Rise of the “theo-cons”?

As the debate over the influence of religion in American public life rumbles on, Europeans ponder similar issues. Writing recently in The Guardian, Peter Preston observed:

I happened to be in Malta last week, discussing the case of Rocco Buttiglione in a university lecture theatre. Malta, number 25 on the EU membership list, not only doesn’t have abortion, it doesn’t have divorce either. (Its new Brussels commissioner was hugely relieved to get the fisheries brief; he’d probably have taken bread as well.)

Not far from the university, on the other side of the Grand Harbour, stand the great bastions where the Knights of St John held sway; and the order’s churches seem to dominate every street in Valletta. They are part of all our history, of a crusading Christian Europe militant to defend Jerusalem and spread the word by force of arms.

This history hasn’t ended. Not, of course, in the great balloon of al-Qaida that dogs every policy. Not in Bosnia or Kosovo, as Islam and Christianity fail to coexist. Not in Cyprus, north and south. Not between faiths in Northern Ireland. Not when Turkey’s EU membership is on the table and the opponents talk “Christian Europe”. Not when the charge against Buttiglione is led by German MEPs dubbing him “an acolyte of the Pope”. Not when mainstream conservatism in Strasbourg – the one that excludes our Tories – is Christian Democrat.

Since being obliged to withdraw as a candidate for becoming an EU Commissioner, Buttliglione has emerged as the leader of a movement dubbed by the media as the “theo-cons” (it’s not clear if that is a word he uses himself). According to The Tablet (a reliable source), Buttligione would appear to have been shafted by secularists:

Buttiglione was widely reported as describing homosexuality as a sin. In fact, he told the parliamentary committee vetting him: ‘Many things may be considered immoral which should not be prohibited. I may think that homosexuality is a sin, and this has no effect on politics, unless I say that homosexuality is a crime.’

The word ‘sin’ does not belong in the political sphere, he said. It was his questioner, not Buttiglione himself, who first used the word. For politicians the problem was discrimination, not sin, and Buttiglione was ’emphatically against discrimination’.

Speaking at Milan’s Teatro Nuovo, Buttiglione declared that in the eyes of the EU Parliament he was a “Catholic witch” to be burned, and he vowed to “battle for the freedom of Christians”. According to the BBC, Buttiglione was endorsed at the event (described as a “debate” for some reason) by Giuliano Ferrara, a former spokesman for Silvio Berlusconi, who said that

there is a cultural war happening which has to be fought with force and virtue

Ferrara is an ex-communist and, according to AGI, is a “devoted atheist”. He edits Il Foglio, a small-circulation newspaper, and wrote an editorial on the Buttiglione decision entitled “Out with the Christian, in with the Freemason”. The Tablet also adds:

Buttiglione has taken heart from the re-election of George W. Bush as President of the United States. Evangelicals and the majority of American Catholics have resisted the individualism that is the legacy of the culture of the Sixties and Seventies, he says. They have instead affirmed the idea of the family. The Democrats, he believes, have been perceived as a party without a soul, believing in minority rights but with no ideas for the majority. The choice for Europe, he thinks, is to go the way of America at least in its rejection of secularism, or to decay.

Meanwhile, British Evangelical theologian Alister McGrath has a new book out, The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World, in which he argues that religion is making a come-back globally. According to a review in The Toronto Star:

In spite of dire declarations that God had died, there has been a phenomenal post-modern, global religious resurgence. Evidence of a change is reflected in popular New Age “spirituality,” for example; or the global rise of evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity. There has been a revival of Orthodox Judaism, and significant growth in militant Islam…In post-atheistic Russia, for example, there has been a remarkable rebirth of religious interest…Atheism foundered on the shoals of rigidity and orthodoxy; two of the very elements it had rejected in religion.

But, I have to ask: what does all this mean? Yes, secularists in continental Europe, whether from the Left or the libertarian Right, are often somewhat heavy-handed, for historical reasons (the UK is different), but does the fact that Buttligione made a speech in a theatre constitute a consequential backlash? Yes, the socio-cultural phenomenon of postmodernity allows more room for identity politics, which brings in religion (seen most dramatically at the moment in the Netherlands), but how far does that impact on the organisation of European society as a whole? “New Age” spirituality appeals to a few middle class people, but not enough that adherents are prepared to give their lives over to its advance; the Pentecostal and Charismatic revivals have slowed the decline of Protestantism, as Protestants switched from dour Baptist churches and the like, but since its hey-day in the 1980s demand has peaked (see books by Steve Bruce); the fact that a peasant society that not so long ago venerated pictures of Stalin and Lenin has turned back to its icons is less than surprising.

McGrath’s reviewer (I haven’t been able to see the book itself) also makes the mistake of tracing atheism to various intellectuals: the usual suspects of Voltaire, Fuerbach, Marx, Freud and Darwin. But this ignores the real engine of secularisation, which is modernisation. The EU constitution has no religious reference points, not because its drafters have deferred to non-believing intellectuals, but because it is a managerial and bureaucratic document. High-blown rhetoric, whether religious or idealistic in any other way, just sounds silly in such a context. Of course, the matter of religion in public life is not completely settled, although it is more so than in the USA, where a culture of populism trumps the church-state divide. Most people in Western Europe, for example, take the view that what science consists of should be determined by scientists, rather than by religious lobbies working with politicians. The “individualism” Buttiglione objects to may have its unattractive elements, but what exactly does he propose as an alternative? I fail to see how the USA has “affirmed the idea of the family”, although I understand that banning the minority of people who wish to marry a member of their own gender from doing so is supposed to assist the family in some mystical way.

You can call this state of affairs good or bad, but there it is. Whether it can be reversed is impossible to say, although I am doubtful. Personally, I hope Europe will learn from the UK, where secular space developed hand-in-hand with religious toleration over the period 1688-1889, when the last religious tests were abolished in Scotland (although some sectarianism remains in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and there is residual anti-Roman Catholic legislation in relation to the monarchy), and where there is a long tradition of immigration. This offers a more flexible model for secularism than that which emerged from the anti-clerical conflicts in France and elsewhere, and which has now succeeded in creating the first “theo-con” martyr.

Callum Brown, author of the excellent book The Death of Christian Britain, responded to Preston’s Guardian piece the next day:

Peter Preston is wrong in his religious analysis (Britain, not the US, is the odd one out, November 8). All the evidence points to the emergence of a common European secular culture in the last 40 years, which now encompasses Scandinavia, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Iberia. This is marked by an unparalleled decline of churchgoing, formal religious affiliation, belief in God and the Christian afterlife, as well as by increasing secularisation of the state and of personal identity. Former Catholic and staunch Protestant heartlands do not seem immune, and we can see secularisation gathering speed in Poland, Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Nor is it right to dismiss Britons (or Europeans) as morally unstirrable. The re-moralisation of Europe around postcolonial sensibilities and environmental issues displays a new focus on respect for the body and the planet as the intellectual basis for moral development.

Callum Brown
Professor of religious and cultural history
University of Dundee

This seems to me a sensible assessment.


The Tablet also has an interesting titbit on Buttliglione:

Buttiglione, 56, is a friend of Pope John Paul II and father of four daughters. He is also a member of Communion and Liberation, a charismatic movement that aims to integrate faith and life through insisting on the centrality and real presence of Christ.

Communion and Liberation (CL) was founded in 1954 by Msgr. Luigi Giussani (although the name dates from 1969). CL is one of the new Catholic movements criticised by Gordon Urquhart in his The Pope’s Armada (1995); interestingly, he notes that CL appealed to “many disillusioned defectors from the extreme left” (p. 161); that may not apply to Buttiglione, but it makes the term “theo-con” perhaps even more appropriate for the general trend.

5 Responses

  1. I’m saddened that you would suggest that post-modernism allows for identity politics.
    Politics is all about society, the apportionment of the negation-of-identity of the individual to society, and the like.

    Post-Modernism doesn’t, inherently, allow or hinder any barbarism. Barbarism will never cease to be a possibility.

  2. John Redwood, recently restored to a position in the UK’s Conservative’s shadow cabinet, writes about atheism and science being a force of one, and he writes with sympathy for science, if not well at all. Note: I didn’t get that far in his book, I was just wandering through the library, and had something to do later.

  3. I’m talking about postmodernism as a sociological phenomenon rather than as a philosophical position – perhaps I should have written “postmodernity”; will clarify in the text later. I agree that “Post-Modernism doesn’t, inherently, allow or hinder any barbarism”.

  4. I guess I’m unfamiliar with postmodernism outside of the philosophy of PoMo’ism. I don’t believe anything has ever changed ;), so we couldn’t be living in a PostModern time. At least I believe that to some degree.

  5. […] I blogged previously, I have a certain amount of sympathy for Buttiglione, who only revealed his views because he was […]

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