Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians: The Religious Roots of Free Societies

In this brief, brave, but ultimately unsuccessfully argued book, the political philosopher, and former president of the Italian Senate, Marcello Pera offers westerners reasons why they should consider themselves Christians even when, like he, they do not subscribe to the lordship and divinity of Jesus.

His reasons are essentially two, three if they are European rather than American or from elsewhere in the Anglo-sphere. The introduction offers the following useful summary of them, augmented by a couple of further, unitalicised elucidatory statements taken from later in the text:

‘In brief: we should call ourselves Christians if we want to maintain our liberties and preserve our civilisation…If… [second] our liberties must have, or must be felt as if they had, a religious foundation in order to bind the nation together, then today’s secularized Europe… can never be politically united together… Europe should [therefore] call itself Christian if it desires unification… Secularism [is, thirdly]… bringing about a moral decline. Our moral norms, and with them our coexistence and our institutions… would wither and die if they were to cut themselves off from Christianity. [Therefore] we should — we must — call ourselves Christians.’

 In sum, Pera contends that, unless westerners start to [re]consider themselves Christians in terms of culture if not creed, their societies will quickly cease to be liberal, united, or moral.

At the end of the first chapter, Pera introduces an all-important distinction between those he calls ‘Christians by faith’ and those he calls ‘Christians by culture’.  The former ‘believe in the God made flesh, the God of the Revelation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection’, the latter ‘believe in the teachings and message of that God… [being]  admirers of the Christian message.’  (58). Pera further elucidates the distinction so:

‘The believer in Christ… believes in the Person of Jesus and has faith in that Person. The admirer of the Christian message… believes that Christianity has changed the world [for the better]… [and] that the culture of Christianity is of great value to himself and to others; that it is a good unto itself. For the believer in Christ, this “gift of God” is grace, the unasked for, mysterious experience of an encounter with Him. For the believer in Christian culture, the “gift of God” is our Christian heritage of virtues, customs, habits, [and] institutions – in short, our civilisation.

For western societies to remain liberal, united and moral, argues Pera, their members need only be cultural Christians, not Christians by faith, although that would not hurt. Pera writes:

 ‘It is not necessary that liberals be Christians [by faith]… It is essential that they be Christians… by culture [for this] means possessing a foundation for… [the] doctrine [that human beings are equal in dignity and, hence, in basic rights], a guide for our actions, a reference point, and a sign of hope.’

Yet, for Pera, being a Christian by culture — the sine qua non, in his view, for western societies remaining liberal, united and moral — involves more than their members simply believing all humans are equal in dignity and basic rights. It involves in addition, we are told, their making a leap of religious faith of sorts. They must also act as if God existed. Otherwise, so Pera argues, they will ultimately have nothing beyond themselves to limit their desires and thereby prevent them and their societies from becoming decadent, totalitarian, or wracked by internal conflicts. He writes:

‘Without the Christian vision… [of humans being the creations of God in His image and hence with equal moral status and dignity], our political life is doomed to become the mere exercise of power and our science to divorce itself from moral wisdom; our technology to become indifferent to ethics and our material well-being blind to our exploitation of others and our environment… Without that vision, our encounter with “the other” – the poor, the sick, the dying, the needy or outcast of any gender, race, or age – can only deteriorate into violence and manipulation, and out civilisation will cut itself off from the principles that first baptized  and nurtured it.’

As for Europe, Pera argues, its citizens need to call themselves Christians in culture, if  that continent is to achieve the unification after which it has aspired for this past half century. For without ‘a soul’, something by which to bind together its disparate peoples, their sum will remain no greater than that of their several parts, their ‘union’ no more binding than were it never to have been entered into. For the only thing Europeans have in common capable of binding them into a unity, and thereby serving as the soul of their continent, claims Pera, is their common Christian heritage.

Europe’s common Christian heritage, he further claims, is something that its political elite have assiduously been trying to avoid acknowledging. However, Pera contends, the longer they turn their backs on Europe’s Christian heritage and identity, the more disunited and fractious the continent can only become, and the more prone one or more of its constituent nations will be to embark on the kind of hazardous project of national self-aggrandizement that twice in the last century brought that continent to ruinous war.

As Pera puts it:

‘The Charter of Fundamental Rights… in the Treaty of Lisbon (2008)… has since replaced the [European] Constitution… [Its] “principles” and “indivisible and universal values”… transcend by definition any historical-geographical location, and the rights that stem from these principles and values refer to individuals as individuals… not… as defined by their history.’

‘[This] is too weak or thin – too generic, abstract, and loosely woven – to create a strong, specific, sense of identity, belonging or loyalty to a single, specific European community. A bridge is needed… between the juridical paradise of the Charter and its principles and the lives of Europeans… something that warms their hearts, stirs their emotions, and produces solidarity; otherwise the Charter… will remain … unable to… foster a sense of identity… necessary to Europe’s unification.’

It is precisely as the means, and the only possible ones, whereby Europeans can feel the common identity they need to do for their project of unification to succeed that Pera proposes that Europe should officially recognize itself as being Christian in culture. He writes:

‘the ethical deficit of… the Charter must be filled. But with what…?  There is no doubt… the Judeo-Christian tradition [is the source of] the concept of the person, endowed with dignity, because… created in the image of God… Why not fill its deficit with an appeal to that tradition? Why [should Europe] not recognise Christianity as its own basis or as part of itself?’

Pera knows that, and why, Europe’s governing elite resist appealing to its Christian heritage as a basis for the common European identity that alone could breathe life into and render viable their project of unifying it politically. He finds their reason wanting.

In answer to the question he has raised, he observes:

‘The official answer is that any reference [by Europe] to its history would be divisive and not inclusive. But the real answer is: because liberal European culture… rejects Christianity… But… in the absence of adequate substitutes… liberal European culture can produce no notion of European identity… In the end, it opposes the very thing it wishes to promote: the unification of Europe.’

As to the capacity of western societies to preserve a semblance of moral decency and propriety, that too, according to Pera, relies upon their members continuing to accept the core moral values of the Judeo-Christian tradition – notably, the dignity and equal moral status of all humans as ends in themselves, being created by a transcendent God in His image: meaning, that is, with free-will and the capacity to discern the difference between good and evil.

Without adherence to that core value, nothing is able, contends Pera, to check and limit the will of individuals, which may or may not accord with human dignity. The floodgates to moral corruption are thereby opened.

This is illustrated, Pera claims, by the amici curiae brief submitted to the Supreme Court in 1997 by America’s six foremost moral philosophers, all secular humanists to a woman –viz. Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, Thomas M. Scanlon and Judith Jarvis Thompson. In defence of two cases of assisted suicide, they signed a petition maintaining that:

‘Each individual has a right to make the most intimate and personal choices central to personal dignity and autonomy.’

We have come a long way here from Socrates and John Locke who both argued that, being creations of God, none of us has a right to decide when to end our own lives.

Does Pera succeed in making out the case for his claim that westerners need to remain Christians in their self-identification for their societies to remain liberal, united and moral?

This reviewer would dearly love to be able to say that Pera had, especially since he shares Pera’s opinion that a belief in God makes it easier for humans to know and do what is right. As the British statesman Quintin Hogg put the point in his 1947 book The Case for Conservatism:

‘I do not think that there is any hope for the world or my country unless men can come to regard themselves as members of a common brotherhood. But the brotherhood of man is philosophically meaningless and practically unattainable except in the light of the universal Fatherhood of God…. The denial of the fatherhood of God is the root from which spring quite naturally the various heresies which have afflicted the species in our time, the doctrine of race and of class, the worship of the State, the philosophy of dialectical materialism, or the more pragmatic and not less popular creeds of Get-rich-quick, or All’s-fair-in-love-and-war.’

However, Pera’s argument contains a fatal flaw, or at least remains incomplete. We  all typically survive the death of our parents, so their having derived from Christianity does not entail that liberal values to endure require acknowledgement of their Judeo-Christian provenance.

Moreover, it is one thing for it to be hard, without belief in God, to perceive and do the right thing. It is another for it to be impossible. As, however,  was pointed out by no less consummate a Christian philosopher than Michael Novak in his keynote contribution to the American Enterprise Institute’s 2008 symposium, Religion and the American Future‘It is quite clear that without religion some can live good and noble lives’ – or lives as noble and good as those of any believer.

That being so, without further argumentation, those like Pera  — and the present reviewer, who would also like to see and believes western societies would benefit from a return to a more self-consciously Christian ethos — have  much further work on their hands, to persuade their more secular-minded counterparts to mend their ways and, above all, to call off the present witch-hunt against organized religion, Christianity especially.