Weigelling In

Once again, George Weigel provides a hack with a column-load of neo-con platitudes masquerading as scholarship. Over the last week his new book has been puffed by critically-challenged reviewers in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post (discussed by me a couple of days ago); now Rod Dreher shows the readership of the Dallas Morning News how to fawn, in an exclusive interview. Weigel sits on the board of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy, with which Dreher is greatly enamoured: when the IRD published a wretched report last year denouncing mainline Christian criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, Dreher was the chief cheerleader for this obnoxious attempt to silence any support for the Palestinians.

But enough ranting. Over to Weigel, in apocalyptic mode:

Europe is dying in the most literal sense. Europe is depopulating itself in a manner not seen since the Black Death of the 14th century.

What, you mean people are developing huge buboes, coughing up blood and dropping down dead in the streets? Or do you mean that the population of Europe has a declining birth rate? I would call the latter “depopulating itself in a different manner from the Black Death”. But then, I’m not a best-selling author and pundit. Let’s look at some more sensible rhetoric from an EU report (bearing in mind that EU does not equal Europe, and that an EU-wide average must obscure big regional differences):

The EU’s fertility rate fell to 1.48 in 2003, below the level needed to replace the population (2.1 children per woman). The paper shows that the EU’s population will fall from 469.5 million in 2025 to 468.7 million in 2030. By contrast, the US population will increase by 25.6 per cent between 2000 and 2025. However, demographic decline is already here: in one third of the EU regions and in most of the regions of the new member states the population was already falling in the late 90s.

Hardly the end of the world, especially in the context of global overpopulation. Another factor in European demography is a declining death rate – making Weigel’s “Black Death” analogy even less appropriate. So, what’s the cause of this European non-fecundity? According to the EU report:

It is the result of constraints on families’ choices: late access to employment, job instability, expensive housing and lack of incentives (family benefits, parental leave, child care, equal pay). Incentives of this kind can have a positive impact on the birth rate and increase employment, especially female employment, as certain countries have shown.

But why have all that when you can just hark back to a religious culture that makes it duty for women to have lots of children? That seems to be Weigel’s solution, as he ponders causes of his own:

A useful place to start is the 19th century, when European high culture jettisoned the thing that had formed its culture for nearly two millennia, namely the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Jesus. Europe chose instead a set of ideas that centered around the notion that the God of the Bible was an oppressor, and only by overthrowing him would humans be free, mature and capable of creating a truly human future.

Ideas have consequences. Bad ideas have bad consequences. One of the results of this bad idea was the dramatic secularization of Europe, and within that I think you’ll find the sources of Europe’s contemporary malaise, its despair, its profound cynicism.

It’s the same old tired narrative. Why is it that Europeans appear to have different, and fewer, religious beliefs than the USA? Answer: because the morally inferior Europeans have decided to set themselves against the obvious truths of Christianity out of moral perversity. Europeans (and implicitly, European women?) are selfish:

If you are focused on me, myself and I all the time, you are eventually going to bore yourself to death. It’s only when we understand – and this is part of what becoming an adult means – that living outside of ourselves, to live for the well-being of others, that we fulfill ourselves. Cultures and societies can forget that, too.

Dreher of course fails to ask Weigel for data to back up the claim of American Christian generosity versus European atheist self-centredness. Instead, having imbibed these deep thoughts, Dreher invokes another overrated neo-con, Bernard Lewis, and prods Weigel in the direction of European Islam. Weigel:

I was in the Galleria Borghese in Rome in December, looking at four fantastic sculptures by Bernini. And I had the odd thought, “Is this going to be here in 60 years?” What is going to happen to all this fantastic representational art if Europe is overrun by a religious conviction that finds representational art unacceptable?

Perhaps the more threatening aspect of this is it seems that the forms of Islam taking hold in Europe right now are not pacific but aggressive. The interaction of Islamic immigrants with European culture is not producing a softer form of Islam, and it’s not forcing Islam to grapple with questions like, Can there be an Islamic case for religious tolerance, for social pluralism? It’s doing precisely the opposite. It’s hardening the edges.

Yes, the Taliban are about to take over Europe. But why does the phrase “Yellow peril” suddenly come to mind? No one would deny that there is a real problem with Islamic fundamentalism in Europe, but Weigel is merely parroting a stereotype for an American audience. Does he know anything about the different kinds of Islam to be found in Europe? Or how much nominalism there is among immigrants with a Muslim background (a factor Weigel is likely to have overlooked, since irreligion is immoral)? Or how Muslim immigration needs to be compared with non-Muslim immigration?

But it’s not just Europeans who are letting the side down: what about all those blue Euro-Americans?

…a lot of our high culture and a lot of blue America is European. It’s far more secularized than the rest of the country and far less confident in the capacity of biblical faith, be it Jewish, Protestant or Catholic, to inform and shape the great public issues of the day. It’s more materialist, more consumption-driven and, frankly, less reproductive. All you have to do is look at the demographics of red-state America and blue-state America to see who’s having more kids. What we see in Europe today may be a preview of our own challenges maybe in the second quarter of the 21st century.

So the blue states are “less confident” in “biblical faith” (liberal religion doesn’t count, since it’s bad). And that’s nothing to do with bullying creationists, arrogant theocrats, venal televangelists, racist Christian Zionists…etc., etc. And what about the red states’ rejection of the European Greco-Roman legacy (recently noted by Camille Paglia in Salon), including the Enlightenment? Is not that a “bad idea”? And since when did being “consumption-driven” become a blue-state vice? Just how are conservatives (including conservative Christians) substantially less “consumer-driven”?

In conclusion, Weigel takes refuge in self-righteousness:

…if we do not tend to our own cultural seed corn, if we continue to think that democracy and the market are machines that can run by themselves and all you have to do is keep the machinery straight. It takes a certain kind of people possessed of certain virtues, certain habits of mind and heart, to make freedom and democracy work.

Excuse me? Do Freedom and democracy “not work” in Europe? And just how are these the virtues of the US Christian right?

This is too much. But with Weigel singing the same tune as Pope Benedict, his distortions and sensationalism will likely be the stock-in-trade of conservative hacks for a long time to come.

(Dreher link tipped from Christianity Today)

UPDATE: Timothy Garton Ash has a more thoughtful article in the Guardian that addresses some of the same issues as Weigel. His conclusion:

[Benedict] could live to see the European Union in 2015. This Europe would probably be more Islamic than now in its poorer parts, and more secular than ever in its richer ones. Whether that would also be a better Europe is a subject for another column.

Whether I end up agreeing with him or not, I have hopes that Ash is preparing a rather more nuanced assessment than Weigel’s efforts.