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Faith in the Agnostic State

As Europe wrestles with the preamble to its constitution, Joseph Weiler is fighting for an acknowledgement of the continent’s Christian past.

Sara Ivry
March 26, 2004

Many European countries refer to God or Christianity in their constitutions, but the drafters of the 15-member European Union’s founding document left out all overt religious references. In A Christian Europe, due out next year, New York University Professor Joseph Weiler argues such thinking is a “Jacobin ambush” that ignores the continent’s “Judeo-Christian” heritage without engendering a greater sense of multiculturalism. If an Orthodox Jew can champion recognition of Europe’s theological roots, why should anyone else feel threatened?

Your views on religion and European integration come as a surprise—particularly given your own background and beliefs. How did you come to think that the preamble of the European Constitution should mention Christianity?

I have been asked endlessly how come a practicing Jew can advocate that the preamble to the Constitution of Europe should contain a reference to God and to the Christian roots of Europe. I should point out I advocate that the reference be to the Judeo-Christian tradition. My answer is always the same. I am a practicing Jew but I am also a practicing constitutionalist.

The new constitution should try, as far as possible, to respect the traditions of its member states. Excluding God does not. It is a French Jacobin ambush.

What do you mean?

European constitutions respect the principle of the agnostic state. It is a principle of impartiality. It means that individuals have the freedom to practice religion and also to be shielded from religious coercion. But, unlike the American constitution and some European constitutions (like France or Italy), the principle of impartiality of the agnostic state is not tantamount to the principle of separation.

In drafting a constitution for Europe, the draftsmen could have decided to have no preamble at all. But they decided to—very majestic, full of pomp, reflecting the Enlightenment values of the French Revolution and excluding the sensibilities found in the constitutions of states representing more than half the population of Europe.

Do any of the individual constitutions mention God?

Some countries’ constitutions make no reference to God. The French constitution defines France as a secular state. That is a perfectly respectable and honorable choice. Preambles of other states are different. The Germans, who drafted theirs after World War II with strong American influence, refer to “our responsibility before God and Man.” The Irish constitution refers to the Holy Trinity.

Some fear that including any overt reference inevitably leads to religious coercion. Does that worry you?

Nobody’s suggesting that Christianity become the established religion. It’s a mere acknowledgement. So that danger is remote. True, it is informed by the historical past. And that explains also the attitude of many Jews. In some countries, like France and Italy, the emancipation of the Jews was part and parcel of the emergence of the secular state. But one cannot forever be looking, like Lot’s wife, backwards. One risks her fate. The commitment to the constitutional democratic state is deep. And much has changed in religious thinking and practice. The Christian churches at the beginning of the 21st century, notably the Catholic Church post-Vatican II, are much different from those we saw at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Right now, I fear the opposite—observant Jews like myself being unable to take certain qualifying exams in, say, France because these are held on a Saturday; or the banning of kosher slaughtering in several jurisdictions.

How have Americans reacted to Europe’s constitutional question?

Separationism is so ingrained in America that the image that comes to mind is Christian Europe is a fundamentalist thing. But in Europe, there’s no country less fundamentalist than Great Britain—and yet with great equanimity there’s an established church. There’s no state in Europe more liberal than Denmark, and yet with total equanimity they have an established church. It doesn’t seem to be in contradiction with a liberal conviction. That’s something that, in the United States, would seem anathema. The issue is not whether any religion should be established but whether the strict separation that is practiced is really necessary in order to guarantee the agnostic state. That’s the big question.

That’s something one can learn in this country: that card-carrying liberal democrats in European countries do not find it in any way contradictory to acknowledge not only a recognition in public space of religious icons, but a fully established church.

What does your position on recognizing the Christian—or Judeo-Christian—roots of Europe mean for Israel?

It’s apples and oranges. In Israel, the question of the Jewish state is not just of acknowledgement. The question is whether in the substance of the state its Jewish character will be acknowledged: El Al not flying on Shabbat; no nonkosher foods served in the army—in other words, where Jewish normativity actually becomes part of the fabric of public life. Whereas nobody in Europe is thinking of actually making Christianity part of the fabric of the European Union. It’s acknowledgement of a heritage.

Second, the question of a Jewish state is tied to conditions of citizenship. Every Jew has a right to citizenship. Again nobody in his right mind—not the most fervent supporter of reference to God or Christian roots of Europe—is thinking that in any way, manner, or shape Christianity should be a qualifier of citizenship.

You see bending over backward to avoid insulting religious minorities as naive and oversensitive. But wouldn’t European Jews, or the growing population of Muslim immigrants, welcome such a gesture?

Yes, what of the Muslim community? They find themselves in a polity which is fully committed to liberal democracy. It guarantees their religious freedom and makes them full citizens. Two of the most popular countries for Muslim immigration, for example, are the U.K. and Denmark. I have never heard complaints concerning the fact that in both countries there is an established Church, that the British national anthem is God Save the Queen. That is the Denmark and the Britain they want to come to. In neither of those countries would there be any religious coercion nor would they suffer any disability by the fact that they are not Lutheran or Anglican. Why would they feel slighted or diminished if the European constitution acknowledges what is an historical reality: the central place, for good and for bad, that Christianity has played in the evolution of Europe?

You’ve also said that opting for a kind of ‘neutrality’ wherein the state avoids religious symbolism is disingenuous. Why?

The refusal to make a reference to God is based on the false argument that confuses secularism with neutrality or impartiality. The preamble has a binary choice: yes to God, no to God. Why, I ask, is excluding a reference to God any more neutral than including God? It is favoring one worldview, secularism, over another world view, religiosity. In a binary situation, no choice is neutral.

What about religious symbols—a crucifix, for example—in public places?

They are all over. Should we tear down cathedrals? Empty the religious art from publicly funded museums? Of course not. Whether a Muslim girl should allowed to wear her headscarf to school or a Jewish boy should be forbidden to wear his kippah is not going to be determined by the inclusion or exclusion of religious symbolism in the European constitution.

But to exclude such symbolism given that it is included in the constitutions of member states—does that strike one as consistent with the very democratic principles which you raise? These issues should be settled by reference to some principles of tolerance rather than the dictates of majorities.

If Christian themes are everywhere—in art, literature, music—why must they be explicitly acknowledged? Isn’t the historic role of Christianity so well understood that it doesn’t have to be enshrined in the European Constitution?

Maybe. But in this case, the deliberate decision behind the exclusion makes the constitutional silence thunderous.ture

Sara Ivry is the host of Vox Tablet, Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast. Follow her on Twitter @saraivry.

Sara Ivry is the host of Vox Tablet, Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast. Follow her on Twitter@saraivry.

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