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Lessons From Europe’s Decline

Roger Scruton with a diagnosis -- and a warning for America

Here’s a lecture Roger Scruton gave to the Heritage Foundation in October, called “The Future of European Civilization: Lessons For America.” The link will take you to both video of the lecture, and a transcript. Most of it I agree with, some of it not. All of it is interesting. I’m going to excerpt parts that particularly stood out to me.

In the lecture, Scruton makes much of the de-Christianization of Europe. Excerpts:

The big questions in my mind are these: To what extent is the loss of our traditional religion and the culture that grew from it responsible for our weakness in the face of these threats, and what could we conceivably do now to remedy the defect?

Those questions are difficult even to discuss. The EU institutions have made a point of removing all references to the Christian religion and its moral legacy from official documents, on the view that such things will constitute discrimination in favor of one group of Europeans over another. Cases brought before the European Court of Human Rights and also the European Court of Justice (the court charged with the application and enforcement of the treaties) are pushing for continent-wide laws permitting gay marriage, easy divorce, and abortion on demand, as well as laws banning the crucifix from public places and curtailing the teaching of the Christian religion in schools.

These initiatives have their parallels here in America, and in the same way that liberal activists have used the Supreme Court to overrule the religion-based decisions of state legislatures, secularists and Islamists are using the European courts to impose their vision on the nation-states of Europe.


This de-Christianizing of Europe is being pursued also through the European Parliament and its Fundamental Rights Agency, charged with the advocacy of human rights at all legislative levels. The Fundamental Rights Agency is led by activists in the cause of “gender equality” and LGBT rights and is inherently hostile to the traditional family and to the religion-based morality that shaped it. It is now pressing for the recognition of abortion as a human right—presumably a right of the mother rather than the child. It is active in promoting the “gender agenda” wherever this can be brought into play and is staffed largely by people who have spent their lives as busybodies and who have never done what my parents would have called an honest job of work.

It is true, of course, that activists gather always at the top and try to push society in the direction that they favor, but their getting to the top is not independent of the fact that they are allowed to get to the top, and the people who allow them are those whom they wish to control. In any case, whatever the cause, there is no doubt as to the effect. Europe is rapidly jettisoning its Christian heritage and has found nothing to put in the place of it save the religion of “human rights.”

I call this a religion because it is designed expressly to fill the hole in people’s worldview that is left when religion is taken away. The notion of a human right purports to offer the ground for moral opinions, for legal precepts, for policies designed to establish order in places where people are in competition and conflict. However, it is itself without foundations. If you ask what religion commands or forbids, you usually get a clear answer in terms of God’s revealed law or the Magisterium of the church. If you ask what rights are human or natural or fundamental, you get a different answer depending on whom you ask, and nobody seems to agree with anyone else regarding the procedure for resolving conflicts.

Consider the dispute over marriage. Is it a right or not? If so, what does it permit? Does it grant a right to marry a partner of the same sex? And if yes, does it therefore permit incestuous marriage too? The arguments are endless, and nobody knows how to settle them.

Things are made more complex still by the inclusion, in all European provisions, of “non-discrimination” as a human right. When offering a benefit, a contract of employment, a place in a college, or a bed in a hospital, you are commanded not to discriminate on grounds of…there then follows a list derived from the victims of recent history: race, ethnic group, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and whatever is next to be discovered. But all coherent societies are based on discrimination: A society is an “in-group,” however large and however hospitable to newcomers.

The result is a society that cannot, in the end, be coherent:

We are witnessing, in effect, the removal of the old religion that provided foundations to the moral and legal inheritance of Europe and its replacement with a quasi-religion that is inherently foundationless. Nobody knows how to settle the question whether this or that privilege, freedom, or claim is a “human right,” and the European Court of Human Rights is now overwhelmed by a backlog of cases in which just about every piece of legislation passed by national parliaments in recent times is at stake.

Scruton indicates that there may be a kind of Benedict Option emerging in Europe:

This development has led, however, to a sudden burst of Christian nostalgia—not only among the older generation, but among young people too. There are evangelical movements in the cities which reach out to the young and attempt to include them in a purified Christian vision. This new evangelism is not opposed to the official “rights” culture but carves out a private space within it—a space where, taking advantage of the permissions granted by the secular order, the old discipline can be adopted as a personal cross.

This privatized Christianity can be found in surprising places. One of them is worth mentioning, since it concerns the art form that more than any other expresses the “Faustian” spirit of Europe as Spengler discerned it: namely, music.

Following the example of Messiaen in France, a new generation of composers has emerged eager to compose liturgical and spiritual music, usually quite difficult music that will be heard only in the concert hall, but nevertheless music with the old message, written in defiance of the secular culture. Notable in Britain is Sir James MacMillan, whose knighthood, recently bestowed, is a sign that this way of reviving Christian values does not offend the powers that be. MacMillan is a Catholic Scot; his predecessor as the voice of Christian music in Britain, Sir John Tavener, was a Greek Orthodox Englishman; and MacMillan’s most important rival for the ear of Christians in Britain is John Rutter, who is an Anglican, wedded to the old harmless, half-believing rites of our national church.

I mention these people because they exemplify a phenomenon that can be encountered all across Europe, which is the search for the old God of the continent in the sacred buildings, liturgies, and music of our various churches, even and especially among people who don’t set foot in a church on a Sunday for fear of being trapped into prayer.

Christianity is not, of course, meant to be a “privatized religion,” but that may be the only way it can survive in this current situation. Scruton sees other signs of hope in Europe:

For there to be a successful turnaround in confronting these two external threats [Islamic extremism and a revival of hostility with Russia], however, there must also be a rebirth of national sentiment and local attachments. So far, the foundationless ideology of rights has wiped away the emotions that would be needed if people are to be resolute in defense of their shared assets. We see at every level the retreat from confrontation, the embarrassed refusal to affirm our patrimony or its legitimate claim for sacrifice. The only first-person plural that is officially allowed is that of Europe itself, though it is a “we” that few people now understand and which has in any case been bowdlerized by the political elite.

But we also see, here and there, the signs of social and cultural renewal. During the 19th century, many Europeans thought they could compensate for the decline of the Christian faith by attaching themselves to ideologies: socialism, nationalism, communism, Marxism. The rights panacea is the latest of these, but we know or ought to know that it does not work. It is only by reconnecting with our true inheritance that we can develop the kind of first-person plural that will enable us to stand together against the growing threats to us.

I mentioned the encouraging examples set by English composers in recent years. I could mention the movement of Catholic youth in Italy around the Rimini meetings established by Father Giussani. I could mention the reaction in France—confused as yet and unfocused—to the recent Islamist atrocities. I could mention the extraordinary rebirth of representational painting around the work of Odd Nerdrum in Norway and the emergence in Britain of poets, such as Ruth Padel, John Burnside, and Don Paterson, who speak directly to both young and old in a language that also recuperates our past.

Seems like a thin list, but I will happily take good news where I find it.

Is this decline and fragmentation to be our future in America? I would bet so, but Scruton says no, not if we can hold on to our sense of national unity. He doesn’t believe that it’s threatened. I’m not sure about that. What do you think?

Here’s the entire lecture. It may seem that I’ve overquoted, but it’s lengthy, and there’s plenty more that I didn’t touch. And you may wish to read Scruton’s latest piece from National Review, about classical music and conservatism. Excerpt:

The real reason people are conservatives has little or nothing to do with economics, even if they are aware that economic prosperity is a good thing, and necessary for the support of other things that they value. The real reason people are conservatives is that they are attached to the things that they love, and want to preserve them from abuse and decay. They are attached to their family, their friends, their religion, and their immediate environment. They have made a lifelong distinction between the things that nourish and the things that threaten their security and peace of mind.

In my writings I have made a point of emphasizing this. Conservatism, for me, is the philosophy and the politics of attachment. Its starting point is a loved way of life, and the institutions and settlements that have grown from it. Standing against conservatism has been another state of mind altogether, which sometimes masks itself as love, but always love for the ideal, the nonexistent, the “yet to be,” in the cause of which we are invited to pull down and destroy the things that are. Radical politics is merciless toward the actual, especially when the actual enshrines the old way of life, the old institutions, and the old hierarchies that have arisen from our attachments.

Conservatives hold on to things not only because they are attached to them, but also because they do not see the sense in radical change, until someone has told them what it will lead to. You criticize the traditional family? Then tell us about the alternative, and please give us the details: Tell us how children grow up in this new arrangement, how they find security, love, and satisfaction, how they acquire the sense of responsibility, how they live with others, how they reproduce and how they die.

That’s why people should be conservative, but I don’t think that’s why elite Republicans are conservative, and I question to what extent younger Americans who call themselves conservative would agree with Scruton (though I certainly do). The GOP is the party of right-wing liberals. America is a liberal, individualistic country. It’s in our DNA. It is unusual that we Americans would be more resilient in holding on to our faith than Europe has been, but Deo gratias, we have. Will we continue to, though? That is the great question that will be answered, one way or another, over the next 30 years.

UPDATE: A very good comment from reader Richard:

As a believing Christian, I have come to a point where I find articles like Scruton’s increasingly frustrating. That large numbers of Europeans no longer embrace the Christian faith is obvious. But in this article, Scruton neither explains, nor defends, nor advocates the Christian faith other than as an instrumentality to buttress a select group of nation states, or as an instrumentality to inform elements of a culture he would like to see preserved. At least as described, Scruton’s is not a Christianity of radical practices of self-giving love that animated the early communities of the time of Acts of the Apostles. It is a Christianity from the top down. a bureaucratized belief system in which the value proposition lies not in the transformation of individual lives, but in providing some sort of ethical coherence to societies. Now, it may be a good thing for societies to possess ethical coherence – but that is a consequence far, far down the causal chain, and a long distance from the mission and purpose of Christian belief. Starting the discussion where Scruton does, he makes Christian belief the servant of state and culture (whatever he may think he is saying) rather than a set of beliefs that precedes and is therefore independent of state and culture. The error of that highly compromised version of Christian belief was exposed for all to see in The Great War, when it failed to speak truth to power, when its chief utility was to provide an endless series of benedictions to soldiers who died in the mud of that war in service to various regimes claiming the banner of Christianity in order to wage destruction on their neighbors. European Christianity has never recovered. Scruton cherry picks fragments of Christian moral teaching to fashion a belief system with which he is comfortable, and because it provides a rationale for safeguarding works of prior centuries whose aesthetics he finds appealing. His Christianity amounts to little more than prayer books for bare, ruined choirs. It’s an elegy, not evangelism, and it can neither transform, nor redeem. So no wonder it cannot compete with the ideals of the present age, whether in Europe or in this country. It has no Christmas, nor Easter. It’s just an endless series of 18th Sundays after Pentecost.