Merkel, Orban and Europe’s Christian Soul

Merkel, Orban and Europe’s Christian Soul September 6, 2015

My wish, farfetched though it may sound, is that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had invoked the name of Jesus Christ when she took the lead in re-settling this new wave of African and Middle Eastern refugees.

Pledging that her country would be able to accommodate all 800, 000 of the refugees expected to arrive by the end of the year, at no extra cost to taxpayers, she’s emerged from Europe’s burgeoning crisis smelling like a rose. Newsweek has called her “Europe’s conscience.” She really ought to share the wealth.

I don’t pretend to know that it was in Jesus’ name that she acted, but, as we’ll see below, I have my suspicions.

The Christian brand needs some repair after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s op-ed piece in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, where he wrote that the flood of mainly Muslim refugees will threaten Europe’s “Christian roots.” The press has ensured that Orban has come off smelling like a dunghill. The Independent’s Leo Cendrowicz rips him for “crude language,” “cruder politics,” and “brutish bluster.” In The Guardian, Giles Fraser tosses a Gospel bomb in his direction, dismissing his very Christianity as “saltless salt.”

This isn’t fair by a long shot. An adult re-vert to Calvinism, Orban has been instrumental in restoring Christianity to Hungarian public life. As Filip Mazurczak notes in First Things, he “has victoriously stood at the forefront of what Americans call the culture wars.” His victories include a re-introduction of religious education into state schools, a tax code that offers breaks to large families, and – drumroll – a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

In a way, the very solidity of Orban’s Christian credentials is the problem. It evokes the familiar frame of Christians wielding the cross as a bludgeon against gays and religious minorities while others do the heavy lifting spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount. Europe’s flood of refugees has become a humanitarian disaster of historic proportions. If Orban’s response represents the true face of Christianity, then post-Christianity, it would seem, can’t be all bad.

But Merkel, at least by her own account, is no post-Christian. In 2012, the Lutheran pastor’s daughter professed her unbroken allegiance to her father’s church and described religion as “my constant companion through life,” stating that “We, as Christians, should not be afraid of standing up for our beliefs.”

Though some skeptics wrote these declarations off as so much political posturing, Merkel also went on record warning a Lutheran Church synod that Christianity had become “the most persecuted religion in the world.” As this was a full year before John Allen, Jr. published The Global War on Christians, human-rights advocates dismissed Merkel’s warnings as “totally senseless.”

There are good historic reasons why, in Orban’s understanding, Christianity and roots entwine themselves in such a way as to discourage performing the Christian duty of welcoming the stranger. Many Hungarians, including Orban, believe their people to have gotten the worst end of every deal they’ve cut since medieval times: conquest by Ottomans, annexation by Austrians, division by the Treaty of Trianon, occupation by communists. “In Hungary,” Yakov Smirnoff might say, were he Hungarian, “stranger always welcome you.”

Hungary’s Reformed Church, which Orban has attended since the 1990s, has always tended to join God, country and historic grievance. The former anti-Nazi dissidents who founded Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union avoided shooting for that trifecta – they knew where it could lead.

Merkel is definitely the woman of the hour, but Orban’s concerns may deserve a hearing down the road. Whether or not it’s accurate to speak of Europe’s Christian roots, low rates of Church attendance make it absurd to speak of a Christian present. The arrival in Europe of over a million Muslims who may or may not find their way home when – or rather if – order is restored, doesn’t preclude a Christian future, but it certainly doesn’t make one any more likely.

Sooner or later, this emergency will come under control, and Europeans are going to start talking seriously about demographics. Critics will argue that Europe has a Muslim problem, or a liberal-cosmopolitan problem, or an EU problem. If Merkel had just taken the trouble to cast her generosity as a faith-based initiative, they’d be forced to deal with a Christian problem. They’d have to acknowledge that receiving these ragged outsiders was no gesture of disdain for Europe’s cultural heritage, no eruption of “ethno-masochism,” but a life-giving act of love.

If Europe’s demographics still looked like a problem after that, there would be an obvious, very loving, life-giving, perfectly Christian solution: to make more Europeans, the old-fashioned way.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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