The Future of the Past

Some European newspapers have reported lately – very quietly – that, according to police in Germany’s North Rhineland/ Westphalia region, from 2011 to 2016 there were 3500 cases of vandalism/desecration of Christian churches. About two per day in only one region of Germany, every day for the past five years.

You’ve probably never heard of this. Neither have most Europeans, because. . .well because. It’s hard to get even these rough numbers. Police (in several countries) don’t want to scare the public that they’re unable to provide basic safety. (Remember those women harassed last New Year’s Eve?) And there’s also, of course, political correctness in play.

German authorities say that the North Rhineland/Westphalia church attacks are largely the work of salafi jihadis, who steal from poor boxes to help fund their activities. Salafists typically forbid the use of reason (kalam) in religious matters; they’re divided about violent jihad. There are about 7,500 salafists in Germany, 17,000 in France, millions in Egypt and India, and smaller groups from Sweden to China. There must be a good, though unknown, number in America.

If you’re looking for what may become the defining reality of 2017, it may well be how the West will or won’t handle – over and above attacks like the ISIS-inspired massacre on the Berlin Christmas market – challenges such as the ones presented by Salafism and other such movements.

China and Russia will call for creative and tough economic and foreign policies. Domestic politics will be a war zone. But Islamism involves fundamental challenges of thought and belief.

Salafist protestors in Germany

Indeed, more than an external threat, it involves a crisis within the West itself. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that the problem in Europe is not too many Muslims but too little Christianity. A belated rationalization for allowing over a million unvetted Muslims into Germany – and under Schengen agreements, effectively into all of Europe and beyond.

Yet she touched on a truth, though maybe not the one she intended. It’s not only the East that’s in turmoil, but the West as well, as we see in the first signs of the breakup of the European Union and the populist revolt that led to Donald Trump.

The old liberal order based on pluralism and live-and-let-live tolerance had a good run – while the West was still under the sacred canopy provided by the Judeo-Christian tradition. When you believe, as you can read in Genesis, that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, then it’s easy to explain why we respect one another as beings endowed with reason and free will.

When you, like many among Western elites, no longer believe that human dignity goes all the way down, it’s harder to say why one person should respect another still in the womb, or someone who disagrees with you about politics or faith.

Our political parties have increasingly sorted themselves out along radically opposed lines with Republicans pushing faith, family, nation, and Democrats race, gender, and class. That’s a simplification, of course, but a rough guide to where the country will be heading with one party or another in power. Under President Trump, the Little Sisters of the Poor need not fear and Planned Parenthood should worry. If Hillary Clinton had won, the positions would be reversed.

There’s a similar split over the defense of the West. Trump advocating sterner measures, Democrats believing that we can continue to treat Muslims as just one more faith group in a religiously pluralist America.

There are delicate questions here – and others not so delicate. A Democratic administration that rode roughshod over Christians and others who resisted the new morality of the modern state, and soft-pedaled the Islamist threat, hasn’t been able to make that distinction.

We, of course, can coexist with Muslims who want to coexist with us. But the presence of jihadists – essentially an amorphous armed force within our society – is going to drive us quite close to religious tests for entry into the country and perhaps more.

Police response to Salafist protestors

The Catholic political philosopher Pierre Manent has argued that France is faced with a similar crisis because it’s elites still largely believe that, according to the Enlightenment rules of the Revolution, this problem can’t happen. That if everyone is welcomed by the secular state, they will see that it’s to their advantage to assimilate and get along. Such conflicts that arise, therefore, can only be over money and social exclusion. As if there were no other visions of politics, society – or religion.

That’s proven false repeatedly, on 9/11 in New York and Washington, and on other occasions now in Madrid, Copenhagen, Boston, Paris, Brussels, Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, Nice, San Bernardino, Columbus, Orlando, Cairo, and yesterday in Istanbul.

Our secular and – sad to say – religious leaders have twisted themselves in knots denying that there’s any “authentic” religious factor in these attacks. Even the Vatican, which you might think would appreciate the central role of religion in human life, has joined the chorus, claiming that money, power, oil, the arms trade – anything but religion – is the real motive.

All this is similar to the debate over the Soviet Union during the Cold War, when a large slice of Western opinion wanted to play down the differences with an aggressive atheistic system armed with thousands of nuclear weapons, mostly – it should be said – out of fear of what facing the truth would entail.

The West is now nearly as divided as the East in religion, and what faith means to people. We will not overcome this split in 2017 – indeed it’s likely to grow larger as the already considerable resistance to a President Trump gathers momentum. But a sane society would regard 3500 attacks on Christian churches – and who knows how many elsewhere? – as an alarm bell.

What this all means is not “war with Islam,” – a red herring – but the perpetual struggle against all those, including those in our own culture, who threaten the foundations of human freedom and dignity.

Happy New Year.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.