Steve Benen notes, and has long noted, that Republican references to failed economics in Europe are inconsistent. We’re supposed to decry Europe as socialist for its high-speed rail, national health insurance, and value-added taxes, but love it as hard-headed for its austerity, tight money, and nuclear energy (well, in France anyway).
Of course these references are inconsistent. But the reason to expect the inconsistency is that the conservative obsession with Europe is primarily cultural, rather than economic. Europe’s economic policies taken individually may be fine, even admirable. But “Europe” is still by definition in decline—because it isn’t Christian enough.
When progressives think of Europe, its citizens’ relative lack of Christian faith isn’t the first association that springs to mind. For social conservatives, matters are very different: Europe is primarily a symbol of secularism. Here’s Robert Morrison in the Family Research Council’s blog on Catholics for a Free Choice founder Frances Kissling:
I doubt that Frances Kissling would be satisfied with her own policy prescriptions. She seems to want a European system where early abortion is readily available and paid for.
I sense that Frances Kissling, like President Obama, will learn soon how unlike Europe we are. Here, most Americans still acknowledge the existence of God. And most Americans are pro-life, a fact she grudgingly acknowledges. And here, most Americans agree with what Lincoln said of slavery: “Nothing stamped in the divine image was sent into the world to be trod upon.”
It’s not just abortion, though.* Europe is seen as a bullying promoter of gay rights across the world, against which less-developed countries are, fortunately from this point of view, pushing back. It’s seen as insufficiently muscular in its defense of Christianity as the basis of its values, though the recent progress of Christian chauvinism and anti-Islamic sentiments is seen as a positive sign. Even belief in global warming is sometimes portrayed as a substitute environmentalist religion that fills the gap left by Christianity’s decline. (I’m not making this up.)
Above all, the welfare state is widely seen as a moral issue, not an economic one. While progressives often see the U.S. as odd and morally lacking because it doesn’t have a proper welfare state, social conservatives not uncommonly see Europe as depraved because it does have one. The welfare state demonstrates that Europe has abandoned God and Church and placed its faith in the State. In the alternative, the welfare state is unaffordable because Europeans, being secular, have too few children. That the U.S. would also face population decline were it not for immigration is less commonly mentioned or else regarded as irrelevant, since the most numerous immigrants to Europe believe in the wrong religion.
Of course not all conservatives uphold this stereotype. The Old Right retains a bit of Europhilia, and conservatives who actually know Europe well are capable of disaggregating (as with this piece by Duncan Currie, a model of reality-based commentary though not to my political taste). Still, the general pattern is very strong: Europe is doomed not because of its economic policies but because, absent Christianity, it must by definition lack a proper culture and morality.
No amount of economic results can falsify this model. A vivid analogy for progressives is elusive, since we’re less likely to consider morality and culture—much less religion—the necessary basis of society. But perhaps the best comparison would be an imaginary society devoted to widespread use of methamphetamine. People in that society might smile a lot. They might display high energy, great confidence, and impressive sex drives. They might be thin and attractive. In the short term, they might even be alert and economically productive. But in the end, their lives will be empty and joyless, their families a mess, and their economic prospects bleak, since they’re pursuing immediate pleasure instead of the things that all rational people know really matter. That’s how social conservatives see secularists. Therefore, it’s how they see Europe.
*Actually, abortion laws in Europe are more complicated. While it’s true that most European countries (except Germany) cover abortion under their health insurance schemes, they also typically allow abortion on request only in the early stages of pregnancy; Roe v. Wade is more radical than any European country in this regard. But I’m talking about perception, not reality.