An Atheist Argues for Europe's Christianity

Saturday Book Pick: Marcello Pera's Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians

The theme of Marcello Pera’s Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians is that the modern, liberal, secular state that holds the individual’s rights as a given commits suicide if it forgets its religious foundation.

In the first chapter, Pera, a self-proclaimed atheist and president of the Italian Senate from 2001 to 2006, notes that in Europe a liberal is what in America would be called a conservative and what is called liberalism in America is called socialism in Europe. Modern European liberalism, he writes, is an apostasy from Christianity and is identified with secularism. Both of these phenomena are vestiges of anti-clericalism (some of it well-deserved; some not). The fathers of liberalism , among whom he counts John Locke, Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson, all agreed that Christianity was the highest form of religion, despite their deism, and “Basic human rights must be seen as the gift of God, to use Jefferson’s phrase.”

This is something Europe has forgotten:

The main flaw of liberalism today is that it has retreated into a solely political and procedural dimension and has forgotten that it is also a tradition with a rich, specific ethical content rooted in European and American history — a history of which Christianity is an essential part. Modernity has resisted and waged war against the Church, while feeding abundantly on its Christian heritage. Its very exaltation of the individual pays secular homage to the Christian message that man was created by God in order to discover the truth about himself and the world.

Pera, who teaches at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, distinguishes between American and European understandings of liberalism:

In Europe, liberals favor the limiting of governmental powers, the autonomy of civil society, and the noninterference of the state in the market. They promote intermediary institutions and prize individual liberty above all. In America, liberals today either oppose all these freedoms of favor restricting and regimenting them for “the common good.” In Europe, where the state is padre padrone (father and master), liberals see it as the adversary. In America, where the state was traditionally viewed as a necessary evil, liberals now often see it as an ally. Politically speaking, liberals in Europe tend to the right, while in America they tend to the left. The European equivalent for the American term “liberal” is “socialist,” while the American equivalent for the European term “liberal” is “conservative.”

Pera describes how European philosophers and politicians have tried to forge European unity on the basis of anything but religion, mostly through such ideas as constitutional patriotism, a definition of which, he says, its proponents have not even been able to agree upon.

But he begins this explanation with a mock correspondence based on a work of Montesquieu, which I found tiresome and distracting. Fortunately, he lets it go after a few pages and returns to straight philosophical argument, at which he excels.

In the third chapter, he shows how, up to a point, multiculturalism is a good idea; but if the country trying it out does not have a strong sense of its own culture, it will wither in the face of stronger cultures. And besides, it doesn’t work — the minority cultures end up in their own ghettos, unwilling to integrate their religion into a workable civil relationship with the main culture. We have to be able to recognize and say that Western liberal culture is better than ones in which there is polygamy, female genital mutilation, and no respect for religious freedom and individual dignity.

In the end, Pera says, Europe must choose.

“As the history of liberalism and modernity shows, the Christian choice to give oneself to God, or to act, velut si Deus daretur, as if God existed, has yielded the best results.”

The only part he leaves out of his argument, though, is why Europe needs to be united in the first place. Europe would be less prone to turmoil if it practiced what it used to preach, but does that mean it has to have a common currency and parliament?

Despite this missing element, Pera’s book is well worth reading for anyone interested in the political situation in Europe these days.

Register correspondent Franklin Freeman writes from Saco, Maine.



The Religious Roots of Free Societies

By Marcello Pera

Translated by L. B. Lappin

Preface by Pope Benedict XVI

Encounter Books, 2011

220 pages, $23.95

To order:

(800) 786-3839