Book review of Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians: The Religious Roots of Free Societies by Marcello Pera
Have you ever noticed that some of the most significant defences of Christianity have been made by non-Christians and non-believers?
While this combination may seem strange at first glance, it’s actually not. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll uncover their significant respect for the classical liberal tradition of religious thought — and a recognition of Christianity’s historical role in the founding of liberal democratic principles. A religious Christian’s best ally isn’t always a fellow traveller; rather, it can often be a non-religious individual who understands the importance of faith, and strenuously opposes the persecution of Christians.
Marcello Pera is one of those individuals. He teaches political philosophy at Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University, is a former president of the Italian Senate, and co-authored a book, Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam (2006) with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI). In his new, thought-provoking book, Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians, he proves why he is one of the more unusual and enlightened supporters of Christianity in the academic world.
Pera describes himself as a classical (or “old school”) European liberal. He has “always looked to the American experiment, founded on a myth of a ‘city on the hill’ or a ‘nation under God’ as the best antidote to European philosophical and political infatuations”. He also regards himself as a secular individual, but not in the modern sense. While he “opposes theocracy, the submission of the state to ecclesiastical hierarchies, and the interference of churches with democratic decision”, his secularism “does not oppose religion, nor does it take Christianity as a fairy tale for the unintellectual”.
With respect to being a Christian, Pera makes it clear that he’s referring to the term Judaeo-Christian. His position on these two important world religions is both eloquent and inspiring: “The core idea is that from the viewpoint of both Judaism and Christianity man is created in God’s image and likeness…The fact that Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, turned anti-Semitic many a time over the centuries cannot hide the fact that the two faiths are, or may be considered, twin brothers with respect to the conceptual foundations of liberalism.”
I couldn’t agree more. As a non-religious Jew and political conservative who is a strong defender of Christianity and religious freedom, my views are nearly identical to those of Pera. I see Christians as brethren, and I respect and admire their influence in building viable political systems, free enterprise and cultural institutions. (I’m also married to a Catholic.) In turn, I believe modern secularist attacks on Christianity are both uninformed and unprincipled — and should be readily dismissed.
Alas, European countries have been moving away from the classical liberal traditions of Immanuel Kant, John Locke and Alexis de Tocqueville at lightning speed. Modern secularists have not only taken control of liberalism, they’ve also helped turn religion into a dirty word. As Pera explains, “our society has been transformed from a homogenous one shaped by Christian values (as it was for centuries) into one marked by intense religious conflict.”
How so? Well, consider the fact that the European Constitution completely ignored the continent’s Judaeo-Christian historical roots. Pope Benedict XVI wasn’t allowed to speak at a European university which is both publicly funded and secular. Heaven forbid that Europeans should even think of uttering the phrase “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Easter” in mixed company, for fear of ruffling the feathers of the anti-Christian masses.
Similar problems can also be witnessed in Europe’s curious relationship with Islamic fundamentalism. In the author’s view, “Europe reacts feebly against fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism because it feels guilty about exporting Christian civilisation.” But he goes even further, stating: “Europe loves Islam for the same reason Islam hates Europe: because of Europe’s secularism, relativism, multiculturalism, and its discrediting of religious feeling.” It’s a clever juxtaposition, and an accurate one.
Pera therefore agrees with commentators who have expressed concern (and sadness) over the impending arrival of a “Godless Europe”. So do I. In a free and democratic society, an individual has the right to opt out of religion. But when that individual right takes a life of its own, and jump-starts a politicised movement to persecute people of faith or make them feel ashamed of their religious beliefs, it hurts society as a whole. The rights of religious individuals are just as important as the non-religious, and both must be protected at all costs.
Fortunately, it’s not impossible to change course and right this ship. Postmodernism can be defeated, although it will take a supreme effort on the part of most Europeans. In Pera’s assessment, “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.” Indeed, freedom of choice is the greatest gift that a democratic country could ever hold or want to possess. The tie between Christianity and a free society — an important component of history, politics and culture — is something Europeans should want to cherish and defend, and not reject and refuse.
The book’s last line is perhaps its most important: “To conclude, we should, we must call ourselves Christians.” Believers and non-believers alike, take heed of this worthy advice. If not, Europe’s moral malaise will only get worse — and may become irreversible in short order.