In October, the British Parliament approved Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s request for a general election, which will occur on Thursday. After the House of Commons blocked then-Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the European Union and then Johnson’s, the Conservatives hope the election will give them enough seats to “get Brexit done.” Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish National Party hope to prevent the prime minister from winning a clear majority so that they can form a government and implement a second referendum on Brexit. If recent polls are correct and the opposition fails, the United Kingdom will officially leave the EU next month, which would be one of the most historic moments in the country’s post-World War II history (though this would not be the end, as more negotiations with the EU would continue, perhaps for years).
Since the June 2016 referendum in which 52 percent of British voters chose to leave the EU, most discussions on Brexit have focused on the decision’s economic and technocratic dimensions. And almost all studies and books on European integration focus on similar materialistic and bureaucratic questions. Virtually no one considers the theological reasons for British Euroscepticism or why some European countries are more likely than others to accept ever closer union. Into this void, Mark Royce’s The Political Theology of European Integration (Palgrave MacMillan, 2017) introduces the theory that differences in Catholic and Protestant political theologies help explain phenomena like Brexit.
A Providence contributor whose doctoral research at George Mason University is the basis of this book, Royce convincingly argues that, even though European politicians today may not use explicitly theological language, many of their ideas echo arguments theologians made during and after the Protestant Reformation. The key problem with such assertions is not simply showing a correlation between predominately Protestant countries distancing themselves from the European Union and predominately Catholic ones promoting integration, but also proving causation and explaining why. To do so, he first uses the Boolean technique to determine which European countries should be labeled Catholic, Protestant, or otherwise. He does this by examining whether a country’s rulers and their subjects followed a particular religion after the Thirty Years’ War; whether surveys from the World Christian Encyclopedia find a supermajority of citizens belonging to a faith; whether any important sub-constitutional laws, regimes, or institutions recognize a religion; or whether the country’s constitution recognizes a religion. For example, his study finds Great Britain and Denmark are Protestant, Italy and Spain are Catholic, Ireland and Germany are simply Christian, and Austria and France have no conclusive result. After detailed explanations for these findings, the book examines how integrated each nation is into the European project. He then concludes Catholic countries generally have higher levels of integration than Protestant ones, an exception being Finland. The chapters explaining Royce’s analysis for these conclusions are thorough, open his argument to anyone who wishes to respond, and most definitely put the science into this political science work.
For the more casual and less academic reader, the subsequent chapters explaining why and how political theologies influence European integration are most interesting and convincing. Broadly, sixteenth-century theological debates and conflicts influenced seventeenth-century constitutional orders, which then influenced twentieth-century politicians and political movements as they considered European integration. For Catholics, the Thomist theological tradition during the Counter-Reformation influenced the Council of Trent, which assumed there should be a single, undivided Christianity. Later, Christian Democrats after World War II promoted European integration to counter nationalism and materialism, and they drew upon Catholic thought. For Protestants, the Reformation allowed smaller communities to make theological decisions, and Royce contends the subsequent process “inaugurated the beginning of national consciousness.” (Elsewhere in these pages, he argues that the nation-state first developed as a guarantor of the Protestant faith, not as a war-making device as some suggest.) Theological localism led to constitutional localism after the Peace of Westphalia, and Protestant countries focused on their own nations and developed suspicions toward European affairs that inclined them to reject close integration. Of course, Catholic and Protestant political theologies are not the only factor driving decisions about European integration, as differences between Protestant Britain, Finland, and Norway show. But Royce insists these ideas have shaped the EU.
Case studies of Switzerland, Norway, Great Britain, and Germany illuminate Royce’s arguments and provide readers with insightful narratives into Europe’s political theology. While the chapters on Switzerland and Norway are noteworthy because they cover topics and countries most readers know little about, considering the ongoing drama over Brexit, the chapters on Britain and Germany are most timely.
In England specifically, where Queen Mary brutally suppressed Protestants and King Charles I quarreled with Parliament and lost his head, the country developed five ideas about religion and theology that developed a national identity and later Euroscepticism:
- The English concluded “popery” was a totalitarian ideology they should resist, and John Foxe with his Book of Martyrs popularized this notion.
- There was a concept that Britain should be a divine commonwealth with its own, distinct theological interpretations, as Richard Baxter’s A Holy Commonwealth illustrates. According to this Puritan, his nation had a unique opportunity to create a new community that instituted the laws of Christ.
- Thomas Hobbes, who wrote that we can know nothing about God except that there is a god, promoted the royalist idea that the monarch is inviolable. Instead of fighting over religion, people should avoid the issue and allow the monarch to have ultimate authority to oversee religion and other issues.
- The English Levellers countered that Parliament is sovereign, and the monarchy and House of Lords wrongly made religion a public issue when it should have always been private.
- Finally, writers like John Milton argued people have God-given rights and liberties. Before writing Paradise Lost, Milton wrote a series of pamphlets about liberty from his Puritan and democratic republican perspective.
As Royce demonstrates, these five ideas became part of Britain’s constitution, despite their obvious tensions and contradictions. And they made appearances in twentieth and twenty-first-century debates over European integration. For instance, Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley—who was first minister of Northern Ireland (2007–08), member of Parliament (1970–2010), founder and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (1971–2008; if you follow Brexit, you know of the DUP), member of the European Parliament (1979–2004), and a Presbyterian minister—denounced the European Union as a papal conspiracy. He was even ejected from the European Parliament in 1988 for shouting that Pope John Paul II was the “Antichrist” during the pontiff’s speech.
Royce covers other recent characters in the UK who used language rooted in old theological debates, including Tony Benn and Enoch Powell. But pertaining to today’s debates over Brexit, he notes how during the 2016 referendum campaign Michael Gove and Boris Johnson echoed the Levellers’ arguments about Parliament’s sovereignty, while Nigel Farage, who is most responsible for Brexit, grounded his position on how the people have liberties, similar to Milton’s proposition. Even though modern politicians may not use explicitly religious language like Paisley, Royce finds fingerprints of sixteenth-century theology on Britain’s constitutional system and Euroscepticism.
Cynicism about the European Union is common among conservative Americans, including conservative Christians, who despise the project’s leftist liberalism, imperialism, supranationalism, or undemocratic elitism. So some may nod in agreement when reading how Christian faith can disparage the EU. But many who study the European project, even secularists, probably do not realize just how much its key founders rooted integration in Christian thought. Royce uncovers this history while analyzing Konrad Adenauer’s contributions and legacy in Germany.
A German Catholic who was mayor of Cologne from 1917–33 and then in 1945 and whom the Nazis imprisoned, Adenauer cofounded the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in 1945. He then served as the party’s leader until 1961 and as the first chancellor of West Germany from 1949–63. Adenauer wanted to create a union including both Protestants and Catholics to resist nationalism, which he considered a key threat to Christian democracy, and communism. He also critiqued capitalism from a Christian perspective and said the economy should serve the people instead of people serving the economy. Beyond uniting German Christians, his overall strategy included supranational European integration to unite Europe. Whereas most EU studies concentrate on technocratic or economic issues, Adenauer often glossed over these in his speeches and focused on the theological dimension, emphasizing how European countries needed to integrate quickly and deeply to restore Christian unity and moral law. Royce gives several quotes from Adenauer that illustrate the chancellor’s theological and political perspective, and one from his Memoirs describes the anti-nationalist, Christian logic behind the supranational endeavor:
For many decades the German people suffered from a wrong attitude to the state, to power, to the relationship between the individual and the state. They made an idol of the state and set it upon an altar… National Socialism was simply the last logical development—pushed to criminal lengths—of that worship of power and that scorn for the individual which naturally arise from a materialistic ideology. The preponderance, the omnipotence of the state, the precedence attributed to it before the dignity and liberty of the individual, violate Christian law.
According to Royce, Adenauer’s successors in the CDU—including Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been a key figure in Brexit negotiations—have continued to follow their founder’s neo-Thomist logic, despite Germany having low levels of Christian practice. Even the party’s 2007 manifesto (the most recent one when Royce wrote his book) uses overt Christian language to justify its positions, including on European integration.
Most political science students unfortunately overlook how political theology can shape world events. True, voters and politicians may choose a certain policy because it promotes their self-interests or boosts their paychecks, but often other, more important factors influence these decisions. Societies may accept losing national sovereignty because God wants their policies to benefit mankind, or they may choose losing access to their largest trading partner if it restores their God-given rights. Thankfully, with his thoroughly researched and excellently written book, Royce corrects the political science discourse by explaining how a society’s normative ideas, particularly its theology, can affect international relations, especially in the case of European integration.