After these stirring images, the top floor is truly a disappointment. It is reserved for an overview of the European Union’s institutions, such as the European Parliament, the European Council, and the European Commission. This is literally the apex of the European Union’s narcissism, as if the high point of European history consists in an overview of the various responsibilities of the present-day bureaucracy.
But the most remarkable thing about the House is that, as far as its account is concerned, it is as if religion does not exist. In fact, it never existed and never impacted the history of the continent. On none of the many floors is any attention paid to the Reformation as the great divide between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, to religious wars between confessions, or the quest for freedom of religion that was at the heart of the Dutch Revolt. If one did not know that the Roman Catholic Church existed, one would not find it out in the permanent exposition of European history that the European Parliament seeks to present to every European (at that European's expense). No longer is European secularism fighting the Christian religion; it simply ignores every religious aspect in life altogether.
Meanwhile, it is clear that religion did play a crucial role in European history. Social structures in southern European countries cannot be understood without the role of the Roman Catholic Church. The responsibility of the individual, stressed in Protestantism, is a central tenet of European culture. Calvinism may or may not be the fertile soil that buds forth capitalism as Max Weber theorized, but at least its role in creating the cultural structures of much of Europe needs to be discussed. Until the 1960s, at the very minimum, most Europeans understood themselves as Christians, and - to cite but one example - Christian Democratic political parties still play an important role in the politics of large European countries like Germany.
In modern, secular Europe, there is a tendency to ignore religion altogether. This is due, in no small part, to the rise of Islam and its potential demographic replacement of Christianity as the continent's largest religion. When attention would be paid to religion in European history, this would result in a distinctly Christian focus, and those two millennia of history seems to be a heinous thing to many politicians. Whatever the cause, the European Constitution (the Treaty of Lisbon) does not mention God at all.
The impact of all this is not relegated to the past. Its greatest cost is in the present. When God and religion are no longer mentioned as part of public life, the technocrats can lay claim to control, and the European discourse is governed by experts in the fields of money and power. Instead of God, the European institutions of Brussels take center stage. Not surprisingly, these provide neither motivation nor enthusiasm to Europeans, which in turn stimulates right-wing populist movements, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France or Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid) in the Netherlands. These populist movements seek to limit freedom in different ways than the technocrats, but often using the same mechanisms. At the end of the day, the erasure of religion from the House of European History undermines its powerful warnings against potentially violent movements and wars.
Without Christianity, Europe has no soul.
(Photo credit: Gor62. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)