In the course of my research on the rooting of Islam in Europe, I studied the polemics that engulfed Europe and gave birth to a whole array of anti-migrant populist parties. This rooting was a consequence of a massive labor migration dating from the 1960s and the coming of age of second and even third generations of young Muslims who consider themselves Europeans. The populists as well as many rightist leaders first opposed a “Christian Europe” to a foreign religion. The polemic could be summed up in a single question: “Is Islam compatible with European values?” But logically such a question entailed another question: “What are European values?” It clearly appeared that most of the values that people contrast to Islam (feminism, gay rights, right to blasphemy) are at best not supported and at worst condemned by the Catholic Church and Protestant evangelicals in Europe. Of course, most of the established Protestant churches are far more liberal, but precisely because of this liberalism they are more open to accept Muslims. That is the paradox of Europe compared to the United States: US evangelicals who defend a Christian America advance Christian values and norms (against abortion, same sex marriage, etc.), while in Western Europe, at least, most of the populists endorse (and practice) liberal values in terms of family and sexual life. How do we explain this chiasm? How do Christian faith communities react to it? Why does the Catholic Church define European culture as having turned “pagan,” while many people who do not engage in any Christian religious practice still refer positively to a “Christian Europe”?

Most of the academic literature on the topic could be divided into two schools. One stresses the importance of the Enlightenment as a tool of secularization, leading to a more open, free, and hence modern society (this school consequently thinks that the problem of Islam is the absence of the “Enlightenment” moment). The other school stresses the translation of Christian norms and values into European secular culture (for instance, the importance of individualism or the sacralization of the state). For the second school, the problem of Islam is that it is not Christianity.

My view is that the real break between contemporary European culture and Christianity is not the Enlightenment (which secularized religion), but the brutal cultural earthquake of the sixties, which brought a new anthropological conception of a “modern society” that diverged from the values and norms at the core of Christianism (at least since the council of Trent and Martin Luther).

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Even if the number of church attendants decreased considerably in Europe during the twentieth century, Europe remained largely a secularized Christian culture until the sixties. At that time a new culture, based on the “desiring self,” became slowly embedded in different national laws on abortion and same sex marriage, among other issues. The Catholic Church started a “culture war” in the name of nonnegotiable principles (“life,” the traditional family, opposition to gay rights and gender theory). In the meantime, populist movements rose in opposition to the growing presence of Islam in Europe. But, contrary to the United States, most of the European populist movements endorse the liberal values of the sixties and refer to Christianity as a mere identity, detached both from faith and from the Church values and teachings. This instrumentalization of a Christian identity contributes to the paradoxical secularization of Europe, because Christianity is no longer a religion, just an identity.

There is no doubt that Europe is largely a product of Christianity, or more precisely, Latin Christianity. The conversions of the “Barbarians” made them endorse the legacy of the Roman Empire, which was a Mediterranean, not European, empire. They turned into turbulent but efficient agents of a common cause: the religious unification of different people under the Latin Catholic Church. From the eleventh to the early sixteenth century the Church grew into a powerful and autonomous institution beyond, if not above, princes, kings, and emperors. It lost the political battle but, using its own global language (Latin), set up a clerical “transnational” bureaucracy and a global culture through its de facto monopoly on knowledge and education. While the Protestant Reformation cast itself into the nascent nation-states system, the Catholic Church maintained and developed a transnational (although Europe-centered) institution. Centuries later, the European Union was launched by an alliance between pious Catholic leaders (Alcide De Gasperi, Robert Schuman, and Konrad Adenauer) and social democrats. The EU institutions share many similarities with the Catholic Church: a transnational bureaucratic structure and the imposition of norms against competing nations. These similarities exist in tension with the concept of “subsidiarity” and the use of a language that nobody really speaks: yesterday Latin, today Globish.

Of course, Christianity as a religion has been challenged along the centuries. The Reformation split Christianity: it was a fight about the monopoly of truth, not for freedom of belief. The Enlightenment brought a different story. Reason does not need Faith. Truth does not need a Church to keep it above skepticism. The Cartesian cogito is the philosophical cornerstone of the modern rational individualism. The Church saw in the Enlightenment an existential threat, embodied by the French Revolution, and fought until the early twentieth century against Europe’s turn toward “modernity.”

This philosophical and political debate about modernity did not undermine the Christian foundations of European culture. Faith became optional, but the system of values and the anthropological bases of Western European societies did not really change since the Reformation and the Council of Trent: good and bad, gender roles, centrality of the nuclear family based on a supposedly loving couple, rejection of homosexuality, et cetera. The dominant European values remained Christian values, although secularized Christian values. The morality of Immanuel Kant does not oppose the Christian morality in content, but rejects its theological heteronomy. Human reason is the basis of universal morality. When the secular states took education in their hands, this Kantian morale was the basis of the modern educational systems. Until the 1960s, the only real conflict of values between the secular states and the Church was about divorce (the main conflict was about power and control, not morality). Nevertheless, even in this case, secular legislation on divorce maintained the Christian concept of “guilt” until the second half of the twentieth century.

Everything changed in the sixties. What started as a hippie utopia, the centrality of the desiring self, became enshrined in the national laws of various European states in the course of the next fifty years: from sexual freedom and abortion, to same sex marriage, and divorce by mutual consent. Pope Paul VI understood immediately the stakes in his Humanae Vitae encyclical letter (1968), the first Catholic encyclical letter entirely dedicated to sexuality. Europe entered the “culture wars,” defined by James Davison Hunter, at the same time as the United States, except that in Europe the conservative fight was waged by the Catholic Church while in the United States it was waged by Protestant evangelicals. But the new culture won the war: even the conservative rightist governments in Europe (and until now, in the United States, too) have been unable to rescind laws based on the new values, because they have taken root far beyond the left-right divide.

The dominant culture in Europe ceased to be Christian since the 1970s, according to the Catholic Church. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI continued to claim that the dominant culture in Europe is not just profane (Christian without faith) but pagan (ignoring Christianity) and that it is a “culture of death,” because it promotes abortion and euthanasia. Pope Francis also made it very clear: This society that claims to be Christian, but is pagan and lives like the pagans, will be destroyed by God. A “conservative alliance” was launched from Texas to Russia passing through Italy and Poland, to fight same sex marriage, sexual freedom, and surrogate mothership (see “World Congress of Families” and “European Center for Law and Justice,” two transatlantic religious conservative lobbies). Nevertheless, in Europe, at least, secularization has entailed a real de-Christianization: attendance at places of worship and enrollment in seminaries has dropped everywhere. People who attend church regularly number around five percent of the population in many countries, while people who revoke their religious affiliation is increasing everywhere.

How can there be a “return” to the Christian roots of Europe under these conditions?

The new element is, of course, Islam. The rise of a Muslim population in Western Europe is absolutely parallel to increased European integration: both started from the end of the fifties and both experienced a crisis around 1990. The Treaty of Maastricht (1992) was the first treaty to become a domestic political issue in many European countries; it was the starting point of a strong divide in public opinion between pro-Europe and partisans of leaving Europe (for instance Brexiters). But the 1990s is also when the second generation of migrants from Middle East and South Asia, who obtained European citizenship, came to public attention by claiming to be “practicing Muslims” and asking for recognition of Islam either as a new religion in Europe or as a European religion.

A new category of anti-immigration and anti-Islam political movements soon emerged in different European countries. They are very diverse, some with historical roots in the extreme right (as in France, Italy, Sweden), some pretending to defend the post-60s liberal values of contemporary Europe, namely gay rights and feminism (Geert Wilders in the Netherlands). None of them in Europe, except Poland, is a true “Christian” party in the sense in claiming to promote the teachings of the Church. They attribute to Europe a “Christian identity” to oppose Islam, but this attribution is deprived of any reference to faith and values of love, charity, and hospitality. These movements and parties do not oppose sexual freedom or abortion, but give lip service to the “nonnegotiable principles” of the Church. And the personal way of life of their leaders and members is totally infused by the new liberal European values. That is the big difference with the United States, where the anti-immigration movement is largely (with the exception of a fringe of white supremacists) identified with practicing Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic. In Europe, populists are secularists. Marine Le Pen stated in her program for the French presidential elections of 2017 that “laïcité” for Protestanis the basis of French identity. Matteo Salvini in Italy may kiss the crucifix and the rosary while excruciating the migrants, but comes from a political party (LegaNord) that once opposed good old European paganism to an “imported” Christianity.

Moreover, the populist defenders of a “Christian Europe” show the utmost contempt for the European Union and struggle for a return to nationalism, which, except in Poland, is not on the agenda of the different Christian churches. They tend to define Europe as the creation of stateless global elites that want to destroy Christianity, while opening it to Islam and migrants. The three Catholic founding fathers of the European Union (Gasperi, Schuman, and Adenauer) are no more in the “candidates to sainthood” for these conservative Christians; the Church opened procedures to beatify them, but their cause is no more popular among sovereignist Catholics, who claim now that Europe is the tool of multinational companies or George Soros proxies.

This gap between “identity” Christians and “practicing” Christians put the churches in an awkward position. Many rank and file believers joined the populists, but the clergies (particularly Pope Francis) are reluctant to forge an alliance that paradoxically accentuates the secularization of Europe. Such an alliance would deprive religious symbols of their spiritual dimension. What is Christian identity dispensed of faith? The new liberal values are not put into question by the populists yet some core values of Christianity, namely love and charity, are rejected. Moreover, the Pope, who is not European, perceives Christianity as universal and not a European copyright.

What room and what role is then left for the Christian churches in Europe? The Catholic Church used to fight at two levels: 1) to defend the nonnegotiable principles (“pro-life,” the traditional family, rejection of same sex marriage, and procreation through surrogacy), which ended in a long trail of defeats since Humanae Vitae, the encyclical letter that banned sexual freedom and abortion (while the supposedly Catholic Ireland voted to ban abortion in 1983 with 66.9 percent of the vote, in May 2018 66.4 percent voted for allowing it); and 2) to defend the rights of a faith community turned into a shrieking minority. It is remarkable that at the occasion of the coronavirus epidemic the Catholic authorities, who are in line here with other faith leaders, accepted the secular rationality to fight the epidemic while protesting against the closure of the churches. They protested in the name of freedom of religion (or more precisely, in the name of religious “liberty”), turned into some sort of a minority right: “If people can go to MacDo, why not to the Church?” the bishops frequently ask. The Church seems to speak in the name of a small minority that feels excluded from society’s mainstream, one no longer Christian.