Religion, Secularism, and European Integration

European Liberal Forum seminar on “Churches and States in the Civic Identity Process”, June 26th 2008, premises of the Representation of the European Commission in Barcelona. Opening conference speech by Giulio Ercolessi (Audio).

There was a sort of foreword to this seminar in Barcelona. This is indeed the last one in a series of seminars. The first one was a fringe session held in Bucharest, in connection with the ELDR conference there, in October 2006, when we were still an informal network of liberal think tanks. The Bucharest meeting was introduced by Professor Ingemund Hägg and I. It was there that we realised that, although very widely shared, some of the ideas and principles stated in the paper we had drafted appeared to be debatable also in the eyes of some of us.

The title of the paper was “A liberal contribution to a common European civic identity”. It seemed to us that secular and religiously neutral public institutions were one of the most typical liberal contributions in shaping our European civic identity (at least the sort of paradigmatic originally Western European political identity we usually think of when we say “European”).

Actually, I think most of us usually underestimate how much and how deeply European liberalism, i.e. our own political and cultural family, has shaped, in the end, the face of our civilisation, of contemporary Europe, indeed of the Western World, and, hopefully, of a great part of the world. Of course we should also never forget that was just the final outcome, after successfully overcoming many “challenge and response” historical situations (according to Arnold Toynbee’s model): and we have to remember that the possibility of failure is always there, if we are not able, or not willing, to respond to the new challenges of our time. We also usually underestimate how much we are seen by others as a part of the world with a common, very peculiar and recognizable, cultural, civic and even political identity. This is not so obvious at all for many of our fellow Europeans, nor is it so obvious that there are new challenges to which we are called to give new responses.

Two other assumptions in our Bucharest paper proved not to be so obvious to everybody: that we have – and need – a common European identity and that this cultural European identity can only be a civic one.

All these three assumptions – we need secular institutions, we need to be aware of our common European identity, we need it to be a civic one – have to be argued for.

Our European Liberal Forum is a suitable instruments to tackle issues of this kind, given that political parties appear to be no longer the proper instrument for long-term political and strategic discussions. Indeed, the process that is forcefully turning professional politics into showbiz is also enticing politicians into becoming more and more followers rather than leaders, many of them paradoxically feeling forced into being full-time engaged in miming a natural charisma, that is more and more required, by electioneering techniques, at almost any level of political representation nowadays, and that most of them inevitably lack.

National political and cultural histories can very largely interfere with the perception of these issues, and all the three assumptions mentioned above have much to do with them. We cannot even think of imposing any common view, but it is time to face and discuss these problems at least at EU level.

First point: of what kind of identity are we talking about?

There are analogies between individual identities and public ones, i.e., they are always built in connection (not necessarily in competition, or, worse, against, even if the latter has unfortunately usually been the case in history), with others; they help, and are indeed necessary, to be able to say “I” or “we”: they imply a difference with the world outside.

This is a first obvious obstacle for us: even if we realistically know and do not expect that our liberal principles are universally shared, we have always attached to our values a universal vocation and often successfully managed to have them declared universal – often with some reluctant assent by others. Anyway, we will always be more than reluctant to accept that our political values remain for ever a continental (or little more than a bi-continental) peculiarity.

In any case, the common identity we are talking about here is a political one. It has to do with the “sense of historical individuality”. That was the definition of the idea of nation, in the solely European, non global world, that exists no more, that was given by historian Federico Chabod, an antifascist intellectual who long investigated the roots and nature of the idea of nation and of the idea of Europe: not by chance, he was born in Valle d’Aosta (Vallée d’Aoste), an Italian frontier region that was disputed immediately after World War II between Italy and France.

Individuals in free societies must be free to adopt multiple identities of their own choice, and not be bound to the ascribed components of their personal identity, set once for ever by luck when they were born. And also national identities have always been multi-folded and matter for interpretation: think of Dickens’s (and Disraeli’s) “Two Nations”, of “les deux Frances” in French historiography; Britain can be thought of as the cradle of individual freedom and parliamentary democracy, as well as the antonomastic imperial and colonial power; much the same could be applied to the US in the XX century.

When liberal and democratic customs and institutions were first established in a few European nations, they represented the peculiar identity of those very nations (early Dutch tolerance, the British Bill of Rights, the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution, French “Principles of ‘89”).

At least since the end of World War II these principles are no longer typical of a small number of individual nation-states, and have rather more and more grown as the core of the common political identity of the Western world. (And in Western Europe – and now also in Central Europe after the fall of communist rule – it has probably been the violence – rather than any supposed original irenic cultural vocation – of our past history that prompted us today to share a keener sensitivity for issues such as the stiffness of the criminal justice system, the death penalty, police brutality, guns control and universal protection from life’s harshness, than many Americans probably do).

These principles are nowadays so widely shared among Europeans that we often consider them as already consolidated as universal. We are therefore even led no longer to consider them as typical of our civilisation. Globalisation should awake us from that illusion. Political bodies in liberal democracies should stand for the liberal democratic principles of their constitutions and charters: if we did, we would also be much more aware that we are talking of that part of our identity that allows us to say “we”.

Hopefully, these basic democratic principles are, or at least should be, shared by the vast majority of our people – even if many have no idea of how liberal these principles are. That does obviously not exclude that there will always be extremist lunatic fringe groups that do not share these basic principles: we have no totalitarian vocation, we respect also radical dissent, but we should not be neutral. Especially in the multicultural societies we live in, we should stand for our liberal principles and argue for them in all political and social arenas, as well as in our educational systems.

The second issue: do we need a European identity?

This could obviously be the matter for another entire series of seminars. And we actually started tackling the issue, from its geopolitical side, in the Helsinki seminar on multilateralism we held two weeks ago.

Here I would just stress that, at this point of our history, it is a simple matter of survival. GNP is obviously not the only unity of measurement of the international weight of countries or civilisations, but it is meaningful enough just to take a hint[i].

Politicians may have to respond to day-to-day urgencies, but it is inescapable to face these problems. We have to remember that:

a) in a democracy the rights of the people are paramount, but the duties of political and cultural élites are not less vital for a democracy to survive (as an Italian citizen, I unfortunately know what I am talking about);

b) in almost no European country the nation-building process and the building of a national identity has been a “natural” or “spontaneous” process.

Individual European states today cannot cope with globalisation. In order to survive in the global world and in order to assert our interests, values and principles, Europe must have a say. In order to have a say Europe must have an international policy. In order to have an international policy it must have a European political system capable of effectively deciding one. Common policies require common politics and common institutions. We are in the middle of a crisis of European integration, everything is obviously even more difficult after the French, Dutch and now Irish referenda, but the alternative is acting as Snow White and the Twenty-seven (not just seven) Dwarves. Just think of what the consequences would be if the Italian foreign policy had to be decided, step by step and unanimously, by the twenty Italian regional governments, or if the German foreign policy had to be set, in the same paralyzing way, by the sixteen Länder governments.

By the way, a European pillar of the Western world, if one is to survive, is also necessary to the US, as, among others, the pitiful Iraqi story tells.

Third point: any European common identity must an can only be a civic one.

The above mentioned historian Federico Chabod outlined a scheme of the main ideas of nation that arose in modern Europe. He described a mainly German naturalistic and romantic idea dating back to Johann Gottfried Herder: the nation as a large family based upon blood descent and upon the relationship between land and stock; and a rival cultural and voluntaristic idea, that he saw typical of the French and Italian tradition, embodied by Ernest Renan and Pasquale Stanislao Mancini: the nation as an everyday plebiscite, based upon the will to share a common destiny and a common culture. The first notion is of no use today, after the ultimate tragedies we faced when the myth of ethnical uniformity ended in the Shoa and in ethnic cleansing. But the second too is outdated in the pluralistic societies we live in.

Much more useful to us is Jürgen Habermas’s idea of “constitutional patriotism”. This idea was born when Germany was still divided. Habermas thought that Western Germans should consider their 1949 Grundgesetz, their post-war liberal, democratic and federal constitution, rather than any of the previous ideas of “little” or “greater” Germany, as the core of their political identity.

This is far from being an artificial intellectual construction: as Maurizio Viroli, a Princeton Italian historian, has recently shown in a philological research, the very idea of love for one’s “patria, patrie” was originally meant as the love for the liberty typical of that nation’s institutions.

If not a patriotism of the, unfortunately not yet existing, European constitution, we should in essence build up a patriotism of the European Grundnorm: forcing somehow Hans Kelsen’s idea of the Grundnorm (the basic norm of a constitutional system), that is the ultimate political decision on which every constitution is grounded and built upon. In order to do this, we should make our fellow citizens much more aware of the relevance and peculiarity of the system of liberal democracy, rule of law and human rights that is today a common heritage of our countries.

In our pluralistic societies, enriched by the most diverse individual cultural and life-style choices, and where integration of foreigners and former immigrants and their offspring in the rules of liberal democracy is paramount, is there any other road to integration? Of course, ethnic identification, or the establishment of a narrowly national perimeter inside which traditional customs become almost compulsory for everybody, are of no use today: not at the European level only, but also inside each of the old individual European nation-states.

Inside such a political and ideal civic framework many – not all of course – misunderstandings could perhaps be avoided. Think for example of the German controversy on the idea of a national Leitkultur, prompted by a German intellectual of Syrian origin, or think of the speech made there by Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan, who labelled integration as “a crime against humanity” (a translation mistake, it was said, he meant assimilation...).

As a conclusion let’s come to the core of this series of seminars discussion: our idea of a common European, and civic, identity needs secular public institutions.

It is not, of course, because our societies have now grown more religiously pluralistic due to immigration, that liberals prefer religiously neutral public institutions. The fight for religious freedom is at the very roots of European liberalism – and European liberties. We often forget that this fight for religious freedom was from the start a fight against the intolerance of established churches, and just in the end a fight against the state atheism of communist countries or against the surge of Islamic fundamentalism. Indeed, non religiously neutral public institutions are always an infringement of the equal social dignity of individuals.

But in multireligious societies it is also unrealistic and fanciful to advocate for any sort of religious supremacy and expect integration at the same time.

Religious freedom is not just the freedom to practice the religion of one’s ancestors (the issue as such would never have been even raised in post-Reformation Europe). It is also the individual freedom to relinquish one’s ancestors’ religion.

One thousand years ago, Europe could have been described as synonymous for Christendom. No longer since the process that lead to the birth of the modern idea of individual in the late Middle Ages, in Northern and Central Italy, in the Flanders and in England, and to the Reformation, possibly its most relevant consequence, that lead in turn to the first embryo of a political system based on (partial) religious freedom, rule of law and representative democracy, after the Great Rebellion and the Glorious Revolution in XVII century England.

It is this individual that has been for possibly more than four centuries now the subject of religious freedom, as of all the other liberal liberties, as has always been very well known by the freedom fighters belonging to religious minorities oppressed by established churches.

The biggest challenge of our time is the paradoxical erosion of the precious civic and historical values typical of our identity by populist politicians that, in the name of what they call “our roots”, “our identity”, would like to cage all of us back into closed homogeneous and mutually hostile communitarian enclosures, the smaller and the more controlled the better.

And, once again, new threats came from religious intolerance, both autochthonous and imported. Let’s be clear: our freedom was first established not only by those free-thinkers and libertines who wanted to get rid of any religion that they deemed always superstitious, but also – also – by those believers who wanted to be free to worship their God in a different way.

But there is a temptation, once again, even in some Christian churches – and most of all in the Vatican hierarchy – to take advantage of the “revanche de Dieu” that has spread out since the Islamic revival that became manifest with the Iranian revolution thirty years ago: a temptation to counterbalance the Islamic surge not by strengthening the alternative values of open and free societies, but, on the contrary (where they can: the Spanish state is obviously not the case today, but Italy, Poland or Ireland are), by relegating non-believers in a position of second class citizens, by imposing on all of us, by law, benefits or disadvantages depending on personal behaviours only consistent with a faith many of us do not share – and that even fewer share in its strict traditional interpretation, as it is the case of millions of Catholics believers; or at least by imposing on all of us to pay more taxes in place of those whose faith is not strong enough to contribute financially to the life of their own churches; by requiring that religious faiths and religious people and leaders be given a privileged rank in our secularised societies. In Italy the Critica liberale foundation has been performing a yearly survey that now covers more than fifteen years: it shows that, the more the actual behaviours of the Italian population become secularised, the more power and public resources are given by politicians to the Catholic hierarchy[ii].

And it is a matter of controversial ethical issues, an area where no liberal society can allow religious people to have public institutions interfere in the lot of those who do not conform to their wishes and who do not want be imposed behaviours that are inconsistent with their own principles, opinions and beliefs in the domains of education, marriage, divorce, family law, abortion, sexual life, freedom of scientific research, living will, euthanasia.

But it is also a matter of equal social dignity and freedom for every single individual, even those who choose, like heretics and reformers in our history centuries ago, to object, to reject or to relinquish the faith and the traditions of their ancestors.

                Even more, it is a matter of individual freedom and non discrimination for those on whom public institutions are led by some religious leaders and by populist politicians to impose behaviours or regulations inconsistent or disrespectful of their own ascribed identity (as is the case of homosexuals), or are even imposed by public institutions an officially ascribed identity that no one knows whether they accept or not (as is the case of our younger fellow citizens who are the offspring of immigrated families).

                 I can’t see how liberal values and principles can be enforced in any institutional or ideal framework different from our great and successful liberal tradition of religious neutrality and separation – as large as practically feasible – between religion and political power.



Percentage of gross world product: WMF 2005 data. Goldman Sachs 2030 and 2050 projections.





































Source: Renato Ruggiero, Equilibri globali. Le economie stanno bene. i governi un po’ meno, Il Sole 24 Ore, February 10th 2007.



Secularisation macroindicators

Macroindicatori secolarizzazione.jpg


Secularisation Index

Indice secolarizzazione.jpg

Institutional presence of the Roman Catholic Church

Presenza istituzionale Chiesa cattolica.jpg

Source: Renato Coppi, Laura Caramanna, L’indicatore di secolarizzazione, Critica liberale n.135-137, Jan.-Mar. 2007.


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