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The European conservatives standing athwart

And what American conservatives can learn from their boldness

Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga Associated Press/Photo by John Thys (file)

The European conservatives standing athwart
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Last month, a congress of conservative scholars, writers, lawyers, and political leaders from all across the Continent gathered in Brussels to discuss “The Future of the Nation-State in Europe.” This future has seemed increasingly under threat as a hyperprogressive European Union has increasingly amassed to itself decision-making authority for the Continent as a whole, often without or against popular consent. What was most startling about the meeting, however, was the bold religious vision and calm confidence of the speakers, which offered important lessons to the American conservative movement.

Americans are apt to think of Europe as a godless land, haunted by empty churches and stalked by atheistic academics—and there is much truth to this picture. How puzzling, then, that “God” may have been the most mentioned name at the entire conference (except perhaps “Ukraine”). Many of the speakers were unabashed in their insistence that the only viable future for European civilization lay in recovering the Christian faith that had shaped their cultures and political institutions. Rod Dreher put it unapologetically: “We have a continent to reclaim for Jesus of Nazareth,” while the Dutch writer Eva Vlaardingerbroek asserted, “The very reason we are losing some of the most important battles right now is precisely because we have lost track and sight of God.” Too often, she said, conservatives couch their arguments in vague and generic terms, afraid to mention “God” for fear of offending people or losing the argument, but if He is the source of the goods we are fighting to protect, we can’t win by trying to hide His fingerprints.

Listening to the speakers, one couldn’t help but wonder whether one would ever hear so much explicitly religious language at a conservative political conference in the United States. Despite their greater national religiosity, Americans have by and large bought into the late modern idea of the separation of church and state, and thus—even in conservative circles—are rarely willing to go beyond vague platitudes when invoking faith in public. Europeans, who have Christianity woven into the very fiber of their institutions, know better. As Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga put it, “Christianity is the foundation stone of our nation.” This point, she argued, should be evident whether or not someone held personal Christian faith; as a simple historical and political fact, Christianity was what made Europe Europe, and if Europe wanted to continue, it had to acknowledge that. This is equally true for the United States, and while the rank and file in our churches may be proud to say so, many conservative elites are not because they are afraid of being labeled as “Christian nationalists.”

Listening to the speakers, one couldn’t help but wonder whether one would ever hear so much explicitly religious language at a conservative political conference in the United States.

Perhaps equally striking was the relatively calm and confident tone, even as war was raging on the borders of the European Union—a significant departure from the too-frequently apocalyptic tenor of U.S. politics. As a nation once nurtured by millennial hopes of being a light to the world, Americans have been too apt to swing to the opposite extreme, their imaginations darkened by millennial prophecies of doom. Too much conservative discourse in the United States today is dominated by alarm over the cultural and political threats facing the church and the nation and is too rarely moderated by a confidence in the long game God is playing through history. European conservatives have a bit of an advantage here: Their societies (and their churches) have been around much longer. They’ve weathered many storms more violent than any that the United States has yet faced, and they are still there—as embattled minorities, to be sure, but with confidence that reality is on their side.

Americans—both liberal and conservative—are apt to talk as if every election cycle is an existential crisis, a referendum on whether the country will continue to exist at all for another four years. This kind of apocalypticism runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If the United States alone is the world’s hope, it is easy for our national failures to tempt us to despair. But if the blessings we enjoy here are part of a much larger and bigger story, we can work diligently for renewal here while also looking for signs of renewal in unlikely places—such as the former Warsaw Pact countries that were heavily represented at the conference in Brussels. Precisely because the truths we defend are simply an affirmation of the fabric of creation and a celebration of God’s providential work in history, conservatives can afford to wait, confident in the final victory of truth.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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