It's impossible to understand European history without reference to religion. But it's less and less difficult to understand contemporary European society in purely secular terms. Two recent controversial political and legal decisions about the Christian cross and the Muslim minaret in Europe illustrate an increasing disconnect between religion and culture.
First, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France, ruled that the presence of the crucifix in Italian classrooms violated the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. At the center of the decision was the question whether the crucifix was a cultural or religious symbol. The Italian government argued that the crucifix was a cultural symbol for the core values of modern democracy and the Italian state.
The court disagreed. It held that the crucifix is predominantly a religious symbol whose presence in classrooms violates the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion of nonbelieving students and their right to an education that respects their personal beliefs.
Second, in a referendum, the Swiss people decided with a 57.5 percent majority (53.4 percent turnout) to support a constitutional amendment prohibiting the building of minarets. Right-wing extremists initiated and pushed the campaign for the ban. The Swiss government and parliament and nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International opposed it. Notably, both the Roman Catholic Church and the Federation of Swiss Protestants also actively opposed the ban on grounds that it was discriminatory and incompatible with Christian values of religious freedom and toleration.
Yet fear of Islam and immigrations prevailed in the minds of Swiss voters. The minaret ban exemplifies the waning influence of Christianity in Switzerland, rather than its strength.
Some Christian thinkers have wanted Christianity to take a stance "against" culture. Seeing the world as a dark and sinful place, people like Tolstoy or St. Benedict wanted Christians to stay aloof from mainstream culture in order to criticize and shape it from a critical distance.
Others, particularly liberal Protestants, have seen Christianity as part of culture. Sensing no great tension between the church and the world, this tradition tends to harmonize culture and religion, focusing on those cultural aspects that are most accordant with Christian principles. For centuries Christianity has been inextricably linked to European culture, in good and bad ways. It has brought Europe amazing cathedrals, magnificent art, values such human dignity and love, but also the Crusades, the Inquisition, religious wars, and imperialism.
Yet following the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the rise of atheism, contemporary Europe has become deeply secularized. Church attendance and religious practices are in decline; cathedrals often feel more like museums than places of worship; and Christian leaders find it difficult to convince their flock of their official social doctrines and values.
As a young Catholic Christian, I can understand why cultural Catholics and Italian politicians are upset about the ECHR's decision. I also share the political, legal, and religious concerns about the minaret ban and its potential negative impact on the situation of Christians who face discrimination or persecution in Muslim lands.
However, I'm puzzled by the extent to which Christians all over Europe have defended a cultural interpretation of the crucifix. As the approval of the Swiss minaret against the views of Christian churches illustrates, the view that Europe has a "Christian identity" is becoming anachronistic.
In its defense the Italian government held that "the crucifix is, in fact, exposed in classrooms, but in no way is it demanded that teachers or students show it any sign of salutation or reverence. It is even less demanded to recite prayers in class. In fact, they are not even asked to pay any attention to the crucifix."
Having lived, studied, and worshiped in several European countries, I'm worried that this defense may be less a theoretical argument than an increasingly accurate empirical description of the state of Christianity in large parts of Europe, including parts of Italy.
What I find scandalous is not the absence of crucifixes in classrooms, but the way secular practices devoid and empty the crucifix of its deeper theopolitical meaning by relegating it to the status of a cultural symbol that can be safely ignored.
Above all, the crucifix represents a belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and his message of self-sacrifice and love of enemy. It's not a cozy cultural symbol but should provide an unsettling challenge for our egoism, our self-love, and global socioeconomic injustices.
Reducing the crucifix to culture also does not do justice to the secular character of European culture. Christianity plays little, if any role, in the lives of most Europeans. It's either ignored or only in demand for special occasions like baptism, marriage, or funeral.
The gradual evaporation of Christian values in Europe also helps explain why the extreme political right increasingly instrumentalizes Christian and Muslim religious symbols for their own narrow interests, as happened in Austria, Switzerland, and Italy.
Europe no longer has a dominant Christian culture. It's a secularized mission territory. To move forward, Christians first need to accept this reality rather than nostalgically reminisce about the Christian roots of Europe. Christianity's presence and future matter more than its past.
There is an emerging consensus that the future of Christianity in Europe may resemble more the life of the early Christian communities in the first centuries. More compact, vibrant, and dynamic movements, groups, and parishes may indeed be in a better position to act as Christian salt of the earth in a secular environment.
Yet Christian leaders are stuck in a difficult and painful paradigm shift. On the one hand, they want to move forward to reevangelize Europe and shore up the Christian identity. On the other hand, they seem scared to let go of the past.
I question the value of having crucifixes in classrooms, if a large portion of society feels no religious connection to the cross and its message. The removal of the crucifix should be interpreted as a prophetic wake-up call for self-satisfied European Christians.
This does not mean to limit Christianity to an elite project of a committed few. But cultural Christians need to realize that it is faith and religious practice that sustains Christian culture, not the other way around. And committed Christians should not trick themselves by the complacent belief that our culture is so Christian. What matters is that we become better Christian witnesses, missionaries, and critical shapers of sociopolitical culture according to our values, traditions and beliefs.
The future of European Christianity and Islam won't be decided in courtrooms, by voting polls, or within classroom walls. The real struggle will be fought in the hearts and minds of European citizens, in our political and theological conversations, and in deeper reflections of what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim in contemporary Europe.