George Weigel sees a cautionary tale in Europe that Americans would be wise to heed. Referencing German scholar, Ernst-Friedrich Boeckenfoerde he notes “that the modern liberal-democratic state faced a dilemma: It rested on the foundation of moral-cultural premises—social capital—that it could not itself generate. Put another way, it takes a certain kind of people, formed by a certain kind of culture to live certain virtues, to keep liberal democracy from decaying into new forms of authoritarianism…”
As you would expect from the title – “God & Brexit” – Weigel suspects that the God deficit in Europe led to the EU’s much commented upon democracy deficit against which UKIP and the other Eurosceptic parties are reacting. Weigel notes that the primary architects of the EU, Adenauer, Gasper, and Schumann were all Roman Catholics and that their vision for Europe involved a bet on European culture:
The wager underlying this project, as these men conceived it, was that there was enough of Christian or biblical culture left in Europe to sustain democratic pluralism in a “union” of sovereign states that would respect national and regional distinctiveness. And that Christian or biblical “remainder” involved the Catholic social-ethical principle of “subsidiarity”: the idea that decision-making should be left at the lowest possible local level (as in classic American federalism, where local governments do some things, state governments do other things, and the national government does things that local and state governments can’t do).
What Adenauer and his colleagues envisioned was a liberal democratic reboot of the Holy Roman Empire. Where the Empire was composed of more or less sovereign states (mostly monarchies in one form or another) united by a common faith and electing an Emperor, the new Europe would be a union of liberal democracies united by an inherited Christian culture and working together on certain common problems through a representive body. What they envisioned as perhaps becoming a federation became instead a union – a union that that European people don’t seem to want. Where the federation would have respected the rights and cultures of its members, the union demands state-enforced homogeneity.
But the wager hasn’t paid off. Weigel argues that they lost the wager because there wasn’t enough Christian or biblical culture left to sustain the project, that when what he calls the “Culture of the Self” took root after “biblical religion collapsed, as it manifestly has in most of Old Europe and too much of New Europe after 1989, commitments to subsidiarity and its respect for difference imploded as well.”
Weigel is mostly right though he leaves some big questions unanswered – mostly because they are outside the scope of this short, but excellent essay. There are questions for both Europe and America – and important questions about the necessary conditions of freedom. Subsidiarity isn’t just a Roman Catholic notion, the principle is present in Reformed ecclesiology as well and certainly influenced some of the American Founders (Madison was educated by Presbyterian clergymen). So while the oft-repeated statement that America is a Christian nation begs some thorny social, factual, and theological questions, it is probably not too much to say that America was, largely, a nation of Christians. Much the same could be said of Europe.
Weigel suggests that free government, what he calls liberal democracies, were possible because of the ethical agreement and social cohesion of Christian societies. More than that he argues that once biblical religion was replaced with the Culture of the Self – what Harry Jaffa referred to as the Leftist ideal of the “radical liberation of the uninhibited self” – that European societies became progressively less liberal (though more libertine), and their politics became less free. In short, he argues that the destruction of the Christian consensus in Europe undermined the consensus for liberalism itself. The big unanswered question for Weigel and for the West, is whether that consensus is a requirement for liberal democracy.