Two new books trace the role of religion in shaping today's secular liberal values, writes Averil Cameron, but is the lineage justified?by Averil Cameron / October 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
“Spartans” and “gladiators” are now part of the self-identification of the alt right. The prime minister Boris Johnson compares himself to Pericles. Classics has become well and truly politicised. But so have appeals to western Christianity, especially in America. Steve Bannon’s plans to found an academy in Italy for “the defence of the Judeo-Christian west and the tradition of western civilisation” (in which he includes Russia) seem to have stalled; but talk of “Judeo-Christian values” has not. They are espoused by President Donald Trump, for one. As a result, the western civilisation courses once beloved of American liberal arts colleges and universities are causing progressive classicists and historians a good deal of discomfort. The role of Christianity in the west is fundamental to the thinking behind such courses, but so is a sense of superiority over other religions—especially Islam. It follows that choosing to defend the importance of western Christianity is a bold move for a historian.
At the same time, the religion and its adherents are under threat from various sources. Christians are fast disappearing from the Middle East, chased out by Islamic State (IS) and other jihadist groups. More prosaically, in the UK the number of regular worshippers in the Church of England is dwindling rapidly. The idea that introducing helter-skelters and mini-golf courses to cathedrals—as happened in Norwich and Rochester this summer—will assist Christian mission must tell us something. Does it indicate the inexorable march of secularism? Or religion reduced to tourism?
Is Europe Christian? by Olivier Roy is a very French book. When Roy refers to the Church, he is thinking of Catholicism and devotes some detail to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and the previous pope, Benedict XVI. He has been mainly known as an analyst of religious radicalisation. In 1992, he argued that political Islam was a failure. But his book Globalised Islam (2003) emphasised the immense variety that exists within Islam as a world religion and argued against any essentialist understanding of it. He now argues that in Europe the cultural turn of Christianity—the process by which the religion has been watered down into a set of ethical…