Buttiglione Butters Up the American Right

Back on December 8 the American Enterprise Institute hosted Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian politician who failed to become an EU Commissioner after expressing his views on homosexuality and is now considered the leader of the nascent European “theo-con” movement. Buttiglione was in Washington to receive an award from the Acton Institute, whose founder Fr Robert Sirico (profiled by Bill Berkowitz here) blends conservative Catholicism with Ayn Rand.

As I blogged previously, I have a certain amount of sympathy for Buttiglione, who only revealed his views because he was asked directly by the European Commission Committee on Legal Affairs. What’s more, his statement was not all that shocking or remarkable: he affirmed that although, as a Roman Catholic, he considered homosexuality to be sinful, he did not believe that the law should enforce morality. However, based on his ill-considered musings at the AEI, available to view here (a transcript is promised for the near future), one cannot feel that the EU Commission has missed out on a great talent.

The American Christian right (and I use the term advisedly – I don’t mean thoughtful Philip Yancey-type Evangelicalism) is currently in a bit of a bind: while enjoying more political and cultural power than it has had for a long time, the language of victimisation remains a useful rallying tool. So what better way to feed Christian resentment than to wheel out a European Christian victim of secular persecution to show them what American liberals really want? And Buttiglione obliges perfectly, with a presentation on Europe that seems tailor-made to massage the prejudices and misconceptions of American conservatives, and consisting mainly of a softly-spoken but nevertheless demagogic whinge.

First, Buttiglione diagnoses the root of the problem – moral relativism:

There is another idea of democracy that is growing in Europe…that is linked to the so-called multiculturalism…If you look at Derrida’s works you see there another idea of democracy. The idea of democracy is that nobody has the right of making a distinction between good and evil, right or wrong…There are no values…Man should not search of truth.

…what they want is a society in which there is a new religion, a new official religion, a new civil religion…a religion that forbids to have values. This new religion is not based on the liberty of the other…If you are not a moral relativist, you are a second-class citizen.

He returns to this theme at the end of his talk, adding:

…we have a consistent trend, mainly of Marxist religion…Look to Derrida, to the intellectual history of Derrida.

This is, of course, complete bunk. Most Europeans who object to anti-homosexual attitudes do so not because of moral relativism, but because they believe that such attitudes are an irrational prejudice that is itself immoral, as with racism. This may clash with traditional Christian teaching, and it may (or may not) be unfair to the real concerns of religious conservatives, but it is an ethical position, not a relativist one. And the claim that Jacques Derrida is behind it all is absurd. I’m far from being a Derrida fan (Zizek is more my cup of tea as far that kind of thing goes), but as someone who wrote on religion and ethics he deserves better than to be cast in the role of evil nihilist mastermind. Besides, there’s plenty of relativism emanating from religious conservatives in the US; particularly the idea that the naturalistic method of science is just some kind of bias that should be balanced with Creationism.

Buttiglione’s second theme is anti-Catholicism:

Do you what is the greatest danger to human freedom according to the European Parliament? Do you know what is the country that has been condemned more often by European Parliament for violation of human rights?…the state of the Vatican. You have thirty resolutions against the state of the Vatican…they see the defence of objective truth, of objective human values, as the main enemy.

Buttiglione notes the recent prosecution and jailing of a (Pentecostal) Swedish pastor who condemned homosexuality (the case of Ake Green: see here) as an example of this new trend against Christianity. But this is extremely over the top. Just what are these “thirty resolutions against the state of the Vatican”? It is true that the Vatican’s stance on birth control and abortion is somewhat out of kilter with mainstream European thinking, but that hardly amounts to the rabid anti-Catholicism Buttiglione would have his credulous neo-con audience imagine. I was unable to find anything about these “thirty resolutions” on the internet, although I did find this on Catholic News from 2002:

EU parliamentarians mount attack on Holy See

Radical elements of the European Parliament have sponsored resolutions attacking the Catholic Church’s moral authority on abortion and demanding that all church influence on temporal matters be brought to an end.

Maurizio Turco, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for Italy’s Radical Party and the sponsor of the resolutions backed by 10 other MEPs, accuses the Catholic Church of a “desire to lay down the law” and meddling with “national legislations on sexual and reproductive health.”

One would have thought the report would have mentioned a history of anti-Catholic resolutions if these existed. Instead, we only have an unspecified number of resolutions proposed by what appears to a fringe anti-clerical MEP (actually, the most vitriolic anti-Catholicism in the EU Parliament comes not from the moral relativists, but from Ian Paisley, the Presbyterian fundamentalist MEP from Northern Ireland. When the Pope visited the Parliament in 1988 Paisley heckled him as the anti-Christ).

During the question-and-answer section, he adds that

in Europe it is fashionable to be anti-Christian…

But how, exactly, is being anti-Christian “fashionable”? It’s true that sex scandals in the Catholic Church have likely reduced respect for the clergy, and that many people no longer respect traditional teachings about homosexuality. But most people are simply indifferent to religion. It is not “anti-Christian” not to know that the Bible teaches that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (a fact unknown to 28% of Britons, according to a new survey) – it’s simply ignorance, and most likely the result of a diverse entertainment culture (a culture created by the free market rather than a Derridan conspiracy).

He then turns to the most notorious anti-European stereotype, that of anti-Semitism:

…and it is fashionable to be, not anti-Semite, [but] anti-Zionist; but anti-Zionism has become the new name of anti-Semitism. You start condemning the Israel government, for good reasons or for bad reason, it does not matter, and you end up reconstructing all the justification of anti-Semitism.

Yes, even if you have a good reason for not being a fan of Ariel Sharon, “you end up reconstructing all the justification of anti-Semitism”. I’ve touched on the subject before, when the Institute on Religion and Democracy produced a report that considered the topic. Of course anti-Semitism exists in Europe, just as it does in the USA – but most criticism of Israel that is part of the public discussion is based on the facts about how it treats the Palestinians. And there’s certainly less anti-Semitism in Europe than there is anti-Arab racism and excessive anti-Muslim rhetoric in the USA.

The frustrating thing is that Buttiglione was badly treated by the EU Parliament. Further, how protecting groups and individuals from “incitement to hatred” should be balanced against the free expression of religious values (and with anti-religious scepticism, as it happens) is extremely problematic and needs urgent consideration. But giving paranoid talks about Derrida and frothing secularists to American right-wing ideologues is hardly a serious contribution to the discussion.