Home / Comment / In brief

Does Europe need to be a Christian continent?

Does Europe need to be a Christian continent?

Want to keep up to date with the latest news from Theos? Click here to join our monthly e-newsletter. We'll let you know about our latest reports, blogs and events.

Last week we launched our new report on the European Union A Soul for the Union. It argues that the EU, if it is to survive and be worth saving, needs to rediscover and embrace its moral mission. In that regard it needs to be more like the project of the 1950s which was heavily influenced by Christian (and particularly Catholic) political theology.

In discussions since the launch of the report, and particularly in the course of a debate held on Wednesday, one of the issues that has provoked most debate is the nature of identity and the extent to which it matters for the EU. The EU is not, as Eurosceptics are ever keen to point out, the same as the Europe. However, what it means to be European is a critical question for the EU.

This gets us into classic debates about identity and whether Europe (or any identity) needs an “other” by which to define it. Certainly historically the idea of Christendom which served as a forerunner to the idea of Europe was defined at least in part in its resistance to Islamic enemies to the South (in first Spain and later North Africa), East (Turkey/the Ottomans) and in the Holy Land. There was an explicit religious conflict to all this in the Crusades to try and reclaim the holy sites of Christianity from the Arabs.

It is undeniable that that continuing conflict was to define much of Christendom and continues to have some resonating power (see for example this new book by Joseph Masad reviewed by my colleague Simon Perfect). The question is whether that still matters today in the same way and whether this identity is necessarily defined in opposition to an “other”.

One factor in this is that Christendom is not a term with any currency today. Indeed it has been in fairly sharp decline ever since the Reformation. There is no political or theological Christian unity to be matched against an outside threat. For most of the period of “Europe” as opposed to “Christendom” Islam has not proved much of threat except via the Ottomans, and even then, not meaningfully since the early 19th Century.

Instead the continent has tended to define itself quite positively. The space “Europe” owes itself as an intellectual idea, according to the academic Emmanuel Levinas, to the fusion of “the Bible and the Greeks”. The meeting of Christianity and philosophy together would spawn the development of what would become a conscious universalism and corresponding desire to spread and enlighten the world beyond Europe’s borders. It is no coincidence that European ideologies, including capitalism, liberalism and Marxism have had such a missionary zeal – they come from the same space that was created by the Bible and the Greeks, even if they have abandoned the necessity of an active belief in God.

At its worst this leads to imperialism and the assumption of other peoples as backwards. At its best it seeks to promote and spread a conviction in universal values, rights and governance. The EU owes its existence to this European identity, but has so far failed to really express that or understand why it matters. In the protracted discussions over the aborted EU constitution in 2004 there was a huge debate over whether the preamble ought to make explicit mention of Christianity. In the end they settled on the “cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe” – a statement which is true, and yet simultaneously almost entirely meaningless. Meaningless, because it gives no real clue as to the content of the values that have shaped the European Union.

For the European Union to survive it needs to connect with its people. To do that it needs an identity. It is not enough to claim that the EU will make citizens richer and hope that, therefore, it will be tolerated. At present it is quite clear that the EU is struggling to gain public support, it appears aloof, technical and largely divorced from the concerns that resonate with citizens on the ground. It is, in short, lacking a meaningful identity claim.

Ben Ryan is a Researcher at Theos. @BenedictWRyan

Want to keep up to date with the latest news from Theos? Click here to join our monthly e-newsletter. We'll let you know about our latest reports, blogs and events.

Image by Jiuguang Wang from available under this Creative Commons license


See all

In the news

See all


See all

Get regular email updates on our latest research and events.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

Want to keep up to date with the latest news, reports, blogs and events from Theos? Get updates direct to your inbox once or twice a month.

Thank you for signing up.