Editor’s Note: The “V&V Q&A” is an e-publication from The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. Each issue will present an interview with an intriguing thinker or opinion-maker that we hope will prove illuminating to readers everywhere. In this latest edition, The Center for Vision & Values interviews its executive director, Dr. Paul Kengor, in the first of a series of Q&As with participants in the forthcoming April 12-13 conference, “The De-Christianization of Europe: From Nicaea to Nietzsche,” to be held on the campus of Grove City College.
V&V: Dr. Kengor, on April 12 and 13, the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College will be hosting its third annual conference, “The De-Christianization of Europe: From Nicaea to Nietzsche.” What does that mean, and why should we in America care about this? The Church affirmed Christ’s divinity in 325 A.D. at the Council of Nicaea, which was located in modern-day Turkey, whose historic capital straddles Europe and Asia. I see that Council as looking not only eastward, back to its birth, but westward, toward Europe, ahead to its future.
Dr. Paul Kengor:
And it was Europe that became the home of both the Vatican and the Reformation, of Catholicism and Protestantism, of Aquinas and Calvin, of G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. And yet, Europe may be in the process of casting off its Christian roots. When Friedrich Nietzsche a century ago surveyed his surroundings and proclaimed that “God is dead,” he might have in retrospect judged himself merely premature.
V&V: The choice of the words “de-Christianization” is striking. Those are loaded words with some notable history on the continent, aren’t they? They sure are. It was through such an assault on Christianity that the French Revolution went terribly awry, and the promise of the Declaration of the Rights of Man gave way to death and destruction under Robespierre and his Jacobins.
The Jacobins launched a campaign of literal de-Christianization that entailed renaming streets previously named after saints, eliminating the Christian calendar—from the year to the days in the week and month—to, in its most ghastly stage, beheading many believers who ultimately became martyrs of the Church.
Now, to be clear, none of our conference participants are predicting that the current de-Christianization in Europe will become this extreme. What is interesting about the current secularization of the continent is that many Europeans are abandoning their Christian identity eagerly, not under coercion by any Jacobins or under threat from vandals at the gate. As they happily do so, relativism guides their moral decisions, birth rates plummet, and the typical devout believer in nations like France is increasingly a Muslim instead of a Christian.
V&V: You say that today’s and tomorrow’s Europe is not yesterday’s Europe—that a “transformation” is underway. It appears that a shift is underway, with major cultural implications. Samuel Huntington was right when he envisioned a clash of civilizations. The situation in nations like Germany, Britain, France, and the Netherlands, is telling: there is a clash between not so much Christians and Muslims but secularists and Muslims. This clash has gotten quite violent at times. And as we observe the collision on our TV screens, the “enlightened” secular European explains the problem as “religious fundamentalism of any stripe.” As cultural relativists, they cannot dare blame any of this on radical Islam. Instead, they blame religious orthodoxy generally, willfully indicting devout Christians in the process.
V&V: That brings us full circle to the last part of the first question: Does this apply to America? Peter Berger once said that America and India are the two most religious nations. That assertion will surprise devoutly Christian Americans, but it may be true. Hilaire Belloc once said that the faith is Europe and Europe is the faith. Well, Europe seems to have dropped the mantle, perhaps leaving America to carry the flag of Christendom. In a way, America has taken that lead. For many years now, we’ve provided more missionaries than any nation. Those missionaries are stunned to realize that they need to be focusing on spreading the gospel not so much to the Third World but, of all places, Europe, the home of their Christian forebears. Imagine that.
America has a unique situation: We have two contradictory forces at work: at one level, we carry that flag, but, at another level, we, too, are secularizing rapidly—and, like Europe, we also have increasingly large numbers of Muslims. Amid that secularization, we are producing some very aggressive, very hostile secularists who are looking to expunge public displays of faith. It will be interesting to see where we are at the end of the 21st century. I hope that the Christian faith in 21st century America does not take a nosedive comparable to the decline in 20th century Europe.
V&V: Who are some of your speakers in this conference and what is the focus of your lecture? We have a tremendous group, from our stellar Grove City College faculty to the outsiders joining us—George Weigel, Grace Davie, Ralph Peters, Maggie Gallagher, Allan Carlson, Michael Medved, Sam Gregg, among others. Medved will be arguing that a non-Christian Europe is a dangerous Europe for Jews. I’m particularly excited about a panel discussion among three of our faculty on what Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers would say about this decline in Christianity.
My lecture will examine the part of Europe that seems to elude our attention: Eastern Europe. There was an attempted (brutal) de-Christianization of Eastern Europe by the communist parties that took power after World War II, directed from Moscow. The lack of attention to this significant historical event is a huge failure in contemporary scholarship.
Overall, the conference promises to fulfill a central mission of the Center for Vision & Values: to educate and enlighten the culture with cutting-edge scholarship on crucial issues.