The Changing Civil Religion of Secular Europe

By Ventura, Marco | The George Washington International Law Review, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Changing Civil Religion of Secular Europe


Ventura, Marco, The George Washington International Law Review


In the last two decades, Europeans have grown increasingly exposed to the global market while they have experienced a rising degree of internal integration due to the creation of the European Union and the impact of the European Court of Human Rights' jurisdiction. This transformation has caused many, both within and outside of Europe, to question the identity of Europe and the very existence of a core of principles, values, and convictions likely to be considered as the European civil religion.1

Following World War II, Europe developed as a single market as well as a common political and legal space devoted to liberal democracy and human rights.2 Can this be considered the European civil religion? If so, what is the role of religion, particularly Christianity, in this civil religion?

The debate on European civil religion is dominated by two fundamental questions. First, if Christianity is to be considered a substantial part of the European civil religion, how was it possible for Christians to fight and kill each other in the name of God for centuries? Unless a simply moral explanation is accepted-that Christians slaughtered each other because they were bad Christians-a deep contradiction must be addressed: how could Christianity represent the principle of religious and civil unity beyond national borders yet be the reason why nations and peoples went to war with each other? In other words, how could Christianity simultaneously represent a divisive factor and a shared identity, both in the past as well as in contemporary Europe?3

The second question concerns how secularization, as a cultural and social process, led Europe to adopt the secular free market of ideas, faiths, goods, persons, and capital as its peculiar civil religion. 4 In the Liberal Age after the Enlightenment, religion was not given up in Europe, despite anti-religious and anti-clerical pressure. Instead, Christianity continued to be a substantial part of the European civil religion, but society, public policies, and to some extent religion itself became more secular. This raises the question: how could the civil religion of human rights and the single free market pull together the secular and the religious?5

This Article attempts to answer these questions. First, this Article analyzes the period in which developing nation-states established national churches. Second, it examines the Liberal Age, when rights and liberties were recognized as the basis of coexistence in a free democratic society without jettisoning the Christian legacy of Europe. Third, it discusses the transformation of post-World War II Europe into a secular market based on the free circulation of ideas, faiths, goods, persons, and capital.

I. THE CIVIL RELIGION OF CHRISTIANITY: CONFESSIONAL STATES AND ESTABLISHED CHURCHES

From the fourth century to the nineteenth century, Europe underwent a fundamental transition from the original alliance between the Christian Church and the Roman Empire to a plural landscape featuring a multiplicity of churches and states that took shape after the Reformation.

During the first three centuries after the death of Jesus Christ, the Roman Empire fought Christians. Then Christianity was recognized in the Empire as possessing the legal status of religio licita, or "tolerated religion," by Constantine's Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. In 380 A.D., an edict of Emperor Flavius Theodosius made Christianity the Empire's sole legitimate religion. In this phase, the first ecumenical councils6 defined the Christian orthodoxy7 and celebrated the church's alliance with the Roman Emperor.8

Following the integration of Christianity into the Roman Empire, which was complete by the end of the fifth century, Pope Gelasius put the unity of Christianity under the dualist power of the Pope and the Emperor. As Gelasius explained to Emperor Anastasius: "There are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power. …

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