Conservatives and Europe: it’s all about the secularism

Conservative references to “Europe” may sound like they’re about economics. But they’re really about religion. “Europe” means “secularism” and secularism means moral decline.

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.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

36 thoughts on “Conservatives and Europe: it’s all about the secularism”

  1. It’s just hilarious that an American would argue that America is superior to Europe on the issue of chattel slavery.

  2. Most conservatives are at heart social conservatives. I know quite a few libertarians that are socially radical: basically legalize everything. I know quite a few atheists who believe only libertarians can save them from being forced to pray by the evangelicals. I exaggerate but only slightly.

    I think the alliance between the social conservatives and the Libertarians is a truce that will break after the 2012 elections.

  3. I think the alliance between the social conservatives and the Libertarians is a truce that will break after the 2012 elections.

    No way. U.S. libertarianism is primarily about money. Most of them are well off and white, so civil liberties issues do not effect them most of the time. For those who want them, drugs basically are legal – the risk of being busted for white folk middle class and up is very low.

    Lots of libertrarians recognize these things, but when things don’t effect you and those you know, they become less real. Ditto abortion, war and so on – they wont have to suffer for these things. Taxes, however, are still there.

    I’m sympathetic to a lot of libertarian complaints, although broadly what passes as liberal. But we all have a lens to look through, and the difference between the life of a white 40 year old professional who likes to go to Burning Man and a black kid on his second drug sentence is huge and hard to bridge.

  4. Not quite, Andrew. The fundamental conservative assumption is that they believe people are either good or bad. From the conservative perspective, society should properly reward the good and punish the bad. Welfare is evil because it attempts to deliver the lazy and profligate from their due punishment (destitution and starvation). Anti-bullying laws are bad because they protect gays from the social harassment and assault that are their due punishment for indulging licentious desires. And so on. There’s no real counterpart among liberals, altho more genuinely leftist writers like the late Howard Zinn seem to simply turn conservative Manichaeism upside-down, so that wealth, whiteness, and maleness become tokens of vice instead of virtue.

  5. To ChristianPinko: I think your “fundamental conservative assumption . . . that they believe people are either good or bad” pretty much maps straight onto the Protestant view that you either go to heaven or hell when you die. Religious groups (in the Judeo-Christian sphere) that do not see the afterlife as strictly binary (Catholics, Jews) tend to vote Democratic, and Jews moreso than Catholics. So I think Andrew’s point stands.

  6. “the most numerous immigrants to Europe believe in the wrong religion.”

    God, it just struck me. Could you imagine the American reaction if Latin American immigrants were Muslim?

    *shudders*. Rahowa for sure.

  7. ChristianPinko, I would argue it’s more about the idea that worldly success is an indicator of one’s moral virtue. So, poor person = bad person. (A version of the Just World Fallacy). It’s less that “society should properly reward the good and punish the bad” than that society can TELL who is good and bad by how much Providence is punishing or rewarding them, i.e., their degree of worldly success.

  8. re: protestant work vs. punishment…

    There is a bizarre paradox in the way these people interpret their own religion, at least in so far as Christians ought to help the poor. In the cult of American free market meritocracy, everyone is assumed to be able to help themselves. “This ain’t bible times son, git a job!” Helping the poor is seen as enabling them.

    Oddly, many will support private charity, which I suppose they’ll argue is somehow different in some important way than government assistance, whether in the form of day care vouchers, homeless shelters, health clinics, etc. I think a lot of the anti-government paranoia goes back to fears of godless communism, but food stamps is so far from a communist takeover of corporate America that you either have to laugh or cry.

    These are two mighty different trains they’re trying to straddle, and I don’t know how they do it. I’d like to agree with Benny, but I don’t see the good cop/bad cop routine (schizophrenic cop?) going away any time soon.

  9. I think Andrew and commenters are making it too complicated. “Conservatives” don’t know squat about Europe and they don’t care. Europe and it’s denizens is over yonder, strange and outsiders. They just ain’t American so they’s bad.

    Starting from the perspective that outsiders are bad and then construct rationalizations and theories to show why they are bad: social democrats (social and democrats both fer cripes sake), unionists, lazy Italians, crazy Greeks and FRENCH! And then there’s those SWEDES, bad as commies and makin’ all those porno movies and the Dutch let people smoke pot too.

    “Conservatives” (sounds like they’re into resycling) don’t have anything to offer but fear of the other and since the Berlin Wall fell they’ve decided that every-other will do just fine to be afraid of. Be afraid and pee in your pants when the alert gets red!! Oh yeah, drowning the government in a bathtub so those people can’t come and get you too!

  10. “No way. U.S. libertarianism is primarily about money. Most of them are well off and white, so civil liberties issues do not effect them most of the time. For those who want them, drugs basically are legal – the risk of being busted for white folk middle class and up is very low.”

    To begin with, Republicans aren’t really all that bad from a civil liberties perspective, compared to Democrats. They might be wishy washy on freedom of speech in some contexts, but they’re pretty good on campaign censorship, which is the biggest 1st amendment issue of the day. They tend to be a lot better on the 2nd amendment than Democrats, who mostly won’t even admit the RKBA IS a civil liberty.

    Democrats tend to have a low concern for property rights, which, however much you might not like it, is also a civil liberties issue.

    Neither major party is very good about the war on drugs, so that’s mostly a wash. On militarism, well, after Obama, who can say Democrats are good on that?

    On a simple rule of law basis, Republicans are a little better, because Democrats tend to have more open contempt for the idea that the government really DOES have to obey the Constitution even in cases where they don’t like what it says. (Granted, you express that contempt by being deliberately obtuse about what it says, but that’s a fairly transparent tactic.)

    So, at best, I see the two major parties as a wash on liberty grounds. But they’re not a wash on economic issues, and while, if you’re well off economically, you can generally evade Republican style social restrictions, if you’re poor, you’re just screwed. So, yeah, it does primarily come down to money. That, and which civil liberties you vest the most importance in.

  11. Again Brett demonstrates that his libertarianism is actually deniable Republicanism.

    BTW – got proof of that constitution yet?

  12. I think conservatives hate Europe because they really hate Americans. The Swiss don’t allow a severely developmentally disabled child to live without the support conditions s/he needs, simply because the child is *Swiss*. But American conservatives are perfectly content to see Americans suffer.

    We hate ourselves: We don’t give Americans sick leave, or health insurance, or a minimum floor on living conditions. If you’re needy, disabled, or unfortunate, and you’re American, well, buddy, you can just DIE IN A CORNER. You’re American; why would you deserve any better.

  13. And the question to ask whenever ya read a news story these days is: *Why do Republicans hate America?*

  14. There are lots of factors — this metaphor is “overdetermined” (as any good metaphor should be). But I think the main one is this: Europe is weak. It is feminine (or rather, effeminate). It cannot defend itself.

    I think this is the primary point. To say that Democrats want to make America like Europe is to say that they want us to become, to use an old-fashioned and somewhat offensive term that captures the point, pansies.

  15. The religion thing is certainly part of it, but the animosity towards Europe is much broader in origin. It has been a theme on the right back to at least the 1950s. The reason the right hates Europe is very simple – these countries provide living proof that most of the right’s political shibboleths are dead wrong.
    A few examples:

    –Universal health care works! It creates better health outcomes at lower cost. People like it and wouldn’t give it up for anything.

    –Most countries in Europe have murder rates one-fourth to one-third that of the U.S. This is with sensible gun laws, no death penalty, and shorter prison sentences.

    –Some countries have decriminalized soft drugs without horrific consequences.

    –U.S. conservatives have been predicting the total collapse of Western Europe because of their bloated welfare states for several decades now. Darn! They somehow seem to keep going.

    Add to this that fact that, as you mention, Northern European countries tend to be highly secular, even atheistic, and God has not seen fit to punish them. In fact, they continue to lead very good lives. How galling!

  16. I guess it would be wrong to point out that many european countries devote significant government monies to various churches, in addition to the usual tax benefit?

  17. I realize that only an American right-wing nutcase could see environmentalism as a substitute religion:

    Prof. Bolz: Nun, was nicht überraschend ist wenn man Berliner ist, von einer atheistischen Grundhaltung der modernen Gesellschaft aus, glaube aber gleichzeitig, das eine Gesellschaft ohne einer Religion nicht funktionieren kann. Wenn also die traditionellen, sprich christlichen Religionen, die Menschen nicht mehr ansprechen, suchen sie nach Ersatzreligionen. Und die mächtigste der gegenwärtigen Ersatzreligion ist mit Sicherheit die grüne Bewegung, das Umweltbewusstsein, was sich heute konkretisiert in der Sorge um das Weltklima.

    Hier weiterlesen: Alles Schall und Rauch: Interview mit Professor Norbert Bolz über die Klimareligion

    Google translate version:

    Professor Bolz: Well, what is not surprising when one is in Berlin, from an atheistic attitude of modern society, but at the same time believe that a society can not function without a religion. If that is no longer responding to traditional, that is, Christian religions, the people, they look for substitute religions. And the most powerful of the current alternative to religion is certainly the green movement, the environmental awareness of what is now solidified by the concern about the global climate.

    All smoke and mirrors:: Interview with Professor Norbert Bolz on climate Religion # ixzz1Ogt6OP2v Continue here

  18. Can’t let horseball’s comment go without pointing out that the website to which he directs everyone, when not positing that there is a “green” religion, is denying that al Qaeda and bin Laden are responsible for September 11 (, blaming the “Bilderbergers” for some kind of global conspiracy, and suggesting that the Japanese nuclear catastrophe is the “seventh Illuminati card” to be played (

    Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas.

  19. Well, you got me there. I did make a mistake in only checking out the professor, not the website. I don’t see any evidence that the professor holds those views. He’s right here on the Goethe Institut – I would take that as a token of respectability – webpage: described as a “well-known face in the world of the mass media”. Here’s his German wikipedia page: and his English one:

    All I was trying to show is to show that such ideas are not beyond the pale in Europe as the left would have it, and are in circulation. Furthermore, in Europe there is a certain kind of social conservatism, but which is not specifically religious in nature. That type of social conservatism is responsible for a lot of the observed differences between Europe and the United States. For example, the lowest-low birthrates have been attributed in part to a “prevalence of relatively traditional gender roles”

    By the way, if there is such a powerful consensus in Europe behind the threat of climate change caused by anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, why is the most powerful recent political issue in Germany one which will certainly vastly increase CO2 emissions, namely the exit from nuclear power? I don’t see anyone raising hell about that.

  20. Eli,

    Could you imagine the American reaction if Latin American immigrants were Protestants?

  21. Jamie,

    Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of socially conservative libertarians. Ron Paul, for example, is staunchly pro-life. Wouldn’t enforcing pro-life policies be big government nanny statism? Wouldn’t eliminating fractional lending mean huge regulations on a market that overwhelmingly favors fractional lending? But for lack of a better description corralling the libertarians in line with the Republican party has always been like herding cats.

    I understand that the lens with which libertarians view the world is often an upper class white lens. Aren’t most gun control laws aimed at reducing gun violence in cities like Chicago, where the victims are predominantly black? We might argue about the efficacy of these gun laws, but applying them by cities rather than the federal government is the small government that libertarians often champion.

    I think the difference is that mainstream conservatives are fine with America becoming more like Europe as long as it is a Christian version of Europe. Probably an Anglo-Saxon Protestant variation. Libertarians would be appalled at that. They much rather we become like… I guess some fictional utopia that doesn’t exist right now, or America of 1805 (minus slavery of course!).

  22. The conservative stereotype omits the contribution of Christian Democracy to the consesnus postwar European social model. Adenauer and de Gasperi were not marginal figures but national leaders. Christian Socialism did not SFIK generate significant political parties, but it did encourage numbers of practising Christians to enter politics on the left.

  23. Libertarians seem to get along better with whichever party is out of power in the Executive Branch, although things are more chummy when it’s the GOP than when it’s the Dems. Come to think of it, those in the leftmost quartile of the political spectrum seem to get along better with the Dems when they don’t control the Executive, too. Perhaps neither ideology meshes particularly well with the kind of compromises the actual (as opposed to theoretical) exercise of power tends to produce.

  24. James, when I put a very similar comment to a social conservative recently (saying that Bill Clinton in continental Europe would have fit very naturally into a Christian Democratic party, not a Social Democratic one, and Obama quite possibly the same), he said, “but European Christian Democrats are basically Social Democrats too.” I can’t prove that this response would be widespread, but I wouldn’t be surprised. As said, the ideology is–granted, like other ideologies–mostly impervious to falsification. If Christian Democrats supported–or even enacted–welfare states, that just proves that they weren’t all that Christian.

  25. James,

    I hate to be the one to point this out but both of the men in your example are Catholics.

  26. I think that Larry Birnbaum got it right. It’s not about Christianity. Christianity takes many forms. American conservatives only go for the Talebanic forms of Christianity: heavy on the smiting and smoting, with a strong sense of divinely-appointed gender roles and tightly-regulated sexuality, and a weak sense of separation of church and state. The other forms of Christianity are foreign to them. Hence, Christian Democracy is foreign to them–nothing they would recognize as Christianity.

  27. “Perhaps neither ideology meshes particularly well with the kind of compromises the actual (as opposed to theoretical) exercise of power tends to produce.”

    Perhaps controlling the Executive branch causes a party to engage in the sort of dictatorial excesses that piss people off…

  28. Eli:

    Oddly, many will support private charity, which I suppose they’ll argue is somehow different in some important way than government assistance, whether in the form of day care vouchers, homeless shelters, health clinics, etc.

    You have to understand why they like charity. It isn’t that it’s an efficient or effective way to lift the poor out of misery. That’s not the end of it that they are concerned with. They like charity, because it means that wealth was freely given, and not coerced out of the giver through taxation. For them, the important moral element isn’t the making sure that the poor all well fed. The focus is all on the donor, and what happens after the wealth is given doesn’t concern them. They somehow read the Gospels and think that it’s all about them, rather than about the world around them.

  29. I’ve said this before, but it’s so refreshing to hear from progressive Christians. The rightwingy ones make so much more noise. And I agree with Scrooge — people see in the Gospel what they want to see, and their interpretations tell us mostly about themselves, not God.

  30. The focus is all on the donor… They somehow read the Gospels and think that it’s all about them, rather than about the world around them

    An insightful observation. This particular Christian reading of the concept of “charity” is in marked contrast to the Jewish and Islamic concepts of tzedakah and zakat. Those forms of charity are obligations, not add-ons; giving them does not make one especially virtuous, but failing to give does make one vicious.

  31. @Paul,

    nope, they are and have always been separate parties that form a common fraction — in American terms, roughly, a caucus — in parliament. It is the caucus that is referred to as CDU/CSU, or often merely “the Union” (that being what the U in both abbreviations stands for). Under an agreement between the two parties, the CDU organize in every state but Bavaria while the CSU organize only there.

    The CDU span a broad spectrum from centrist to far right (Obama would fit comfortably on their left wing). With few exceptions, the CSU are pretty much just far right. In US terms, think of the CDU as Republicans from the 1970s. Think of the CSU as Republicans from today (and from Texas).

    Both are post-war successors to earlier parties. The CDU derive from the Zentrum (Centre), a socially-conservative Roman Catholic clericalist party. The CSU have their roots in the Bayerische Volkspartei (Bavarian Peoples Party). The BVP had split off from the Centre because it regarded the party as insufficently conservative, insufficiently catholic and insufficiently Bavarian.

    Post-war, the newly-formed CDU and CSU abandoned the explicitly confessional RC character of their predecessor parties. Especially the CDU pretty much pays lip-service to religion these days — their attitude towards religion is pretty much what Eisenhower’s was. Most CSU politicans are catholics, but that simply reflects demographics: most parts of Bavaria are overwhelmingly RC (politicians from the majority-Lutheran Franconian region in the state’s north have never had difficulty achieving prominence).

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