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May|June 2004
L.A. Lawlessness By Jeff Turrentine
Piety and the Preamble By Robert Howse

Piety and the Preamble

Joseph Weiler's A Christian Europe claims a place for Christianity in Europe's proposed new constitution.

By Robert Howse

DRAFTING A CONSTITUTION FOR THE EUROPEAN UNION has mostly involved working out the mechanics of federalism: How to divvy up power between the national governments and Europe's capital in Brussels, and how to apportion votes among members in a manner acceptable to states both large and small, present and prospective. But since the process began in 2002, it has also raised fundamental questions about Europe's religious identity. Led by Pope John Paul II, some Catholics have argued that Europe's constitution should contain a reference to the continent's Christian heritage or Christian values.

The proposal has caused a sensation. Germany, Ireland, Poland, and Slovakia support a reference to Christianity in the constitution; France, true to its secular Enlightenment tradition, is fiercely opposed. Leading French political figures, such as Olivier Duhamel, a member of the European Parliament, argue that officially recognizing Christianity in the European constitution would lead to disunity by turning groups like agnostics and Muslims into second-class European citizens. Others suspect the proposal is intended to fuel the opposition to E.U. admission of Turkey, one of only two majority-Muslim countries in Europe (along with Albania). The final draft that came out of the constitutional convention in Brussels has made no mention of Christianity. The convention's head, former French president Val�ry Giscard d'Estaing, has resisted such wording, despite intensive lobbying by the Vatican and the pope himself.

Joseph Weiler, a well-known scholar of E.U. law who teaches at New York University, has jumped into this fray with A Christian Europe, a book-length essay to be published later this year. (The book came out last year in Italy under the title Un'Europa cristiana.) Weiler argues that the preamble of the new European constitution should contain a reference to the "Judeo-Christian tradition." As a legal matter, his proposed language would have at most a marginal effect. (In some hard cases, the preamble might be used to interpret the provisions of the constitution.) But Weiler, who is an Orthodox Jew, thinks it's essential for the constitution to make that acknowledgment for symbolic and spiritual reasons.

A mere reference to the Judeo-Christian tradition might not seem like much of a concession to the pious, especially when tucked into a preamble with a grab bag of other tributes to European heritage, like allusions to Classical Greece and Rome. (The preamble opens with a line from Thucydides and refers to Europe as "a continent that has brought forth civilization.") But religion remains a divisive topic throughout the continent. The lower house of France's parliament just banned from public schools most forms of religious dress, most notably Islamic head scarves but also Jewish kippot and large Christian crosses. At the same time, a perceived rise in violent anti-Semitism throughout Western Europe has prompted anxiety and concern there and in the United States. And some Western Europeans fear that Eastern countries like Poland, set to join the E.U. this year, may bring with them unexorcised ghosts from an intolerant religious past, as well as a threat to the generally progressive consensus about matters like gender equality, abortion, and birth control.

Weiler's argument starts off rather unceremoniously. He says that the constitution should include a reference to the Judeo-Christian tradition for the sake of pan-European identity, and out of respect for the diverse traditions that have existed in different countries, some of them recent (Germany, since 1947) and others quite ancient (the U.K.). We learn from Weiler that the wall between church and state that many American liberals take for granted is hardly the norm in Europe. While France and Italy have strictly secular traditions under their constitutions, England still has an established church, as does Greece; Denmark subsidizes Lutheranism. In all, about half of Europeans live in countries without constitutions that strictly divide church from state.

Weiler argues that omitting any reference to Christianity from the European constitution would unjustly favor secular constitutional traditions over the others. "To express in the Preamble a symbolism appropriated from Italian and French secularism necessarily entails negating the English, Greek, and German constitutional sensibility," he writes. In his view, there is no way to make the E.U.'s constitution neutral about religion, because "making reference to religion offends the secular constitutional sensibility; silence on religion offends the religious constitutional sensibility."

But the traditional role of the church in some countries doesn't necessarily signal a current endorsement of the intertwining of church and state or a recognition of religion as a vital aspect of national identity. To what extent does the Church of England, established by Henry VIII, represent the will of today's British citizens? If they were writing a constitution today, would they favor an established religion?

Believers differ among themselves over the appropriate place, if any, for expressing their religious identity in the public arena. Tony Blair, by all accounts a devout Christian, has notably distanced himself from the proposal to mention Christianity in the European constitution. In France, some Jewish and Islamic groups have supported the ban on religious garb on the grounds that it facilitates equality and respect by increasing the odds that their members will be treated like other citizens.

Weiler himself acknowledges that believers don't agree about a public role for religion, and he makes a specific appeal to devout Christians who have resisted the drive for a constitutional enshrining of Christianity. Among the reasons for the diffidence of many Catholics, according to him, is their sense of culpability for the Holocaust, in particular because of the close ties between the Catholic Church and Mussolini and Hitler. (In 1929, the Vatican and Mussolini signed the Lateran Pact, in which each recognized the legitimate power of the other; and some scholars have described Pius XII as "Hitler's pope," saying he helped the F�hrer exterminate the Jews in order to advance the Vatican's interests.)

Weiler argues that fear of organized Christianity is no longer reasonable; he says that the Catholic Church has "changed." One piece of evidence he cites is the Redemptoris Missio, a 1990 missive in which the pope exhorted his followers to continue evangelizing, but to do so respectfully by "proposing" rather than "imposing" the truth of Christ. Even if one shares Weiler's benign view of today's church, however, a sanitized constitutional reference to Europe's Christian past would be a form of deceit. It may deny reality to exclude Christianity from the E.U.'s foundational document, but it would be equally deceptive to omit mention of the church's contribution to the conflict, bloodshed, and intolerance that today's project of European integration aims to overcome. Weiler also appears to gloss over the complexities of the historical record in his dismissal of Rolf Hochuth's play The Deputy, a polemical treatment of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the fascists. The Lateran Pact was not a figment of Hochuth's dramatic imagination; it is a historical document that needs to be faced squarely by anyone seeking to affirm Christianity's role in Europe's past.

But perhaps these criticisms miss the point. Does Weiler secretly hope (though he does not explicitly say so) to force Europeans to confront the complexities of their historic relationship to Christianity and Judaism? Weiler hints at this in an opening letter to the reader. "To refuse to discuss Christianity is also to refuse to confront Europe's past," he writes. Perhaps his underlying thought is that Europeans don't deserve a constitution if they haven't reckoned with their troubled past, with its horrors as well as its splendors.

A CHRISTIAN EUROPE IS DEEPER AND STRONGER when it leaves behind its attention-getting argument about the preamble of the European Union and moves into the mode of "exploratory essay" promised by the book's subtitle. In these chapters, Weiler's fundamental proposition is that the "discipline of tolerance" should be the ethical core of the European project. This conception of tolerance requires genuine pride and conviction in one's own beliefs. It recognizes the possibility that the "other," whether Christian or Muslim, secular or religious, is denying some reality central to one's own understanding of the world, and it respects that other as an equal despite this difference. This contrasts with the prevailing secularist claim that the goal of the European Union is to move cultural and religious differences to the private sphere and create a pan-European identity.

Weiler relates his discipline of tolerance to his argument for explicitly recognizing Europe's Christian history. He identifies the view that religion should remain outside Europe's public spaces with a relativist and skeptical approach to moral and religious truth. Seen from this perspective, religion is just another consumer taste, to be pursued in private life like any hobby or pastime. Weiler thinks this attitude, which he sometimes calls "postmodern," is really about trying to render religion benign—incapable of any longer giving rise to persecution and oppression, but also weightless and unserious. If there is no truth, and religion is merely a lifestyle choice, then what's not to tolerate?

According to Weiler, secular, postmodern relativism spiritually impoverishes the public sphere. It leaves homogenous mass consumption and celebrity pop culture to fill the void. Values such as self-sacrifice and the quest for spiritual truth disappear. "Our society preaches hard work, engagement, and dedication when it comes to the workplace," he writes; but after work, we can let ourselves go, avoiding sacrifice or commitment.

Like Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind, Weiler sees relativism as inimical to a deep spiritual and mental life. He suspects that it has thrived not by being grounded in meaningful lived experience but by serving as a dogma that allows people who are different to put up with each other and even achieve conditions of freedom and equality. If his discipline of tolerance can substitute for relativism as a bulwark against oppression, then we can liberate ourselves from the unhealthy effect of postmodernism on the soul, which, for Weiler, is a genuine spiritual crisis.

Whether or not one shares Weiler's dismay, it is in these pages that the extraordinary depth and originality of his effort emerges, for he has successfully linked the drafting of a European constitution to a reckoning with the spiritual condition of postmodernity. Europe's politicians and technocrats would like nothing better than to steer clear of contentious identity politics and painful re-examination of the continent's past. But in light of the furor over Turkey's status, the rise of anti-Semitism, and France's ban on head scarves in public schools, how realistic is such an avoidance strategy?

Constitutional legitimacy is normally based on the consent of a demos, or the making of the constitution by a people. But the delegates to the European constitutional convention were not directly elected to play that role. The document produced by this body will eventually go to the people for their approval, either in national referenda or through parliamentary debate. When that happens, the underlying conflicts over European identity and questions about the spiritual condition of Europeans will be hard to ignore. Privately, some of the constitution's drafters have wondered whether they may have to backtrack by removing the label "constitution" from their new blueprint for Europe, precisely because it implies a fundamental agreement about the nature of the political community that does not really exist. The drafters may want to be grandiose by using "constitution," but they would rather not wade into the deep waters of identity politics.

Given these tensions, Weiler's discipline of tolerance appears to offer a sober and politically moderate reconception of European integration. Viewed through Weiler's lens, the E.U. is not a superstate that aims to place itself above national identities and traditions; rather, it rejects the nation-state's tendency, at the extreme, to suppress differences in identity. Europe represents the willingness of each nation to cede some of its sovereignty in order to live well with the others. Thus tolerance, not pan-European identity, becomes the guiding light of European constitutionalism.

There are also good political reasons to pursue a discipline of tolerance as an alternative to secularism. Forcing believers to adhere to secularist neutrality or retreat to the ghetto, as the recent French law on head scarves would seem to do, can breed hatred and violence. This approach pushes to the margins believers who live out their faith in part through public expression. Weiler's goal is for Europe's peoples—Muslims and Christians, Westerners and Slavs, Jews and Gentiles—to live together on terms of social equality and mutual respect. Even those who are profoundly skeptical of his argument for constitutionally affirming Europe's religious past, as I am, should recognize that a discipline of tolerance may be needed if Europe is to achieve that goal.

Robert Howse is a law professor at the University of Michigan. He is the co-editor (with Kalypso Nicolaidis) of The Federal Vision: Legitimacy and Levels of Governance in the United States and the European Union.

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