Brandenburg is an International Historian at Montreat College in North Carolina. His current project, “Evangelical Empire: Billy Graham’s Good News in the American Century,” investigates the politics of the gospel in the Global North and Global South. He tweets @benbrandenburg. Enjoy! –JF
As the aftershocks of Great Britain’s Brexit vote continue to reverberate across the globe, initial reactions focused on the future of capitalism, world order, and globalization. The religious dimension was nowhere to be found. Contrary to what is often claimed on this side of the pond, Christianity continues to matter in European politics. When the returns signaled that a fear of immigration tilted the referendum towards Leave, it became obvious that voters had Mutter Angela on their minds. Europe’s current impasse was in no small part launched by the decision of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to invite over one million predominantly Muslim asylum seekers from the Middle East into the heart of the European Union. David Cameron, Britain’s lame duck Prime Minister, admitted as much.
So it is worth taking a deeper look at the ways Merkel’s Immigration Revolution of 2015 reignited Europe’s on-again off-again discussion about Christianity’s role in public life.
Europeans, it seems, have never quite stopped discussing the meaning of Christianity in Europe. Following the Second World War, debates about the future the European system resulted in the political phenomena of Christian Democracy. Harvard historian Samuel Moyn recently argued that this Western European ideology understood Europe to be nothing less than a Christian Civilization. Often misunderstood in the United States, the Christian Democratic movement is perhaps the most important ideological innovation of the postwar period. With a surprising mixture of pan-Europeanism, Catholic social teaching, and anti-communism, the party took hold in Germany, France, Italy, and the Benelux countries in the immediate aftermath of the war. When Christianity began to lose its firm grip on postwar society Christian Democrats sought to push the conversation by inviting Billy Graham to the stadiums of Europe. Europeans debated whether America’s most iconic religious export could re-Christianize Cold War Europe. They later used Graham’s satellite TV events as a yardstick for discussing religious pluralism. More recently, the failed attempt at crafting a European Constitution in the early 2000s was dominated by discussions, with an assist by Jürgen Habermas, about whether Europe had an explicit Christian identity.
Enter Angela Merkel. In her eleven years in office, leaders within her conservative CDU (Christian Democratic Union) criticized the mild mannered politician for underemphasizing the “Christian” part of her party and for supporting relativism as she moved the party leftward. Her strongest belief, it appeared, was her effervescent love for Die Mannschaft, Germany’s national soccer team. Still, one can understand her reasoning for broadening the base, her CDU was one of Europe’s few remaining Christian Democratic strongholds.
And then Merkel made a momentous decision that would land her the cover of TIME’s person of the year.
She opened the German borders for Syrian refugees who were in limbo in Hungary. And she has stuck to her plan even as the price tag reached €94 billion. Some called the move a reaction to her upbringing in closed-border East Germany (Merkel’s father was a Lutheran official who earned the nickname “The Red Minister”). Others suggested it was a last ditch effort to save Europe’s borderless Schengen Zone or to bring in low wage labor. Perhaps a more accurate reading is to admit that Merkel attempted to reinvigorate a Christian Democratic understanding of politics on the continent. Merkel is forcing Christians in Europe to choose between her vision of Compassionate Conservatism and the Christian Nationalist vision of Fortress Europe that is cresting in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński’s Poland, and Nigel Farage’s Britain. In response to a question on the Islamisation of Europe, Merkel responded:
We all have the opportunity and the freedom to have our religion, to practice it, and to believe in it. I would like to see more people who have the courage to say ‘I am a Christian believer’. And more people who have the courage to enter into a dialogue with our guests…Fear was never a good adviser. Culture’s that are marked by fear will not conquer their future.
This Wilkommenskutlure should be interpreted as a distinct vision of Christian hospitality. Historians will need to wait for decades to see how this conversation plays out, but it could lead—to borrow a phrase from Robert Wuthnow—to a Restructuring of European Christianity.