Europe in Search of Europeans   /   Spring 2014   /    Europe In Search Of Europeans

The Strange but Necessary Suppression of Europe's Christian Roots

Christian Joppke

St. Francis of Assisi, Dresden Cathedral; Creative Commons.

However unviable a Christian identity may be for political reasons, one still must acknowledge the formative power of Christianity in the making of Europe.

In light of the 2008 financial crisis and its sovereign debt sequel, it seems luxurious to muse on what the identity of Europe could be. If there ever was a “European” moment in the making of Europe, analogous to the “Italian” moment described by the nineteenth-century statesman Massimo d’Azeglio—“We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians”—it was short and it has passed. The current reality is angry Greeks waving swastikas at the German chancellor and utter incomprehension in Europe’s thriftier north toward the economic woes of the south. As the economic nuts and bolts of the European project are put into question, not to mention the European Union’s growing unpopularity even in its historical heartland, France and Germany, it seems almost anachronistic to ask last decade’s question about the “society” and “identity” that might undergird the European polity.

Untimely as such reflection may seem, I wish to argue that it is simultaneously plausible and futile to ground the identity of Europe in its Christian roots. It is plausible because before the era of nation-states Europe was much more of a social and cultural unity than it is now, and the content of that unity was the Christian religion. In God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis (2007), historian Philip Jenkins writes that “the very concept of Europe as a cultural rather than geographical expression emerged in the eighth century, during the conflicts between us—Latin Christian Europeans—and them, African and Asian Muslims.” As Jenkins’s observation immediately suggests, the Christian identity option is futile because, among other reasons, it does not facilitate the integration of the twenty million Muslims who live in Europe as a result of immigration.

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