Olivier Roy on “The Closing of the Right’s Mind”

The distinguished sociologist of religion, Olivier Roy (author of a very fine book called Holy Ignorance), has an interesting op-ed in the New York Times today entitled, “The Closing of the Right’s Mind” (no citation to Alan Bloom?). The large point in the piece has to do with the secularization of certain political parties in Europe that were formerly linked to the Christian churches of Europe, principally the Catholic Church. Here’s the opening:

The longstanding link between the political right and various Christian churches is breaking down across Europe. This is largely because the right, like much of European society, has become more secular. Yet this hardly indicates progress: Animated by an anti-Islamic sentiment, the right’s position is endangering freedom of religion, as well as secularism and basic democratic traditions.

Up to the 1950s, the cultural values endorsed by the right throughout much of Europe were not so different from the traditional religious values of Catholics and Protestants. Homosexuality was criminalized in many countries. Children born out of wedlock had fewer rights than “legitimate” children. The law in most countries protected family values, censored some forms of pornography and condemned what the French call mauvaises moeurs (roughly, loose morals).

The changes brought on by the decades that followed–in which rights and values of sexual autonomy came to dominate the scene–were initially the purview of the political left but eventually, Professor Roy notes, came to be adopted by the political right as well. And that has resulted in the fracturing of connections between the political right and the traditional European churches, which largely do not subscribe to those values.

The “twist,” however, is that the political right has assumed the mantle of Christianity without claiming any of its values. It has dissociated itself from Christianity; it has secularized. But it has simultaneously maintained that Western Europe is Christian. It has done this not because it is truly Christian–“spiritually” Christian–but for political reasons, principally for the purpose of resisting a growing Islam in Europe.

The piece is very interesting, as I say, but what principally interested me is how American it sounds. The claim that religion’s true value is its “spiritual” essence, rather than any number of other values, can be found in American separationist writings dating to Roger Williams. It has deep roots in a kind of Protestantism and Evangelicalism typical of the American experience. I would not have thought that the European experience, in which the political importance of religion was always far more prominent, was the same. And the notion that the association of politics and religion exerts a corrupting influence on religion may be traced in a direct line from James Madison all the way to David Souter’s church-state dissents. But, again, I take it that has not been the European historical experience. Indeed, Professor Roy himself notes in the fragment quoted above a period in which the political right and the European churches were plausibly connected. But if the separationist corruption argument is right, then this period of association was no less corrupt than the current condition of dissociation.

Indeed, in the view of the separationist, the previous period was just as corrupting for politics and religion as the present. This may be the reason that Professor Roy raises the Lautsi case, concerning the display of crucifixes in Italian public school classrooms, a practice which preceded by many years the current difficulties faced by European political parties. The European Court of Human Rights upheld the practice based in part on the religious culture and heritage of Italy. Professor Roy criticizes the ruling on the ground that “to defend a distinct cultural Christian identity is to secularize Christianity itself.”

Again, historically that has not been true in Europe; Christendom coexisted comfortably with Christianity for centuries, well before “secularization” in its contemporary form ever came on the scene. And even if the statement were true, its truth would have little to do with the current conditions of the political right in Europe. That statement reflects a larger vision of the nature of the relationship between church and state–a distinctively American conception of that relationship principally (though not exclusively) embraced today by the political left in this country–strict separationism. Its influence in American law, however, has been steadily declining–there are no more church-state separationists on the Supreme Court. It is striking that separationism of this sort should have such contemporary purchase for the very different historical conditions of Western Europe.

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