I thank the contributors for expanding the conversation with enriching perspectives.
Of course, my book has its own limitations in geographical and conceptual terms (What is Europe? What is religion? Which Christianity?). Europe is for me the “Latin” Europe, meaning the Catholic Europe after the great schism of 1053 with Eastern Christian Orthodoxy. I consider that the European construction starting in 1954 was to some extent a secular version of “Catholicism” in the sense of a universalism, while the Protestant vision turned into an open secularist perspective embodied by postwar Social Democracy. Both postwar Christian and Social Democrats shared common values (democracy, human rights, the welfare state, and universalism), which are no longer at the core of the new political parties nor the contemporary Christian revivalist movements. Christian Democracy and Social Democracy as we knew them before the 1980s are both dead. What interested me is the consequent reshaping of the relations between Christianity and politics in Europe, and to some extend the United States, after the neoliberal shift of the 1980s put into question the welfare state.
The political space where this reshaping happens has been constructed for centuries in Europe by the complex relationship between secular powers and the Catholic Church. Protestantism, from a purely political point of view, has been a tool in the hands of the secular state to control religion. The Reformation in this sense is the triumph of the secular state, not against religion but against any church: the state oversees religion.
The other religions were either suppressed (Islam in Spain) or ghettoized (Judaism). The relatively recent recognition of religious freedom (usually in the first half of the nineteenth century) meant that the other religions have had to “format” themselves along the different forms of compromises elaborated with Christianity—from total separation between church and state (France) to concordat (Italy until 1984), or established national church (England and Scandinavian states). This formatting is today called “integration,” and the dominant model for integrating Islam in Europe. Another model, and an alternative to an integration perceived as a call for assimilation and as a postcolonial paradigm, is “multiculturalism.” But this has never been implemented in political terms in Europe and remains a mere slogan for activists. The concept of multiculturalism is marred in Europe by a constant confusion between culture and religion (a confusion that I studied in Is Europe Christian? for Christianity and in Globalized Islam for Islam). In the United States, although college campuses are full of speeches on “multiculturalism,” the political debate is more about race than on culture (Kamala Harris as well as Barack Obama are “black” and not the bearers of an African culture, nor the culture of the descendants of enslaved Africans).
There is no doubt that there is a cultural and intellectual Jewish and Muslim legacy in Europe (from arts to philosophy and sciences), but this legacy did not play a role in the structuring of the religious/political space. Once again, both Judaism and Islam had to format themselves along a Christian definition of religion in order to be recognized as religion in Europe. (The process is not achieved for Islam).
I agree, of course, that Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam have their own specificities, but I introduced in Holy Ignorance the concept of “formatting” to show how other “religions” are pushed, willingly or not, to adopt Christian criteria to define themselves. Judaism was reshaped in Europe as a mere religion after the end of the “ghettos” in the early nineteenth century. (The best know example is how Napoleon decreed an artificial French “Jewish community” that in fact became the “authentic” representation of the huge majority of French Jews.) I do not introduce here any value judgement on the legitimacy of this imposition of a Christian, white, and colonial hegemonic paradigm. The imposition has been largely adopted, even if subverted, by many non-Christian religious leaders, who saw in this formatting more an opportunity than a constraint. Even “non-Western” elites profit from this formatting, which entrenches state power as it reshapes religion in the very name of a “national identity.” Consider the way Indian Prime Minister Modi reconstructs Hinduism as a homogenous system of thoughts and beliefs, or the way Middle Eastern states are trying to construct a Muslim clergy in order to submit religion to the state. The reshaping of the religious field from rituals and faith to identity is not a purely European phenomenon.
Many contributors underlined the diversity of Christianity in Europe as well as in the United States; this a very relevant remark. Christianity is certainly more than a religion and no actual Christian church today has a copyright on it. Many believers, both in Europe and the United States, will not identify with my categories (faith versus identity, norms versus values). Many oppose populism and see in Pope Francis, though not a liberal, a pope with a missionary agenda who put values above strict norms.
Nevertheless, the post 1960s conservative trends in both Catholicism and Protestantism played a dominant role in reshaping the link between Christianity and politics in Europe and the United States. Religious conservatives positioned their faith communities in opposition to a secular and liberal culture perceived as dominant and hostile. After the sexual revolution of the sixties, they launched a counter offensive in the political field with the objective of rescinding or defeating the new laws that extended the domain of sexual freedom and gave legal sanction to the freedom of choice. The “Christian right” in the United States and the papacy of Jean Paul II embodied a political activism in favor of the “Christian family.”
Consequently, the Catholic Church of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and the US evangelicals have reshaped their churches into all or nothing faith communities (you are in only if you stress your personal commitment to God and Jesus) that go far beyond a cultural identity: it is a performative construction of religion.
It is not up to the social scientist to define what religion is. We should consider how religious people construct religion, how they act in the public sphere in the name of religion. Pope Benedict XVI in his “Address to the Members of the European People’s Party” made a strong statement about the nonnegotiable principles (which are also defended by US evangelicals). Such a stress on norms had a performative dimension. At stake is not whether this Christianity is “real.” The fact remains that the official stance of the Catholic Church and of the Christian conservative coalition in the United States has played a decisive role in the election of President Trump. This stance reshapes the links between religion and politics.
It contributes to a “we versus the others” vision of religion. The debate on religious freedom, which, in modern democracies, is about the right of an individual to practice (or not) the religion he or she chooses, has turned into a debate on “religious liberty,” an expression that is more frequently used within conservative circles to protect not the individual right to choose, but the collective right for a faith community to be exempted from laws and regulations that contradict the “nonnegotiable principles” of their collective.
Covid-19 accentuated this “corporatist” dimension of the faith communities. Instead of acting toward “others” by setting up charities, medical centers, or volunteers to bury the dead (a traditional Christian activity during plagues), most of the clerical authorities, Catholic and Protestant, lobbied for the respect of the spiritual needs of their flocks. They called for the reopening of places of worship, and protested the fact that restaurants and museums were allowed to reopen before churches (and quite often dismissing the importance of the epidemic). The churches acted here as a “labor union” fighting for the rights of their members, instead of entering a global social mission directed toward the poorest citizens.
This inner looking attitude, which stresses the closure of the community, turned quite naturally into an antimigrants and anti-Islam attitude, as well as an opposition to the defense of minorities (Blacks, Muslims, LGBT, feminists). The paradox is that the stress on the defense of traditional norms and values (explicitly identified with the patriarchal and white legacy of the West) led to an alliance with people and movements who do not care about Christian norms and values (Donald Trump being the very paradigm of the “useful” pagan).
Nevertheless, this construction of faith communities as closed communities fighting the dominant secular and liberal culture is not the whole story, as stressed by some contributors.
The debate on Christianity in the West is largely shaped by two recent phenomena. The first is immigration. In Europe it was associated with the surge of Islam. But the recent waves of migrants are less connoted with Islam and more interpreted in terms of an ethnic change in the Western population—from a white majority to a more multiethnic and multiracial society. The second phenomenon is the rise of feminism, BLM, and LGBT movements. These also question the dominant white patriarchalism. If there is a convergence of struggles between the different movements, there are also well-known fault lines: Is the wearing of the veil by Muslim women compatible with the emancipation of women? What about anti-LGBT prejudices among some ethnic minorities? et cetera. The polarization of activists does not necessarily correspond to the opposition of two clearly identified coalitions of shared values (conservative versus progressists).
As Michael Driessen and Agnès Desmazières note in their contributions to this forum, there is another less vocal trend among Christian believers that stresses the traditional social doctrine of the church versus the defense of “church liberty.” These believers distance themselves from both clerical corporatism and ethnonationalism by reclaiming the universalism of Christianity. They may give protection to asylum seekers, organize networks to protect undocumented migrants from expulsion, and strongly oppose the alliance of conservative Christians with populists. But they are not necessarily “liberal” in terms of sexual values.
Conversely there has been a rapprochement between conservative Christians and the supporters of a white West, at the expenses of Christian values. (The support of southern evangelicals for Trump is not based on shared values but on a convergence of interests.) In the Catholic Church this trend is now openly hostile to the present pope and is waiting for the “next pope” (which is a paradox because conservative Catholics are supposed to put obedience to the pope above their own opinions). Christianity, on the other side, is experiencing an interesting come back among the “secular progressive” movements, not necessarily in terms of personal faith, but in terms of values.
The debate on “cancel culture” exemplified the way values can circulate from one group to the other. Populists and conservative Christians claim that the West should be proud of its past; slavery and colonialism were not so bad, they say. History is a whole and we cannot handpick the good and the bad according to criteria that did not make sense at the time. Identity markers like names of people (like the emblematic personal “Christian name”), object (cross) or events (Christmas) should not be dropped in favor of inclusion of the “other.”
Conversely, “cancel culture” insists on repentance to allow forgiveness, but not forgetfulness. But the paradox of “cancel culture” is that it often refers to a traditional Christian repertoire and heritage: repentance and atonement, confession of sins and the fact that the original sin (here, colonialism) is transmitted from generation to generation, and can be washed out only if individuals take the responsibility of the guilt on their own shoulders.
In this sense there is certainly an autonomization of Christian values both from institutional churches and from a “Christian culture,” which has been turned into an identity marker.