Sunday, November 07, 2004

Buttiglione on Europe and America

One of the subjects that came up at the very successful Bruges Group Conference yesterday was the inevitable comparison between Europe and America in political and, interestingly, moral terms.

I shall write a little more about the conference itself in another blog, but, at this point I want to mention Bernard Connolly’s comments about the European ideology that has grown out of eighteenth century Jacobinism, that is the worship of the state and a short discussion, triggered off by one question. A member of the audience referred back to the undoubted fact that much of the pro-Bush vote was rooted in a certain moral and Christian attitude to life and asked whether an anti-EU vote could be galvanized on purely religious grounds.

The discussion did not get very far beyond repeating that the EU’s own state based ideology and state-defined morality is probably incompatible with a religious ethical outlook. As it happens, I think it is incompatible with any ethical outlook that believes in the primacy of individuals and individual opinions. But it is probably true that the United States is the one democracy where religion is supremely important and where moral questions become naturally part of a political debate. Britain today is rather different. That may change or, possibly, deep down it is not even true.

However, I do think and I did say at the conference, that the episode with Rocco Buttiglione is a very worrying one to all of us, whether we are Catholics or even believing Christians. As it happens the man himself wrote on the subject in the Wall Street Journal Europe last week. In an article entitled Of God and Men, Signor Buttiglione pointed to the inexorable drifting apart of Europe and America on
“their vision of a democratic society and of the proper relationship between politics and ethics”.
Buttiglione compared the views of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the American republic and co-author of The Federalist Papers with that of Jean Jacques Rousseau, progenitor of such ideas as the Will of the People. Hamilton, as Buttiglione puts it
“was convinced that politics needed values it could not produce itself and had to rely on other agencies (mainly the churches) to nurture the virtues civil life needsa. The state could therefore not privilege any church in particular but had to maintain a positive attitude to religion in general.”
This attitude would accept, one assumes, the centrality of moral thinking in political life.

“Jean Jacques Rousseau thought, on the contrary, that the state needed a kind of civil religion of its own and the existing churches had to bow to this civil religion by incorporating its commandments in their theology.”
Opponents of the religious in political point to the many wars and massacres that have been caused by religion in the past, as well as the oppressive nature of various churches. This is undeniably true.

On the other hand, religion, and Christianity in particular, has many other aspects that historically opposed the violence and oppression that the churches and the beliefs often engendered. One cannot say the same of the sort of civil religion or state worship that has grown out of Rousseau’s ideas. Not only has this, in its various guises, claimed millions of victims in the twentieth century alone, its positive vision is regimented and disdainful of individual liberty.

As Buttiglione points out, the state religion was predicated on an eventual change in people, their lives and values. Some of the values may have changed (history is nothing but a long tale of changing values) but many of the same circumstances have remained. The article contrasts the fact that Americans, by and large, have accepted this, while the Europeans are still struggling in the toils of their own state religion.

He ends with the following words:
“Our struggling economy and ageing society can survive and be modernized only if we recover at least some of the values of the past – among them the ethics of hard working and caring fathers and mothers.

This is difficult in Europe because our intellectuals were always convinced that modernity brings with itself the extinction of religious faith. Now America, the most advanced country in the world, shows us that religion may be and indeed is a fundamental element of a free society and of a modern economy.”
As the old examination papers used to say: discuss.

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