consubstantiality between Christianity and Europe as well as the inward-looking perspective that is proposed. My argument is, simply put, that the question of the Christianity of Europe, as well as the assumed coherence of the continent, cannot be addressed without at the same time problematizing how this question has come to emerge in the first place. It is here, I want to suggest, that the racial and colonial contours of the question become palpable. To the extent that colonialism was a foundational moment for the making of Christian Europe, race endures as a subtext of a Secular EU.

(Christian) Europe and its “others”

The colonial expansion of Christian Europe into the “New World” also coincided with the racial and territorial marking of its borders through the principle of the limpienza de sangre and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth century. This principle was transposed into the colonies through the distinction between the “old” Christians (i.e., white Europeans) and those who had been newly converted into the tradition and were subjected to further “education” and forced “labor” (i.e., the indigenous or black slaves in the colonies). Christian Europe becomes, thus, white. And Europe’s whiteness is guaranteed through Christianity (the continued ambiguous status of the Balkans is a reminder of that legacy). Although Roy glosses whiteness and the making of Europe in describing the colonial expansion or what is described as “the Globalization of Christianity,” he only does so to allude to the increased tension this racialization produces between the colonial authorities and the Church. It was at this time that the Church extended its influence in the colonial territories by creating new missionary orders such as the Jesuits.

Understanding the ways in which the colonial reality of the race/religion matrix has historically reshaped the Church’s self-understanding, and whether and how this legacy is (dis)continued in the postcolonial moment is, however, a strikingly neglected element in Is Europe Christian? Yet, there are numerous occasions to explore this tacit relationship. We are offered, for instance, glimpses into how Christianity’s Europeanness is being destabilized in the current postcolonial moment. Roy observes, for instance, that the Christianization of the global South throughout the twentieth century has led to a situation where Europe has become peripheral to the Church: “Europe is no longer at the heart of Christianity” he claims. And the students’ revolts of May 1968 were as much concerned with anti-colonialism, known at the time as internationalism, as with the sexual revolution that was at the heart of Europe’s liberal self-making.

Furthermore, one wonders how Roy views the colonial and racial dynamics that inform the secularization of the continent. While the “anthropological turn” that is sketched throughout the twentieth century is important, it cannot be isolated from a civilizational and colonial discourse that is premised on the opposition between a liberal (European) Self and illiberal Others. Europe, furthermore, has becomes secular as the “newly” arriving migrants were being depicted as deeply religious. The growing representation of Islam as illiberal “newcomer” in the European continent has historically coincided with, and facilitated the externalization of “religion” from Europe’s self-understanding. But this dynamic is also at play within Christianity: whereas (white) Christianity has been culturally refashioned into a matter of “heritage”—a category that enables the continued presence of this religious tradition in a way that is consonant with secularism—the (often Protestant) Churches of the migrants are turned into the new harbors of religious idolatry and fanaticism. Just as the Christianization of Europe has historically been embedded on the racial marking and exclusion of non-Christian others, secularism is, today, the language through which “otherness” is shaped and proper individuality defined. By taking a less inwardly looking view on Europe one is thus quickly forced to displace the question of an apparent discontinuity between Christian and secular Europe, to an inquiry into continuous ways in which Europe shapes itself as a unified (Christian or secular) territory through expulsion and/or (violent) erasure.

A final note on methodology. Whereas Is Europe Christian? raises questions about the ostensible neglect of the racial contours of this interrogation, it also reflects a general state of perplexity on this question in the field of European studies. Race is then generally depicted as “diversity” and debates on migration largely connected with discussions on Europe’s borders or the successes of populist movements. This reflects a tendency to treat these elements as peripheral, and a difficulty to connect them with the heart and the “soul” of Europe.

Maybe Europe’s “redemption” lies, therefore, not so much in its values, but rather in its capacity to re-examine its history through the lens of race. To consider how its whiteness has historically been shaped through the expulsion of non-Christian subjects, how it is constituted in the postcolonial moment through the expulsion of non-secular subjects, and how these various attempts are being continuously destabilized and challenged. Instead of perpetually seeking to exorcise itself from these insecurities, in an attempt to attain a pure (secularized Christian) body, the challenge might, therefore, be one of embracing its multiple composites and the idea that neither Christianity nor Europe are settled projects. Maybe, then, Europe will be at peace.

  1. See Taleb, Adela (2020) “Transparency and ‘EUropean Islam’: Imperial formations in the fabric of the European Union,” Paper presented at the Freie Universität Berlin.