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Acton Commentary

The House of European History erases religion

On May 6, the brand new House of European History in Brussels opened its doors. Since I happened to be in Brussels on the day of the opening, I decided to pay the House a visit. With respect to religion and religious liberty, I found an empty House.

The House - a project of the European Parliament - has been wildly controversial, not only because of its cost (€55 million, or $61.7 million U.S.), but also because of the ideology behind it. Ever since Hans-Gert Pöttering presented the idea of this House “to enable Europeans of all generations to learn more about their own history” in his inaugural speech as president of the European Parliament, there has been an intense debate about what parts of European history should be presented.

In itself, the setup of the permanent exposition is tasteful. But the first floor already hints at what is lacking in the soul of this European project. It is dedicated to various sorts of exchange across Europe: food, drink, ideas, and even fashion are highlighted as examples of European exchange. But it begs the question, "What makes all this typically European?" After all, other cultures trade goods and services, as well. 

The overview of European history that is presented from the second floor upward is both typically modern and emphatically French and socialist. The French Revolution seems to be the birthplace of Europe; there is little room for anything that may have preceded it. The Napoleonic Code and the philosophy of Karl Marx receive a prominent place, while slavery and colonialism are highlighted as the darker sides of European culture.

One must give credit where it is due. The floors devoted to the atrocities of the twentieth century - the First and Second World Wars - are particularly impressive. One enters these parts of the exhibition in the dark, feeling disoriented. That is a physical experience of the mental state that one experiences walking past the House's impressive exhibition on the Holocaust.

Without Christianity, Europe has no soul.

After these stirring images, the top floor is truly a disappointment. It is reserved for an overview of the European Union’s institutions, such as the European Parliament, the European Council, and the European Commission. This is literally the apex of the European Union’s narcissism, as if the high point of European history consists in an overview of the various responsibilities of the present-day bureaucracy.

But the most remarkable thing about the House is that, as far as its account is concerned, it is as if religion does not exist. In fact, it never existed and never impacted the history of the continent. On none of the many floors is any attention paid to the Reformation as the great divide between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, to religious wars between confessions, or the quest for freedom of religion that was at the heart of the Dutch Revolt. If one did not know that the Roman Catholic Church existed, one would not find it out in the permanent exposition of European history that the European Parliament seeks to present to every European (at that European's expense). No longer is European secularism fighting the Christian religion; it simply ignores every religious aspect in life altogether.

Meanwhile, it is clear that religion did play a crucial role in European history. Social structures in southern European countries cannot be understood without the role of the Roman Catholic Church. The responsibility of the individual, stressed in Protestantism, is a central tenet of European culture. Calvinism may or may not be the fertile soil that buds forth capitalism as Max Weber theorized, but at least its role in creating the cultural structures of much of Europe needs to be discussed. Until the 1960s, at the very minimum, most Europeans understood themselves as Christians, and - to cite but one example - Christian Democratic political parties still play an important role in the politics of large European countries like Germany.

In modern, secular Europe, there is a tendency to ignore religion altogether. This is due, in no small part, to the rise of Islam and its potential demographic replacement of Christianity as the continent's largest religion. When attention would be paid to religion in European history, this would result in a distinctly Christian focus, and those two millennia of history seems to be a heinous thing to many politicians. Whatever the cause, the European Constitution (the Treaty of Lisbondoes not mention God at all.

The impact of all this is not relegated to the past. Its greatest cost is in the present. When God and religion are no longer mentioned as part of public life, the technocrats can lay claim to control, and the European discourse is governed by experts in the fields of money and power. Instead of God, the European institutions of Brussels take center stage. Not surprisingly, these provide neither motivation nor enthusiasm to Europeans, which in turn stimulates right-wing populist movements, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France or Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid) in the Netherlands. These populist movements seek to limit freedom in different ways than the technocrats, but often using the same mechanisms. At the end of the day, the erasure of religion from the House of European History undermines its powerful warnings against potentially violent movements and wars.

Without Christianity, Europe has no soul.

(Photo credit: Gor62. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)


Arnold Huijgen, Ph.D., is a professor of Systematic Theology at the Theological University Apeldoorn, which is associated with the Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. He writes on Christians' identity in Europe.