Nobody has yet made a convincing Christian case for the EU. That should tell us something.
If nothing else, the Church of England’s Reimagining Europe blog has served to highlight – with a few very worthy exceptions – the exceedingly low quality of Christian thinking when it comes to the EU referendum question, and Britain’s place in the world more broadly.
The latest dismal example is a case in point, in which Andrew Gready (chaplain to the Anglican Church in the Hague) bemoans the fact that nobody is making a more positive case for staying in the EU:
Although there are certainly problems with the European Union (no one is seeking to gloss over these), the Dutch are at least able to see some of the positive benefits that belonging to a bigger whole has brought. It seems that they hoped that the debate in the UK would be more positive, more constructive than it has been. A number of people have said ‘Surely they can talk about the benefits of belonging, rather than just saying we are not sure what is going to happen, so let’s stay where we are!’
I think there is a real hope that the vote to Remain will actually be a positive statement of intent, rather than a negative one of fear and uncertainty. We will have to wait and see!
Newsflash, Gready – Britain is and will always remain part of a “bigger whole” whether we remain in the European Union or not. The European Union is a political construct, and a very recent and unproven one at that. It is not interchangeable with the continent of Europe, and it has no democratic legitimacy when it arrogantly claims to speak and act on behalf of the many diverse European peoples. There is a positive case for Brexit based on leaving euro-parochialism behind and engaging more fully in the world, and pro-EU Christians participating in the debate should at least acknowledge this fact rather than arguing against the two-dimensional cartoon Ukipper they hold in their minds.
But this is the very low standard of debate we have sadly come to see from those who claim to represent the Christian perspective. At its core, their argument amounts to little more than “the EU is about friendship and peace and cooperation, and Jesus was in favour of all those things, so what’s not to like?”
Or as the founder of Christians for the EU, the Very Revd Michael Sadgrove, puts it:
“I think life is meant to be lived together in partnerships and collaboration. To walk away from an institution that was set up to pursue those ideals is a big mistake.
“Link that with the Genesis principle that it is not good for a man or a woman to be alone. The EU is very much not perfect, but the essential ideal and aim is still valuable. The world needs nation states to be grouped together in alliances that will be good for the human race.”
Because partnership and collaboration is only possible through political union, of course. The sheer superficiality of this thinking is mind-boggling.
Seriously – boil down most of the pro EU articles over at Reimagining Europe and they amount to little more than that. You’ll hear endless variations on the theme that because we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, somehow it naturally follows that we should be united under the same supranational political umbrella – though curiously the Church of England never wastes its time clamouring for Asian countries to merge together, or for Canada, Mexico and the United States to institute a shared parliament.
Ben Ryan of Theos does a good job of summarising the many-layered complexity of Europe:
Yes, Europe is a Christian continent. But it’s not only a Christian continent, and that’s important to note. It’s a Christian continent, but it is also a ‘Greek’ continent, it is also a democratic continent; which is to say that the space that we call ‘Europe’ is not really a geographical thing. There is no border of Europe, geographically speaking. There are islands off the coast, there is no clear Eastern border.
Instead, what defines the border of the space that we call Europe is a cultural and intellectual thing. It is a space which is defined by what has come before; it is defined by Christianity, and by Greek philosophy, and by a number of other cultural and intellectual movements. So, it’s a mistake to think we are actually a real continent. There is no such thing as a ‘geographical Europe’, it can only really be seen as an intellectual space.
Sadly, many within the Church deliberately ignore these awkward facts, and have convinced themselves that pressing ahead with a uniquely 20th century vision of uniting the diverse under a single supranational government is a wise and moral thing to do – democracy be damned. And they do damn democracy through their actions, because what little organic desire and impetus for European political union there is always comes from the political elites, and not the ordinary people.
As a Catholic eurosceptic, it is frustrating to witness so many fellow Christians accepting the pro-EU, pro-Remain position almost by default, without actually engaging their brains or making considered reference to their faith. I’m no theologian myself, but I’ve read my Bible and I know that the New Testament offers little by way of clear instruction or even guidance as to how any entities larger than individuals and faith groups should organise or govern themselves, while much of the Old Testament reads as a “how not to do statecraft” manual.
If we restrict ourselves then to the teachings of Jesus, from where do Christian EU apologists draw their inspiration? The EU is not a democratic entity, nor is it likely to become one any time soon. What is so Christian about defending an organisation which insulates a continent’s leaders from the practical and political consequences of their rule? What is so Christian about sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and loudly repeating the mantra “the EU is about peace and cooperation, the EU is about peace and cooperation”, while ignoring the known history of European political union and disregarding the fact that fruitful inter-governmental cooperation could take place just as well outside the EU’s supra-national structure?
Canon Giles Fraser, founder of Christians for Britain, gets it:
“If the Tower of Babel teaches us anything, it is, when man tries to control too much and usurp the power of God then God disperses them,” he said. “Government that is centralised tends towards corruption: that is the history of human nature.
“The biblical pattern is not always for agglomeration of power. God also divides in order that powers would be controlled.”
As I say, I’m no theologian. But I’ve been on the lookout for a more substantial Christian case for the European Union which is not based on wilful ignorance or wishful thinking about the EU’s true nature, and so far I have come up short. Meanwhile, Brexit offers at least the chance of democratic renewal in Britain, potentially giving people (including the faithful) greater control over their lives and communities.
Regrettably, I have come to the conclusion that much of the Christian case for Remain rests either on a lazy “agree with the Left by default” mindset, or the desire to virtue-signal generally “progressive” values across the board. I will be happy to be proven wrong, and to be presented with a serious Christian case for the EU based on the argument that staying part of a supranational political union unreplicated in any other part of the world is 1) what Jesus would do, or 2) what is best for Christians in Europe. But I’m not holding out much hope.
And if that’s what this is really about – cheering on the EU because it signals that one holds the “correct” progressive opinions in other areas – then they picked a really lousy time to do it. Our politics is suffering a crisis of legitimacy, and yet many in the Church have taken the decision to cheer on the one entity which best represents the interests of a narrow European elite overriding the interests of ordinary people.
For the Church as a whole, the consequences of coming down on the wrong side of this issue – or at least failing to come down convincingly on the right side – could be profound. One way or another, now or twenty years down the line, Brexit is coming. And when it does, many leading authority figures within the church will have placed themselves firmly on the side of governing elites rather than the people who fill their emptying pews.
This should be provoking a great degree introspection and self-reflection from Britain’s most high profile Christian leaders. So far, one gets the distinct impression that it is not.
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What about a Biblical pragmatism? Jesus was born into the Roman Empire after all. Secondly, it was the Roman Empire that enabled Christianity to reach the British Isles.
Interesting. One could make the “render unto Caesar” case, but again it’s rather negative. It isn’t a positive endorsement of European political union, and gives no reason for not abandoning the model in favour of a better alternative (inter-governmental cooperation and the emerging global single market) if the choice is available, a choice not available to citizens of the Roman Empire but which is available to us with the referendum.