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Letter from Rome: Rising threats to European liberty

    Dear friends of Istituto Acton,

    It’s not good manners to begin the year with dire predictions, but with continuing Islamic terrorist attacks, increasing concern over Russian aggression, and the general fecklessness of its leaders, we have many reasons to worry about the future of liberty in Europe.

    Italian and German anti-terrorism officials were fully aware of the threat posed by Tunisian national Anis Amri and still could not prevent his driving a truck through a Christmas market in Berlin. Combined with the Istanbul nightclub shootings on New Year’s Eve as well as the murder of a French priest celebrating Mass in Normandy and the Bastille Day rampage in Nice, we can expect to see even more internal security measures in every major European city. Rome already has plenty of armed police, many of whom comport themselves much too casually to inspire any confidence in their ability to stop an actual attack.

    The Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia are understandably nervous about the Russians, given Vladimir Putin’s Ukrainian adventures and Donald Trump’s desire not to antagonize Russia. That these current NATO member states once suffered tremendously under Soviet occupation seems to mean little to the West. Poland would be wise to look for alternative means of defense.

    Islamic terrorism and Russian troublemaking are nothing new in modern European history, which makes the lack of A serious response to these threats even more striking. Angela Merkel can only hope that the refugees Germany is accepting do not include terrorists, while Pope Francis issues a call for non-violence. These are decent humanitarian sentiments but not very helpful for those who wish to preserve themselves and their freedoms.

    So what can be done? One of my favorite writers on European matters is Pierre Manent, whose book Beyond Radical Secularism was published in English last year. Originally titled Situation de la France and written in the wake of the Paris attacks of January 2015, it provides a strident yet thoughtful defense of the Christian West and particularly the nation-state. Manent not only asks Europeans to re-consider the secularist prejudices that have blinded them to the Islamic challenge in their midst; he calls upon Christians to end their defeatist ways of thinking and acting and start working more openly for the common good of the nation.

    Some of Manent’s proposals are practical – halal menus in schools, unisex swimming pools, accepting Muslim dress in public so long as the wearer’s face is uncovered, restricting the foreign funding of mosques – and have, as he calls them, a “defensive” posture. Muslims are and will be a part of European life, and some attempts must be made to accommodate them. But they must also become part of the national life shared by all citizens.

    Manent’s advice to the Church is particularly noteworthy. There are no invocations of the old regime or calls for a new crusade; rather the Church must move beyond the liberal thinking and language of human rights and provide a spiritual defense of the common life of the nation of “a Christian mark,” i.e. one that has been deeply shaped by Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant) yet remains open to other faiths. Perhaps foreshadowing the rise of François Fillon, he urges Catholics to become more active in politics instead of retreating to private life.

    By participating openly in political life, French Catholics would help revive the idea of the “Covenant” that created the nation of Israel and may yet again provide the freedom and responsibility (to God and men) that was once at the center of the “European arc.” Such religiously-informed politics would have been very difficult to imagine in France even just a few years ago, but as we’ve seen with Brexit and the Trump victory, the unimaginable is becoming the norm these days.

    Even though Manent’s book is addressed to the Christian West, it is far from a Catholic or sectarian tract. In addition to the above-mentioned defensive stance towards Islam, it argues that French citizens can be unified despite their religious differences so long as the “form” of the nation exists to bring and hold them together. This form, however, has been neglected by Christians since the carnage of World War II in favor of supranational institutions such as the European Union and the United Nations. It may be up to European Christians to prove that the nation-state can thrive without succumbing to the perils of nationalism.

    One way of doing so would be to respect the limits of government power. It is no surprise that European countries have become welfare states just as they have decreased military spending by relying on the United States to provide for their defense. A government that doesn’t understand what it should not be doing is more likely to neglect its core responsibilities, such as providing law and order. The more it meddles in areas such as the economy, health care and education, the less it focuses on its basic functions. Paring back the role of government in some aspects of social life may strengthen its role in other, more legitimate ones and help regain the trust of its citizens.  

    A growing economy is another unifying element of modern society that is too often taken for granted. I would not expect a writer as sophisticated as Manent to defend the market economy in his book, but those Catholics he urges to get involved in politics ought to pay attention, as a stagnant or shrinking economy makes their task that much more difficult. Economic freedom remains a vital if underappreciated aspect of human freedom because it provides people with reliable, everyday opportunities to contribute to the common good.

    So maybe I was wrong to be so pessimistic at the outset of this letter. If modern-day France realizes that religion and liberty can complement each other, what’s stopping the rest of Europe?

    Kishore Jayabalan

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