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What values do the United States, Europe and Canada share?

The notion that the United States and the European Union share an unbreakable set of well-defined values has undergone a resurgence since America’s presidential election. Immediately after the election, outgoing French socialist president François Hollande urged then President-elect Trump to “respect” such principles as “democracy, freedoms and the respect of every individual.”

At their last joint press conference as world leaders late last November, President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed national leaders—in President Obama’s words—“not to take for granted the importance of the transatlantic alliance.” Invoking more than transient national interests, they grounded their support for that longstanding partnership on their conception of the bedrock principles which, in their view, unite North America and the EU. In a joint New York Times op-ed published the same day, Obama and Merkel called on transatlantic nations to “seize the opportunity to shape globalization based on our values and our ideas.”

Among “the values we share,” the pair cited themes such as “our commitment to democracy, our commitment to the rule or law, [and] our commitment to the dignity of all people in our own countries and around the world.”

Their concerns were conventional enough to verge on being platitudinous. However, applying their definition of transatlantic values to more specific policy issues, Chancellor Merkel called for governments on both sides of the Atlantic to take additional measures aimed at “climate protection,” as well as expanded international “development cooperation.” For his part, President Obama proposed additional public “investment” in alternative energy.

The elements of this share a few common factors. They grant additional powers to the government to regulate, subsidize or redistribute the profits of new sectors of national and international economic activity. This clashes with the West’s ethical heritage, which has led generations to recognize that, due to fallen human nature, society must place greater restrictions and more robust checks and balances on the state and those who aspire to exercise its powers. Furthermore, the principles enunciated by modern EU leaders turn first to the state rather than to private philanthropy or civil society for their fulfillment. This may stem from their thoroughly secular nature, devoid of any reference to a transcendent power or their provenance in an identifiable and articulated moral code.

Both the press conference and the subsequent missives from international leaders were notable for the values they did not enumerate, such as

  • religious liberty;
  • economic dynamism that allows people to rise to the full extent of their potential;
  • circumscribing the power and reach of governments, especially at the supranational level;
  • upholding Judeo-Christian values; and
  • encouraging strong churches, social organizations and civil society institutions to meet national needs organically, from the bottom up.

Nor did they mention the shared challenges facing the United States, Canada and the EU, such as

  • lumbering welfare state economies that sap the vitality of their most creative elements;
  • demographic implosion, which threatens future productivity and state pensions’ solvency;
  • a crisis of faith, undermining both our historically shared values and the concept of objective truth itself;
  • mounting indebtedness and rising debt-to-GDP ratios that slow current economic growth and imperil future generations’ opportunities;
  • economic policies that discourage firms to hire full-time workers;
  • large and growing segments of society that share none of the historic values treasured by the West, whether religious or secular; and
  • the strife between local self-determination and overreaching national or supranational governments.

Omitting these concerns undeniably impoverishes the intellectual and political discussion. Worse, it coarsens the political climate.

When the leaders of the Fifth European Catholic-Orthodox Forum gathered in Paris in January, they focused their discussions of public moral crises not on income inequality or alternative energy but on the three areas they deem most threatened from Warsaw to Lisbon: “fundamentalist terrorism, and the value of human person, and religious freedom.” They vowed “to stand together in order to face” the “unprecedented challenges and threats” they encounter in the region once known simply as Christendom by “communicating and promoting Christian values and principles in the sphere of public life, including the international level.”

“We seek to articulate the values politicians leave out of public discourse.”

For 27 years, the Acton Institute has promoted these ecumenical principles. Beginning with this issue of Religion & Liberty, we will join our efforts more conspicuously with the beleaguered remnant of the like-minded faithful in Europe. We seek to articulate the values politicians leave out of public discourse and to highlight the gaps between politically toxic rhetoric and historically verified principles of freedom and virtue.

In January, the Acton Institute launched the website Religion & Liberty Transatlantic (http://acton.org/publication/transatlantic) to address these issues as they relate to the transatlantic arena. The website now features news, commentary and analysis from the United States, Canada and the EU. This new addition is one of several changes to the familiar publication, which Religion & Liberty has received a sophisticated redesign.

Some believe this battle has already been fought and lost, that the faith has already died in the West and the EU has already been fundamentally transformed into a secularist superstate. But if the Scriptures proclaim any one message, it’s that death precedes resurrection.


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. 

Rev. Johnson was a panelist at the 2016 CPAC. His writings have appeared in The (UK) GuardianHuman EventsThe Stream, Real Clear Policy, Aleteia.org, Conservative ReviewThe Daily Caller, and have been cited by National Review, CBS News, and Fox News. 

He was managing