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Christianity and liberty

Christianity and liberty

Earlier this week, the Council of European Episcopal Conference and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople met to commemorate Edict of Milan, which promoted religious tolerance of both Christians and pagans, in 313.

While some of the western churches focused on the loss of status and rights in Europe, many Eastern churches focused on living with the consequences of “the gung-ho spirit of their cross-wielding Western brethren” over the centuries.

From the Erasmus blog in the Economist:

In this spirit, participants in the gathering were given a booklet prepared by the “Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians” based in Vienna. It was a compilation of news reports from across Europe which suggested that Christianity was on the defensive. The incidents listed included acts of vandalism or desecration against Christian churches; the failure of Christian health workers (doctors, nurses, pharmacists) to obtain opt-outs of conscience when asked to participate in abortions or sell abortifacients; and the similar fate of Christian marriage registrars, relationship counsellors or hoteliers who baulked at same-sex unions. Also mentioned were exhibitions, broadcasts and cultural events which mocked Christian symbols; and the fact that it was impossible in some countries for Christian parents to home-school their children or withdraw them from sex-education classes.

I certainly don’t make light of any of these matters or underestimate the dilemmas facing the individuals involved. Many of these issues could be topics for future postings. But as I take in the bitterly aggrieved tone of the observatory’s list of complaints, I can’t help thinking that Christian churches and their advocates are sometimes short on self-awareness. They cannot easily imagine how European Christianity looks to people outside its ranks. It demands satisfaction in the name of freedom, but it fails to see that some people have difficulty associating Christianity with freedom.

Indeed, when people in Europe think about Christianity, what first comes to mind is a religion which has enjoyed huge privileges: formal political influence, control over schools and universities, magnificent monuments, a central role in national ceremonies. For many citizens, it is hard to conceive how a religion can enjoy so many historical advantages and yet consider itself ill-used. That reaction may often be unjustified. A lot of Christianity’s formal power survives precisely because it is hardly exercised. In that sense, Christianity’s role in Europe resembles that of the constitutional monarchies which it underpins in several countries. But as a matter of presentation, it is hard for European Christianity to cast itself in the role of victim, when it seems to the casual observer to enjoy so much ancient authority.


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