Unsurprisingly, Olivier Roy’s latest book is replete with stunning insights, often expressed in pithy take-homes embedded in a sweeping historical view. Over many years and many books, Roy, formed in politics and through Afghanistan fieldwork, has developed a distinctive view on religion in contemporary Europe. Initially applied to Islam, his perspective is here elaborated regarding Christianity, a shift that gives him, and us, the occasion to think comparatively.

Answering the question that is the book’s title requires a sense of what we mean by “Christian.” It may also depend on what we mean by “religion,” especially as Roy sometimes reasons from a claim about Christianity to the related claim about Islam. One of the book’s more engaging features is the author’s clarity about what does and does not matter in the study of religion. The elements of religion that Roy identifies, what we could call his social ontology of religion, include values, theology, and politics. In accounting for the changing face of religion in Europe, only values and politics matter; their interplay provides the rich material at the core of the book. Theology, or doctrine, appears as a kind of summing up after the fact, with more or less staying power, that can do little in the face of changing currents in values and politics. Concordats and ideas about sexuality matter; Vatican II, not so much.

The main story is that, in the modern era, the Church accepted secular power and civil society. It relied on common values as providing a bridge to the secular world of politics, until those values crumbled in the 1960s. Thereafter, the reigning conceptions about humans (what Roy calls an “anthropology”) lose their value foundations: human kinship becomes either merely biological or merely contractual. Increasingly, what passes for the religious is in fact the identitarian. The same occurs with respect to politics, where in Europe, opposition to immigration and Islam can draw on the clash of civilizations rhetoric but is not about values, as the far-right includes those who are quite liberal on, say, sexual issues. Here, the clearest contrast is with the US Protestant alliance with the political right.

Less important in this story than many readers might think are doctrinal pronouncements, notably Vatican II. Indeed, for Roy, religious reconciliation with democracy has not depended on theological change. This is the case with the Church and, he suggests, mainly in several asides, it is just as true for Islam. Islam does not need to be reformed to fit in.

Today’s situation is, for Roy, a disaster. His hope is that Europe will reembrace values, drawing from liberalism and from what remains of the Christian tradition, which should be distinguished from the merely identitarian component of Christianity. On a number of occasions, Roy makes clear that this tradition includes practice and knowledge, both now lamentably in tatters.

As I read Roy, he reserves a place for a religion that is not admixed with other types of things, such as identity, or psychology, or secular law. Mingling or crossing boundaries makes religion into something else. When US courts side with religious law on grounds that to do otherwise would weaken a religion-based sense of community, this may seem to be good for religion (see the discussion here), but for Roy the court justification turns religion into something profane, a set of practices with a social-psychological function. Indeed, precisely this sort of justification can provide a strong defense of religious or cultural protections (as in Will Kymlicka’s Multicultural Citizenship). The mere and minimum participation in religious rituals, shorn of knowledge and faith, does not, for Roy, allow one to characterize a society as religious, or Europe as Christian. These limited forms of involvement count as Christian only in an incomplete sense, as an identity rather than as in an ideal type. True religion involves the harmonious combination of theology, practice, and faith.

Now, what would we think about the same question were it posed in other places? Is Indonesia Muslim? Is India Hindu? In the former case, a place where I work, a large majority of Indonesians identify as Muslims, and they would agree with basic elements of doctrine and would recognize their obligations regarding religious practice (the “five pillars” of Islam). Muslims can take their civil law matters to a separate system of Islamic courts. So, maybe Indonesia is Muslim. But what if many, or, for the sake of argument, most of those self-identifying Muslims neglect most of the pillars and know little of the religion’s doctrines? Would we not then consider it little more Islamic than Europe is Christian? Nor is it structurally Muslim: Indonesia is officially multi-confessional, and the public school system as well as the main court system are not Islamic. (And what then of the Ottoman Empire?) Much the same could be said of India: the ferocity of the state-led effort to make it more Hindu is precisely because the country was founded on multi-confessional principles.

If we follow the criteria set out in Is Europe Christian?, could the answer to the corresponding question posed to any society ever be affirmative? It is hard to see how. We could propose instead a nominalist view, which would lead us to ask not “Is that really Christian?” but “How and why are they invoking that term?” In Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, I would be more interested in “Christian” as a category of practice than a category of analysis.

And is this really Roy’s question? Perhaps by way of posing this question, he is really answering another. Even as he points out that Europeans do not seem to know much or care much about Church doctrine (or even bother to show up for services), Roy constructs a running argument concerning how citizens of each European country (and the United States) have adapted their practices and arguments to broad social changes, each in radically different ways. And Roy gives us all the arguments for such an approach.

The experience that Europeans of all religions share is the inescapable fact of religious pluralism (as Charles Taylor argues in A Secular Age). What divides them are their distinctive national (and sometimes subnational) trajectories of response to that shared fact. This question is in fact the one for which Roy provides a productive framework. The passing references to the United States versus Europe provide a useful clue. The moral frameworks that provide structures of justification for political arguments differ across countries, and our question then concerns those frameworks and the historical reasons for their differences. At this level of analysis, “Europe” drops out of the framework, and national divergences and trajectories come into focus.

For example, the specific trajectory of the Netherlands, whereby a strong libertarian argument emerged out of the urban revolt against Calvinism but carried along with it the striking mix of intolerant Calvinism and extensive cold tolerance of other religions, has now been transposed to a moral framework lacking explicit religious references. As Roy rightly says, it is a cultural nationalism that underlies anti-Islamic and anti-EU emotions, not an explicitly religious one. But it derives its moral force from the religious conservative past, and that past is still present in towns and villages not so visible to the urban tourist.

As we build up a series of contrasting trajectories, perhaps the best close-contrast case to read against the Netherlands is not France, which is, understandably, Roy’s implicit starting point for his arguments, but the United States, where the religious fervor retains its Protestant moral framework. Thereafter, our units of explanation might be a set of flow charts, one per country, in which religious, political, and cultural orientations and motivations diverge and merge.

Roy minimizes the force of doctrinal claims. And yet, surely part of the story of religious change involves people who draw their moral sense from religious resources and do justify their actions, to themselves and to others, in terms of those religious resources. It also leads us to ask how those in positions of religious authority attune their views to shifts in practical life, just as ordinary followers pay attention to new ways of thinking on the part of religious authorities. These dialectics of popular and official religion occur somewhat under the radar.

Granted, certain seismic shifts in modern anthropologies (in Roy’s sense), regarding gender and sexuality, for example, are in no way the product of religious rethinking; official religion appears as an effort to restrain these shifts. But it also provides new ways of squaring traditions with anthropologies, by way of textual reinterpretations.

These dialectics sometimes can best be seen locally. A small example: in Indonesia, as in many Muslim-majority societies, a saying of the Prophet to the effect of “you shall have many pious children” was the basis for preachers to oppose the government’s birth control policies. Egypt’s al-Azhar had presented an alternative interpretation of the saying, with an emphasis on what it takes to raise pious children in today’s world. The take-home message was that having fewer children made the task easier. Indonesia sent some of its scholars and preachers to Egypt to learn the new argument, and upon their return, the message from mosques changed—as did popular attitudes toward birth control programs. (This is an approach to Islam that I develop in relation to Indonesia in works that include Islam, Law and Equality in Indonesia.)

So this alternative focus is on what people do, and in terms of what moral worlds they justify what they do. Not delimited spheres of justice, but multiple moral worlds that provide points of reference, often in multiple and conflicting ways. The question would then be, not “Is Europe Christian?” (or is Indonesia Muslim, or is India Hindu), but what are the practices of orienting action and justifying those actions that involve recourse to self-styled religious frames? And, what are the structures of orientation and control that facilitate, impede, steer, and control these practices and justifications? Roy constructs a running argument concerning how citizens of each European country (and the United States) have adapted their practices and arguments to broad social changes, each in radically different ways. And Roy gives us all the arguments for such an approach.