Biblical Christianity And Europe Today: Lessons For America?

Aug 22nd, 2020 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

Ideas have consequences!  Human beings are physical, spiritual, social, emotional and intellectual creatures.  Humans respond to stimuli and react to that which both pleases and threatens.  The complexity of humanity is reflected in the social sciences (e.g., psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.), each of which attempts to explain why humans behave the way they do.  But, what is the impact of ideas on human motivation and behavior?  Do ideas indeed have consequences?  Do ideas in effect help to explain human behavior?  I believe that ideas have profound consequences on human behavior.  Ideas are reflected in the beliefs of your non-Christian friends; in entertainment, news and social media; in music; in your children’s classrooms; and in public policy decisions.  Ideas are powerful and life-changing.

Consider Jesus: More biographies have been written about Jesus than any other historical figure.  The book that defines His nature, His character and His mission—the Bible—is annually the number-one-selling book.  No one’s teaching has had a deeper impact on culture, politics, ethics, justice, philosophy, and human character than Jesus.  He is habitually quoted, even by secular world leaders.  Indeed, in a recent book by British historian Tom Holland, Jesus and His movement called Christianity, are characterized as “the most subversive revolution in human history, whose legacy is the ongoing disruption of settled patterns of life.”  With His emphasis on love and human equality, Jesus undermined tyranny, racism, men’s abuse of women and selfish imperialism.  He offered salvation to all humans and provided the foundation for a new kingdom, the kingdom of God—with values, virtues and standards that undermine the kingdom of darkness in this broken, fallen world.  His call is a radical call to discipleship that transcends and overcomes ethnic-political loyalties.  His followers have a loyalty to Him above all else.  Hence the title of Holland’s book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.

Western Europe was the center of the 16th century Reformation—and the ideas associated with the Reformation re-shaped the Continent and deeply affected its development.  Therefore, we can conclude that European Christianity has long been a public, political and legal force.  In many European nations, political parties were formed with clerical support and historically have reflected a distinctly Christian view of public policy and society.  For example, the Christian Democratic Party has been one of the most powerful forces shaping the history of Post-War Germany.  But is Christianity still a force in Europe today?  Do the theological ideas of biblical Christianity shape European thinking and behavior?  What can American evangelical churches learn from Europe?

In a recent book by historian and French political scientist Olivier Roy entitled Is Europe Christian?, the argument is presented that Europe is no longer shaped by biblical Christianity.  Christian “institutions, values and ideas are no longer central to European politics, culture and law.”  Roy argues that “Europe is rapidly becoming less Christian . . . [and] fighting a seemingly irresistible trend toward the marginalization of religious concerns in a pleasure-seeking secular culture.”  Roy traces three primary historical developments that led to the “secularization” of European civilization:

  1. By the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the last of Europe’s religious wars, the Thirty Years War, “the continent was permanently divided into Protestant and Catholic sections.  This enshrined a pragmatic conception of the political order rooted in power politics, replacing the older idea of Europe as ‘Christendom.’”
  2. The 18th century Enlightenment further weakened the hold of biblical Christianity on European institutions and culture.
  3. The 19th century with the rise of Marx, Darwin and later Freud fostered an anti-clerical and anti-Christian movement that marginalized biblical Christianity.

However, the key to Roy’s thesis is the 1960s and 1970s, when Europe severed its connections to biblical Christianity as a defining characteristic of its institutions and culture.  Roy makes a profound distinction between “secularization” of Europe and the “dechristianization” of Europe.  Summarizing Roy’s argument, Walter Russell Mead observes that “Up until that time, Christians and non-Christians in Europe largely shared a moral code.  On issues such as homosexuality, abortion and the place of women is society, Europe’s communists and socialists found themselves in broad agreement with traditional Christian ideas.  In most European countries, secular law tracked classical Christian moral codes pretty closely.  The number of Christian believers was gradually and even inexorably declining, but the Christian foundations of public morality and public law remained strong.”

What happened in the 1960s and 1970s?  Roy argues that a new ethic replaced the Christian one—“the emergence of an ethic based on the ‘desiring subject’ as the source of all value in morals and of all legitimacy in politics.  What humans desire to do, they have an inalienable right and even duty to do—on the condition that they refrain from injuring others.  This was a genuine revolution in civilization . . . .”  Over these decades and beyond, laws and institutions were transformed by this “religion of desire.”  The LGBTQ movement, gender fluidity, intersectionality all reflect the new understanding of human worth and value.  Old traditions and values rooted in biblical Christianity have been replaced by personal autonomy and the freedom of the “desiring subject” or what Roy calls the “valorization of freedom.” Roy also posits a “valorization of nature” coming out of the 1960s and 1970s, the view that “the environment, one’s body, and one’s instinct are simply terrestrial realities, manifesting nothing transcendent . . . One should take care of nature, to be sure, but purely to secure a good earthly life, not because its signifies the splendor of God.”   Indeed, Roy “believes that the triumph of the new morality is essentially complete and that almost nobody in Europe today is seriously concerned to bring historical [biblical] Christian values back into the public square . . . Europe is not, he concludes, very Christian today, and that bodes ill for Europe’s future.”

In explaining the rise of European populism (similar to the Trumpian populism of America), Roy argues that recent nationalist and populist movements in Europe are often emotion-laden appeals to recover Europe’s ‘Christian heritage.’  Roy’s response is that appearances can deceive.  These movements are primarily interested in defending Christianity as a cultural heritage (and a bulwark against Muslim immigration and influence), not as a matter of living faith.  Roy: “Many populists defend churches against mosques, as long as [the churches] remain empty or at least quiet.”  This is cultural Christianity, not genuine, biblical Christianity.

What should American Christians learn from all this?  Before he died in 1984, Francis Schaeffer used to say, “What you see happening in Western Europe today you will see in America in less than ten years.”  [I believe he was correct, although it is now probably more like two or three years, not ten.]  So, what is occurring in Europe is important to the American church.  I am not talking about its impact on most mainline Protestant churches, which have already bought into most to the “dechrisitianization” agenda of Europe.  I also hesitate to continue using the term “evangelical” because the term now has rather pejorative connotations.  In 2020, “evangelical” stands for white loyalists to Donald Trump, who is always considered to be correct and virtually infallible.  For many “evangelicals,” to criticize anything he says or does results in the questioning of your Christian faith.  So, I have begun using the phrase “genuine, biblical Christianity.”  What should genuine biblical Christianity learn from Olivier Roy’s deeply important book?  Several lessons:

  1. Ideas do have consequences.  The Bible is our source of authority and truth, not the Republican Party, an Internet website, Facebook or a TV news personality (e.g., Sean Hannity, Laura Ingram, Joe Scarborough, etc.).  Our ideas, our convictions, our pursuit of truth must begin with God’s Word.
  2. Genuine biblical Christianity must seek its values, virtues and standards from God’s Word, not the political culture.  Current populism or ethnic nationalism are not the ideology advocated in God’s Word.  We are people of faith and people of God, not cultural Christians.  We represent God’s kingdom, not a political party.  We are not cultural Christians; we are Christ’s disciples, the ambassadors of His kingdom.
  3. American culture has not only experienced the secularization that Roy discusses, it is also experiencing the “dechristianization” of its civilization.  You cannot pass a set of laws to stop this.  Only a genuine, all-embracing spiritual awakening will halt this.

See Walter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal (10 April 2020) and Matt Reynolds in the CT Books Newsletter (30 June 2020).

Comments Closed

3 Comments to “Biblical Christianity And Europe Today: Lessons For America?”

  1. Peter Wiebe says:

    Do you really believe your comment, “In 2020, “evangelical” stands for white loyalists to Donald Trump, who is always considered to be correct and virtually infallible. For many “evangelicals,” to criticize anything he says or does results in the questioning of your Christian faith?” Do you really think so? I don’t think that is true at all. I believe that a more realistic point is that many Christians believe that where the Democrats are trying to lead America is going to be devastating, and see Trump’s efforts to prevent the Democrats from succeeding as a godsend. Maybe it would be more prudent for this Perspective to ease up on demonizing Trump and take a more realistic look at where the lawless Democrats and the BLM movement it going to take us if they win. That’s the real threat and this needs to be looked at seriously because this is where the real danger lies and this Perspective is too busy demonizing Trump and totally devoid of looking at the alternative. I haven’t read any of the dangers proposed the Democrats and the BLM in this Perspective at any time. Any serious discussion of where we’re headed as a nation after the next election and not considering where Biden, Pelosi, AOC and company want to take us is seriously lacking in being a positive influence. Let’s take a look at what both sides are offering and stop being so one-sided in your condemnation! If you are so enamored with Biden and the Democrat offering, go on record and say so! Their proposals are devastating and, for my part, cannot understand anyone endorsing them, so, yes, considering the alternative, I’d take Trump over Biden and company any day. Is Trump a poster candidate? No! Is he better than what the Democrats are offering? Absolutely! Let’s have a little bit more honesty here, please.

  2. Arlie Rauch says:

    The Perspective could have made its point without bringing Trump into the discussion. I, too, have noticed the one-sidedness of the Perspectives and wondered about it. We should never have talked about ‘evangelicalism’ which is a human designation. It should always be about ‘biblical Christianity’ which is the only true Christianity and stands on biblical revelation no matter the political and cultural mood.

  3. Jim Roberts says:

    I don’t believe that most Christians that support President Trump believe he is infallible, but do believe he protecting religious liberty. Recently read ad interesting piece by someone you have quoted, Wayne Grudem, titled 30 Good Things President Trump has Done for the Country.