Last week I discussed how the Euro crisis can be understood at the cultural level as a conflict between two ethics: northern European bourgeois prudence on the one hand and southern European extravagance—the sort of extravagance that gave us Bernini and St. Teresa of Avila—on the other hand.
Turns out that Mark Movsesian has been on this beat well before I showed up. At the Center for Law and Religion Forum, he cites an article by Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves on how the Euro crisis has, at least in part, split the continent on confessional divides:
When we still talk about new and old members, we still talk nonsense about “populism” in all the wrong ways. Indeed I believe that the “populism” and the “specter of the 30s” that all kinds of pundits unknowledgeably appeal to has nothing to do with the populism we see in Northern Europe. That is not a populism of the dispossessed, the unemployed. It is a populism more akin to what Calvin and Luther appealed to than what the fascists of the 1930s appealed to. It is, like most populism, based on resentment, and resentment at unfairness. But the unfairness is, as it was in the 16th Century, a resentment of those who flaunt their flouting the rules by which others abide. Resentment on the part of those who take commitments seriously regarding those who do not: Is that the “specter of the 30s”?
Movsesian also highlights Harvard historian Steven Ozment’s argument that Merkel’s Lutheranism provides the ethic behind the nothern European austerity project:
How little has changed in 500 years. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, a born-and-baptized daughter of an East German Lutheran pastor, clearly believes the age-old moral virtues and remedies are the best medicine for the euro crisis. She has no desire to press a secular ideology, let alone an institutional religious faith, on her country, but her politics draws unmistakably from an austere and self-sacrificing, yet charitable and fair, Protestantism.
If Ms. Merkel refuses to support so-called euro bonds, it is not because it would be like giving free money to the undeserving poor but because it would not help the redeemed poor take responsibility for their own houses and grow strong for both themselves and their needy neighbors. He who receives, recovers and profits from society in a time of need has a moral responsibility to pay society back by acting in turn as a strong citizen who can help fill the common chests and sacrifice for his now needy neighbors, who had once helped him. Such is the sacrificial Lutheran society.
It would be silly to ascribe the whole eurozone crisis to the different worldviews of Protestants and Catholics, and Ilves doesn’t do so. Some fiscally responsible countries that Ilves praises, like Austria and Poland, are historically Catholic. And, anyway, politics throughout Europe is quite secular, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. Still, one can’t help noticing that the “frugal” countries happen to be mostly northern and historically Protestant, and the “profligate” countries tend to be southern and historically Catholic (or Orthodox). Paging Max Weber!
It would be easy to overdraw this analysis, of course, and we should hesitate to assume that one ethic is more moral or “Christian” than the other. That said, it’s impossible to understand the cultural rhetoric of the current Euro crisis without some reference to Reformation and Counter-Reformation history.