Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians: 
The Religious Roots of Free Societies
by marcello pera
encounter, 224 pages, $23.95

A former president of the Italian senate and coauthor with Pope Benedict of Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, Marcello Pera describes our postreligious West as an ethically neutral domain deprived of any substantive notion of the good, and does not hesitate to call this a moral and spiritual crisis of our civilization. He addresses Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians, his appeal for a reclamation of the Christian underpinnings of liberal societies, to both Christians and “liberals”—his term for supporters of the Western cultural tradition based on individual rights and freedoms—and particularly liberals who define themselves as secular.

Christianity and Western liberal democracy will stand or fall together, he argues, but liberalism has severed the historical and conceptual ties that once linked it to Christianity. In this book, he examines the consequences of a secularist definition of liberalism, presents the European Union as a negative case study to illustrate the secularist hypothesis, and deals with the paradoxes of cultural relativism.

The essential connection between liberal thought and Christianity lies in a crucial fact: The Christian notion that the human being is created in the image of God is the foundation of the Western idea of freedom as a gift not from society or the state but from God himself. Without this religious source, any notion of the human is lost, and the exercise of freedom swings wildly between complete individual license and total state control. This pivotal notion was shared by both European and American fathers of liberalism such as Locke, Kant, Jefferson, and Adams, and it still provides the strongest grounds for the defense of human rights and dignity.

Moreover, Pera urges, “we must not allow our yearning for the divine and the sacred, our experience of mystery and the infinite to be purged from our inner life. We cannot be whole human beings without these dimensions. And we cannot be liberals of only one dimension.” He is making a crucial point here. Individual and absolute autonomy cannot be the guiding value of Western civilization; if it were, our interactions with each other would devolve into exploitation and coercion. The Christian’s attitude of being open to the transcendent allows him to recognize as a fantasy the “giddy feeling of omnipotence and absolute freedom which at first elates him and then depresses and degrades him.”

Awareness of our limitations becomes even more important as technological advances broaden the scope of individual desire. New bioethics issues prompted by advances in genetics, as well as more classic issues, like abortion, can be seen in a different light if we assume that individual autonomy is simply not sufficient to lead our scientific and technological development along a humanizing path. For that, we need to reintroduce a notion of transcendence into the very definition of the human being.

Pera is very critical of the way Europe is marching toward its political unification. He does not oppose European unification in principle but sees Europe’s attempt as a standardizing, technocratic process led by bureaucrats, dismissive of the democratic and cultural dimension necessary for a robust union. In the wake of the present economic crisis and the threat of the European Union’s dissolution, his criticism seems even more accurate than it did in 2008, when the Italian edition of the book was published.

He observes that, since Europe has not emerged as a collective actor with an identity of its own, it is only natural that the hard times have prompted governments, elites, and entire peoples alike to fall back upon their national “fundamentals”—that is, their old cultures and interests—with some chauvinistic revival. This is why, for example, the so-called European Constitution has been rejected in the referenda held in important countries like France and the Netherlands. This is also why it is so difficult for the European partners to build enough trust among themselves to find a common way out of the present financial turmoil.

But what can act as the “soul” of Europe, its unifying identity? Pera argues against Jürgen Habermas’ notion of “constitutional patriotism,” a patriotism directed toward a legal framework for mutual understanding and the respect of individual rights—in this case, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is often proposed as a substitute for any substantive set of common values, notion of the good, or heritage.

Constitutional patriotism presents itself as an attractive choice to Europeans eager to avoid the old conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century, conflicts rooted in nationalism. However, it involves a procedural, positivistic, ahistorical type of legitimation, leaving Europeans with nothing really common except the procedure itself. The outcome can only be an abstract and boundless community made up of pure individuals. Moreover, Pera points out, the mutual understanding and respect for individual rights upon which constitutional patriotism depends presupposes a respect for the human person while providing no account of the person that would warrant such respect.

Its shared Christian heritage, Pera argues, is the natural, indeed the only feasible, unifying soul for Europe. Yet Europe seems intent to expunge Christianity from its past and present. There is, for example, no mention of the continent’s Christian heritage in the European Constitution or the Treaty of Lisbon. And in its efforts to foster multiculturalism, Europe allows other religious or cultural communities to remain ambivalent about their loyalty to the Western “canon” of rights and freedoms.

Pera points this out not to question the goodwill of immigrant communities—although he dedicates some frank words to contemporary Islam—but to highlight the inner weakness of a European identity. This results in the double standard, used by many countries, whereby the Christian heritage is rejected, as for example when nations neutralize their educational programs and environments in the alleged attempt to “respect” other religious and lifestyle communities.

All of those who come to live in Europe, Pera insists, should be required to join in a “civil conversion.” By this he means a thorough acceptance not of Christian religion but of its cultural consequences in terms of the natural freedoms and rights of all persons.

The book offers a wide and consistent set of arguments for why Europe should want to call itself Christian. But we must ask how the West can still call itself Christian. Pera distinguishes two kinds of Christians: Christians by culture and Christians by faith. Christians by culture, even though they do not live in the fullness of faith, admire the Christian message and believe it has brought about an “unprecedented moral revolution of love, equality, and dignity, whose effects are still at work today.” (Pera places himself in this camp.) Christians by faith share in the religious experience proper. He maintains that the former attitude is necessary for the flourishing of liberalism while the latter is not.

In principle, Pera is surely correct that the civilizational value of the Christian message is accessible in purely rational terms. But in the long run Christians by culture could hardly exist without some communities of actual believers concretely witnessing their faith as active minorities. Thus, the basic conditions for these communities to survive and thrive should always be guaranteed by those who hold political power, even though they may not share the Christian faith. These communities, in turn, should think of themselves and shape their political cultures in terms of the contribution they can make to their inescapably pluralistic society and civilization.

Modern liberalism must rediscover its religious roots. But such roots are precious precisely because they are partially external to Western modernity and can therefore look at it critically and provide the source of a new humanistic thinking.

The welfare state is a good case in point. It is clearly one of the “falling gods” of European modernity, and Pera is right to criticize it. He comes to a somewhat radical conclusion, however, when he claims that wedding freedom with social justice produces a strange and incongruous hybrid. If he rightly argues, citing Tocqueville, that state control of civic life makes people passive and indifferent to the common good, he remains quite vague about what the alternative might be. It would be inconceivable for Europe to turn to some old-fashioned laissez-faire, which would cause more problems than it could ever solve.

What’s more, Pera does not tackle the complex religious roots of welfare cultures. The very idea that society—not just individuals of goodwill—should take care of the poor and the weak is part of the Christian heritage he urges Europe not to abandon, and this heritage would be simply inconceivable without it.

Complex societies must find a new way to conceive of the relationships between ethnic communities and territory and of a new idea of a welfare society beyond the welfare state and laissez-faire liberalism. Rather than being just a relic of the past, the Christian religious tradition can provide vital resources to meet these challenges.

If I had to express in one sentence the real situation Pera brings to light, I would formulate it by inverting the ancient Westphalian formula: cuius regio, euis religio (he who rules, his the religion) as cuius religio, eius regio (he who is religious, rules). Only those who can revive an awareness of their profound identity in God’s image and remain open to transcendence can still “give order” to a country, call it their own, and build a shared destiny within its borders and with human communities globally.

Andrea M. Maccarini is professor of sociology at the University of Padova, Italy.