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(Culture) War Is Declared in Europe

John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge work for the Economist. They are co-authors of "The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America" (Penguin, 2004).

A recent obsession in the drawing rooms and salons of Europe is the fact that a plurality of Americans (22%) cited “moral values” as their main reason for going to the polls. To civilized Europeans, the culture wars -- God, gays and guns -- are the most risible bit of American politics.

Ever since 1945, European elites have preferred their politics to be technocratic -- mainly managing capitalism for the common good, rather than tackling private issues of faith and morality. This is partly because Europeans are less passionate about religion. Only one in 10 French people says religion plays an important role in his or her life. But lately, cultural issues have begun to force their way back into the mainstream of European politics, stoked by three things.

The first is the willingness of politicians to ride roughshod over ancient traditions -- and the growing willingness of what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” to fight back.

The Labor government’s bill banning fox hunting in England and Wales, for instance, delighted metrosexual Islington, where people are less exercised by the rights of foxes than the wrongs of the upper classes. But it has created a furor in rural England -- and not just among toffs.

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Four hundred thousand hunt supporters have marched in London to protest the law. A group of hunt supporters (including the son of rock star Bryan Ferry) stormed Parliament, which has spent a grand total of 275 hours debating the subject. The countryside will continue with civil disobedience until the hated ban is defeated.

The second factor is the revival of religion -- or at least its refusal to die. Europe has long been the world’s most secular continent -- fittingly so given that the great prophets of secularization such as Emile Durkheim and Max Weber were European. But now religion is again entangling itself with politics.

The most obvious example is the resurgence of radical Islam. Muslim immigrants have not lost their religion in their new home, as most liberals imagined they would, but instead reaffirmed it -- and caused dilemmas for secular technocrats. Should they be allowed to send their children to Muslim-only schools, as they are in Holland? Should schoolchildren be banned from wearing religious head scarves, as they are in secular France? In Holland, in particular, such tensions have grown especially strong since the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist.

But Christians are also causing more fuss in Europe these days.

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Look at Rocco Buttiglione, who was stopped from becoming the EU’s justice commissioner because he had said that homosexuality is a sin and that women should stay home and have children. Look at the thousands of calls to the BBC when the broadcaster decided to show an expletive-filled opera about Jerry Springer. And look at the enthusiasm for religion in Downing Street. Tony Blair boasts about sleeping with a copy of the Bible beside his bed. Gordon Brown, his chancellor of the exchequer, claims he learned his socialism listening to his preacher father’s sermons (five every Sunday). The new education minister, Ruth Kelly, has close links with Opus Dei, the ultraconservative Catholic movement.

The third factor is the growing ambition of the ultimate technocratic project. The European Union is run by gray men who talk about protocols and summits with the same relish that real people reserve for sports teams. Yet their enthusiasm for both deepening Europe (by creating a European constitition) and broadening it (by admitting Turkey) is stirring up a formidable backlash. The upcoming votes about the European constitution will inevitably raise questions about national identity.

And the European establishment’s enthusiasm for admitting Turkey will inevitably raise the biggest cultural question of all: What does it mean to be a European? There are plenty of good economic and strategic reasons for the EU to admit Turkey. But it is also true that Turks come from a different religious tradition and that membership in a political organization like the EU is a far bigger deal than, say, membership in NAFTA: It involves a constitution, a currency, open borders and merging legal systems.

In one way, these culture wars are overdue. But, historically speaking, they are worrying. Most of the torments that have torn the Continent apart, from the Thirty Years War and the Reformation to World War II, have been about cultural identity. The technocrats may be boring, but they have kept the lid on a Pandora’s box full of demons.


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