Nothing more graphically illustrates the cultural gap between the United States and western Europe than the recent flap over President Bush’s public references to God, to good and evil in the world, and to the workings of Providence in history.
German President Johannes Rau complained that “Nowhere does the Bible call for crusades.” (Amalek, call your office.) French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, whose government is leading the charge against any acknowledgment of Europe’s Christian heritage in a new pan-European constitution, sniffed that “In no way can God be called on for a vote of confidence.” Cardinal Karl Lehmann, one of whose newer books bears the striking title, Now Is the Time to Speak of God, chided the President for his “careless way of using religious language;” the cardinal also suggested that invoking God in public was “not acceptable anymore in today’s world.” Italian monk Enzo Bianchi went completely over the top and equated Bush’s comments with the notorious “God with us” of Hitler’s Deutschechristen [German Christians].
What were the presidential texts that got these worthies into such an uproar?
“Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.” (Address to the nation, September 20, 2001)
“We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name.” (Commencement address at West Point, June 1, 2002)
“The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.” (State of the Union address, January 29, 2003)
This is incipient religious fascism? Please.
In a late April interview with NBC’s Tom Brokaw, President Bush explained that he certainly didn’t imagine God as a political partner. Rather, he prayed for wisdom, and for the strength to see the truth and act on it. Yes, George Bush frankly admits that his conversion to serious Christian faith was the turning point of his life; yes, he freely concedes that he thinks about his presidency in vocational, not simply careerist, terms; yes, he insists it’s possible to distinguish between good and evil in world politics; yes, he believes that, confronted by certain kinds of evil, the first responsibility of public officials is to stop it. If, in some European eyes, those convictions make him a dangerous religious fanatic, then perhaps those eyes should be examined and their myopia corrected.
During the week following the 1997 death of the Princess of Wales, I remember remarking to a friend that it was unsettling to watch an entire country, Great Britain, have something like a nervous breakdown. This past February, it seemed at times as if an entire demi-continent, western Europe, was coming apart at the seams. Political rhetoric and media commentary are always to be taken with a grain of salt; but what do you take when the rhetoric and the commentary lose all tether to reality and raw emotion reigns? That was “Old Europe” in the first quarter of 2003.
Western Europe is in cultural crisis, and likely has been since the “Great War” of 1914-1918 — a war which increasingly looks like an act of civilizational suicide. Europe’s extraordinarily bloody twentieth century (from which it had to be rescued by American lives and American treasure on three separate occasions) deeply damaged something in the European spirit. Take, for example, Europe’s appalling birth rates, the lowest in recorded human history. When, at a time of great prosperity, entire nations fail to provide for the future in the most elemental sense — that is, by providing next generations — something is seriously awry.
That very same something, perhaps best described as cultural exhaustion, explains at least part of the Euro-bashing of George Bush as a religious fanatic. Much of western Europe seems incapable of gathering itself for large tasks: the defense of the West against Islamist terrorism, for example, or the reconstruction of Europe’s own faltering economies. Amidst that spiritual malaise, it is understandable that President Bush’s convictions can be perceived as simplistic certitudes in a world of dangerous ambiguities.
To understand is not to agree, however. We know what Europe’s ambiguists did in Flanders’ fields in 1914-1918, and at Munich in 1938. These are not examples to be emulated.