A few days after the 2008 election, I was walking toward the Largo Argentina on a cool, clear Roman evening, when I noticed a magazine kiosk and wandered over to have a look. There were journals from all over Europe: France, Great Britain, Germany, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, wherever. Every one of them featured a glowing portrait of Barack Obama, photographed in side- or quarter-profile and looking up with a calm, secure gaze—not altogether unlike like Jim Caviezel’s Jesus at the end of The Passion of The Christ, on the morning of the Resurrection.
Messianic politics had returned to Europe, big time.
President Obama was greeted rapturously during his recent European tour, and why not? He told Europeans—or at least western Europeans—everything they’ve been longing to hear for eight years: that America had been dissing them and now appreciated their leadership role in world politics; that their womb-to-tomb social welfare states were models of humane, sensible governance; that Russia’s recent imperial assertions were nothing to worry about; that the West wasn’t at war with Islam; that peace in the Middle East was at hand; and that the war against terrorism was just about wrapped up, such that that unpleasant term could be retired back to Texas along with the warmongering evangelical cowboy, Dubya.
None of these soothing reassurances bears close examination. Europe’s inability to play a leadership role in world politics was amply demonstrated before the president even got home, with the NATO countries failing to ante up for larger roles in pacifying Afghanistan. The European social welfare state will be bankrupt in less than two decades, thanks to Europe’s demographic suicide. Russian aggression may be nothing to worry about, unless you’re a Ukrainian, a Georgian, a Pole, or anyone in the E.U. looking to heat their home next winter, should Ivan cut off the natural gas (which he’s already done in blackmailing Ukraine). No, the West isn’t at war “with Islam;” but virtually every shooting war in which the West is involved has been triggered by Islamic extremists, who don’t seem to understand that the strife is o’er, the battle done. Peace in parts of the Middle East is somewhat closer, thanks to the success of the surge and the beginning of real politics in Iraq; but peace between Israel and Palestine is no closer than it’s ever been, thanks to the murderous rule of Hamas in Gaza and the utter corruption of the PLO on the West Bank.
Long after the president had gone through the familiar litany of liberal foreign policy shibboleths, however, it was another comment of his that stuck in my mind—and that was his suggestion, in Turkey, that America is not a Christian nation.
Which is, of course, true in one sense: the United States government does not endorse Christianity or any brand thereof as the official national faith. But as a cultural matter, it seems odd to say that America is not a Christian nation when three out of every four Americans claim that Christianity is the source of their deepest commitments—including, one might assume, their commitments to civility, tolerance, religious freedom, the rule of law, and democracy.
My friend Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, tried a parallel argument in his magazine’s Easter issue, suggesting that falling numbers of believing and practicing Christians over the past two decades mean that, while Christianity remains a prominent cultural force, it’s just not possible to speak of a Christian nation any more, if by that term we mean a nation in which Christianity plays a determinative, or even significant, role in politics. What holds America together, Brother Meacham argued, is our shared commitment to each other’s liberties.
That strikes me as a weak foundation for a nation that robustly protects religious freedom, however. Better that the American people believe that it’s the will of God that they defend the religious freedom of those who have different ideas about the will of God, as Richard John Neuhaus used to say. Whatever happened at the founding, that conviction is what keeps religious freedom alive in America today. We’d better hope it stays that way.