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04 May 2016

What kind of EU? Identity

Ahead of the EU referendum on 23 June the Evangelical Alliance is publishing a series of pieces exploring key issues relating to membership of the EU and how Christians might approach the vote. 

As an organisation we take no view on whether the UK should remain or leave the EU and the pieces represent the personal opinions of the authors. Future articles will consider freedom, democracy, economics, as well as the missionary context of Europe. 

Identity is like an onion: we all have multiple layers. Some of these layers are inherited and some are chosen. In essence, identity is about loyalty. What we identify with most strongly usually shows what we value. For Christians, our core identity is in Christ, and all the subsequent layers must conform to and reflect this cornerstone characteristic. This is what it means to say Jesus is Lord.

Being European, in the sense that we live or were born in the continent, is a layer of our identity. National identity, in the sense of being English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish or a British citizen or subject are others. Deciding whether Britain should remain or leave the European Union (EU) will influence the nature of the UK and the EU for generations to come.

Therefore, the question of which identity, or combination of identities, most faithfully conforms to our core identity is a critical consideration for Christians voting in the EU referendum.

Christianity, Europe and the EU

So, what is at the core of being European? What actually makes Europeans European?

Beyond the mix of race and ethnicity, we could cite things like common trading ties, or cultural links, or historical conflicts and accords. But all bordering countries on earth share these commonalities. Nations, empires and confederations often define themselves by what makes them different from their neighbours.

What defines a geographical sense of 'Europeaness'? Such as they exist, what has predominantly set the borders of the European mind? We could point to Greek philosophy, or Roman ideas of law, or humanism, or the Renaissance. However, these are dwarfed by a more dominant unifying influence: Christianity.

The inescapable fact is that historically, Europe is synonymous with Christianity.

Being the crucible for the Bible, the home of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and the birthplace of the Reformation – with its greatest art and architecture, and many of its key historical figures and moments defined by the faith, and with churches in every town, city and village – it is, above and beyond all else, Christianity that has defined a European identity.

As TS Elliot said in a radio broadcast: "The dominant feature in creating a common culture between peoples, each of which has its own distinct culture, is religion… I am talking about the common tradition of Christianity which has made Europe what it is, and about the common cultural elements which this common Christianity has brought with it… It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe – until recently – have been rooted."[1]

All this began with Lydia of Thyatira (Acts 16) who became the first convert to Christianity in Europe. For the following two thousand years, through persecutions, martyrdom, politics, heresies, bloody wars, and the rising and falling of empires, Christians have moulded European identity. Although the boundaries of the continent have been fluid, the defence of Christian lands has more than anything else, defined the historic geographical and psychological boundaries of Europe. Indeed, the word 'Europeans' (Europeenses in Latin) is reputed to appear for the first time in an eighth-century reference to Charles Martel's victory over the Moors at Tours.

Through great internal missionary endeavours, monasteries, reforms and counter-reforms, over two millennia Christians founded nations, established education, science, healthcare and influenced art, politics and philosophy. More than any other factors, it was the Christian faith that developed our ideas of government and law, and imbued European identity with a deep sense of biblical morality and ethics for things such as family, community, human dignity, freedoms, rights, equality and justice.

Much of this took place under Christendom when the Church was largely syncretised with the state. This long period of European history happened between Greco-Roman paganism and the Enlightenment and is described by secular historians as 'the middle ages' – an inconvenient obstacle on the road to progress. Today, this secular humanist view of the world has become a core part of the EU project. It wasn't supposed to be like this.

In 1940, as Britain faced Nazi tyranny, in his finest hour speech to parliament, the prime minister Winston Churchill stated that:"Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation." After victory in 1946, Churchill called for the creation of a "European family" in which citizens could share a sense of "patriotism and common citizenship" across a peaceful continent.

Three years later, as NATO was founded to secure peace and the Marshall Plan began to rebuild the ruined economies, Churchill's vision began to crystalise. Fostered by Christian democrats such as Alcide De Gasperi, Robert Schuman, French diplomat Jean Monnet and West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the Nouvelles Equipes Internationales, later known as the European Union of Christian Democrats (1965), was created in 1947. In the following decades secular ideologies of both the left and the right began to supplant this original identity.

Such was the scale of the displacement that, in 1992 the president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, stated that: "If we don't find the soul of Europe by the end of the century, the game will be up." The failed attempt by the EU to introduce a constitution in 2004 in which the preamble sought to airbrush the role of God and Christianity out of a European identity, instead referring to the "cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe" served to confirm how backslidden the project had become.

As we emerge from the secularism of the 20th century, it could be said that the EU is not so much experiencing an identity crisis, as an identity denial. Like the UK, having squandered its Christian heritage, the EU has moved from being a moral project to being a political project and on to being a merely an economic project. The fact is that a post-Christian identity which has enough legitimacy to foster solidarity across the peoples of the 28 member states of the EU has not been found – and may never be found. Today, with the hollowing out of national identities, a kind of non-identity seems to be the goal of the EU.

In contrast with a global context in which religion is thriving, Europe is now seen as an exception. However, with mass migration exposing the existential crisis on the continent and also presenting new missional opportunities for the church, things may be changing. As the institutions of the EU struggle to deal with the vast influx of non-Europeans fleeing wars, tyrannies and poverty, alongside a very precarious economic situation, Europeans are now also confronted by radical Islam. All of this threatens fundamental freedoms and further weakens the prospects for solidarity among member states.

In this context, the challenges of assimilating such large numbers of outsiders, most of whom ironically perceive Europe to be a Christian continent, have brought the issue of European identity to the fore. In the absence of answers to questions such as who are we? What do we believe in? What do we value in our common culture? And 'what are we inviting people to be part of?' there is a danger that the political vacuum will be filled with nationalism, racism and conflict.

Without a clear acknowledgement of the Christian narrative informing what it means to be European, the EU has tended to follow a lowest common denominator approach to common identity by promoting  human rights and 'democratic values' – the first being subjective and the second being merely a system for government – both being insufficient to inspire allegiance and solidarity.

In parallel, as the nations that constitute the UK seek to renew their own national identities, the 'post-Christian' UK is also engaged in its own soul-searching through the debate about British values. The increasing devolution of powers, most notably in Scotland following their own in/out referendum, has brought a more fragmented, less confident sense of national identity in the UK. Attempts by secularists to reframe British values to their agenda will no doubt exacerbate this situation in the years ahead.

In light of the historical role of Christianity in shaping European identity and the crisis of identity that the secularism has engendered, the EU referendum raises some key questions for Christians:

  1. Do you see yourself as European, or do you think the various cultures of Europe are too diverse to have anything in common?
  2. To what degree can the identities of being European and being in the EU be separated?
  3. Can the EU survive if it is based on economic self-interest, or is a richer European identity needed?
  4. Can the EU project adequately reflect and protect Christian values and freedoms?
  5. Is it possible for the historic Christian identity of Europe to be redeemed within the EU project?
  6. Would the historic Christian identity of the UK be enhanced or diminished by leaving the EU?
  7. How is my contribution to the referendum debate – and my vote – determined by economic imperative, political allegiance or my Christian identity?

Prayer points:

  • Thank God for His many blessings on Europe.
  • Pray that the referendum will provide opportunities for reflection and discussion on the Christian roots of European and British identity, and that the voice of the church will be heard.
  • Pray that the debate about issues of identity would be positive, clear and gracious, and that divisive and violent voices would be silenced.
  • Pray that the EU would rediscover its original Christian vision and principles.

[1] TS Elliot quoted in Davies, Europe: A History, (Pimlico: London, 1997)

Take a look at our  May/June special issue of idea focusing on Europe, and more information about the EU referendum can be found here.