Two stories were front-page news last week, the President’s speech on Afghanistan and the spectacle of Tiger Woods smashing his Cadillac Escalade into his neighbor’s tree at 2:30 a.m. But two other items caught my attention, the one from Italy and the other from Switzerland.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled that crucifixes be removed from Italian classrooms. According to the blogger Fabio Paolo Barbieri, in response hundreds of mayors in Italy passed town ordinances requiring that every classroom display a crucifix. Even in red Tuscany, a historic communist region, the mayors have been sending Carabinieri to the schools to check that every classroom has its crucifix. In one case when a high school teacher tried to remove a crucifix his students revolted, and when the headmaster heard what the teacher had done he suspended him for ten days without pay.
The other story came from Switzerland where voters, and a majority of the cantons, adopted a law imposing a ban on the construction of minarets in the country. Though the initiative was opposed by most political parties, churches and businesses, a solid majority of 57 percent voted in favor of the new law. The four existing minarets in the country will be allowed to stand, but construction of new minarets is now banned. What struck me in reading editorial opinion on the decision was that the only language writers had to discuss the matter was that of human “rights.” Predictably the vote was seen as a triumph of bigotry and intolerance, an infringement of the rights of Muslim.
I mentioned to a friend that I thought the vote in Switzerland and the defense of the crucifix in Italy were perhaps part of a piece, signs that, in spite of much evidence to the contrary, the peoples of Europe apparently still believed in the potency of Christian symbols.
He responded that these protests had little to do with religion, only about culture. But isn’t that the point? Religion does not exist without culture and culture is a carrier of religion. When Christianity first came to northern Europe in the early middle ages, conversion meant a change of public practice and the creation of a new public space, in architecture, law, calendar, language, communal rituals, et al.
For the Swiss, erection of minarets taller than church steeples would alter the skyline of cities and towns, visibly severing links to the past. The construction of minarets was seen as an assault on memory and memory is attached to things. Without memory a people have no sense of who they are. In Italy the assault on memory had to do with the central Christian symbol in the west. In a historic Christian culture wrote Barbieri, “the symbol of a naked, suffering, unjustly condemned man in whom all that is good and worthy of worship and respect . . . is centered, is buried deep in their souls.” In Italy even atheists and Communists respect the Crucifix “because it means so much about the condition and value of a man.”
The issue is not human rights or religious freedom, but respect for cultural traditions and fealty to those who have gone before. There is no reason to think that prohibiting the erection of minarets in Swiss cities will jeopardize the rights of Muslims to practice their religion. But if a society loses all memory of its Christian traditions, there is a real question whether those things that make western civilization unique, e.g. human rights, freedom of religion, will endure.
Robert Louis Wilken, a member of the editorial advisory board of First Things, is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.