Christianity in Europe: A Part of or Apart from Culture?

Article excerpt

It's impossible to understand European history without reference to religion. But it's less and less difficult to understand contemporary European society in purely secular terms. Two recent controversial political and legal decisions about the Christian cross and the Muslim minaret in Europe illustrate an increasing disconnect between religion and culture. First, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France, ruled that the presence of the crucifix in Italian classrooms violated the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. At the center of the decision was the question whether the crucifix was a cultural or religious symbol. The Italian government argued that the crucifix was a cultural symbol for the core values of modern democracy and the Italian state. The court disagreed. It held that the crucifix is predominantly a religious symbol whose presence in classrooms violates the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion of nonbelieving students and their right to an education that respects their personal beliefs. Second, in a referendum, the Swiss people decided with a 57.5 percent majority (53.4 percent turnout) to support a constitutional amendment prohibiting the building of minarets. Right-wing extremists initiated and pushed the campaign for the ban. The Swiss government and parliament and nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International opposed it. Notably, both the Roman Catholic Church and the Federation of Swiss Protestants also actively opposed the ban on grounds that it was discriminatory and incompatible with Christian values of religious freedom and toleration. Yet fear of Islam and immigrations prevailed in the minds of Swiss voters. The minaret ban exemplifies the waning influence of Christianity in Switzerland, rather than its strength. Some Christian thinkers have wanted Christianity to take a stance "against" culture. Seeing the world as a dark and sinful place, people like Tolstoy or St. Benedict wanted Christians to stay aloof from mainstream culture in order to criticize and shape it from a critical distance. Others, particularly liberal Protestants, have seen Christianity as part of culture. Sensing no great tension between the church and the world, this tradition tends to harmonize culture and religion, focusing on those cultural aspects that are most accordant with Christian principles. For centuries Christianity has been inextricably linked to European culture, in good and bad ways. It has brought Europe amazing cathedrals, magnificent art, values such human dignity and love, but also the Crusades, the Inquisition, religious wars, and imperialism. Yet following the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the rise of atheism, contemporary Europe has become deeply secularized. Church attendance and religious practices are in decline; cathedrals often feel more like museums than places of worship; and Christian leaders find it difficult to convince their flock of their official social doctrines and values. As a young Catholic Christian, I can understand why cultural Catholics and Italian politicians are upset about the ECHR's decision. I also share the political, legal, and religious concerns about the minaret ban and its potential negative impact on the situation of Christians who face discrimination or persecution in Muslim lands. However, I'm puzzled by the extent to which Christians all over Europe have defended a cultural interpretation of the crucifix. As the approval of the Swiss minaret against the views of Christian churches illustrates, the view that Europe has a "Christian identity" is becoming anachronistic. In its defense the Italian government held that "the crucifix is, in fact, exposed in classrooms, but in no way is it demanded that teachers or students show it any sign of salutation or reverence. …