President George Bush’s re-election has some European politicians on the far right and the far left scrambling to rethink the role of faith in the daily life their constituencies, as well as their position on Christian values.
The lesson of the recent U.S. presidential election was not lost on Rocco Buttiglione, Italian minister for European Affairs and founder of the United Christian Democrats party (CDU). Buttiglione was recently forced to resign as European Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security due to blunt comments he made on homosexuality.
Reacting swiftly to the Republican victory in the United States, Buttiglione declared plans to found a religious action group modeled on the American Christian Coalition. The group will advocate for “the freedom of Christians in Europe,” where, analysts forecast, Muslims in the next 30 years could account for as much as 50 percent of the population.
Buttiglione’s aides clarified that the new organization will not be a political party but a movement committed to securing a greater role for Christian principles in Europe’s public life.
“Inspired by the role played by American Christians (in the U.S. election), Mr. Buttiglione is thinking of a new paradigm: the resurgence of Christian political movements in Europe.”
Writing for Italy’s conservative daily “Il Foglio,” Buttiglione criticized European intellectuals for believing “that modernity implies the demise of religious beliefs; and instead America, the world’s most progressive country, shows that religion is at the core of a free society and of a modern economy.” Claiming that his thinking is widespread in the European Union, Buttiglione says he has received thousands of letters and e-mails of support from all over Europe, including encouragement from the leaders of Italy’s Jewish and Muslim communities.
Buttiglione is a controversial character. One of the foremost experts on the current Pope (he’s a close papal friend), the Italian minister is a leading European philosopher and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Formerly a left Christian Democrat, he founded the Popular Party of Italy after the corruption scandals of the 1990s. Attempting to provide stability to the collapsing Italian political system, he launched a dialogue with the reformed Communist Party.
Last October, Buttiglione incurred the ire of the European parliament. Named to the European Commission by the Berlusconi government, Buttiglione sparked a furor by declaring his opposition to abortion and his belief that gay people are sinners and that homosexuality is an act against nature and the will of God.
As could be expected in a political Europe that is ever ready to assert its laic and rationalistic nature, his comments didn’t find many sympathetic ears. The European parliament, which ratifies appointments to the European Commission, threatened to veto Buttiglione’s appointment, causing the EU’s first constitutional crisis. On one side was the parliament—elected directly by the people—which asked for Buttiglione to step down. On the other side were the EU’s heads of government—who are generally appointed in a delicate political game by the various national parties—who refused to intervene in the internal affairs of a member country. Bowing in the end to political pressure, Buttiglione left the commission, returning to his post in the Italian government.
However, the fracas in Strasbourg, the seat of EU’s parliament, has given Buttiglione a tribune from which to advocate his ideal of Catholic rebirth and the refounding of Europe on the basis of Christianity.
He’s not alone. From the other side of the political spectrum, Fausto Bertinotti, leader of Italy’s Party of the Re-founding Communists, also has been inspired by the American election results. Bertinotti, a leader of Italy’s fourth-strongest political party, declared that Europe can no longer limit itself to its predilection for equality, fraternity and legality—the values put forth by the French Revolution. Bertinotti’s opinion is significant because he’s also the leader of the European Left, a political caucus of 16 of Europe’s leftist parties that represents anywhere from 7 to 10 percent of the continent’s voters. Bertinotti says that shunning religion, in a world that has changed rapidly after the Sept. 11 attacks, doesn’t answer the need felt by people to be part of something that transcends the laic and pragmatic policies promoted by progressives.
The European left, Bertinotti believes, must recognize that there’s more to life than just labor, economics and material possessions. Urging socialists to rediscover the Christian and humanistic roots of European Democratic Socialism, Bertinotti very publicly called for a “new Bad Godesberg.” In 1959 the German Democratic Socialists (SPD), in an extraordinary congress held at Bad Godesberg, decided to abandon Marxist ideology, embraced the market economy and made the pursuit of happiness the center of its political program.
The notion that religious life doesn’t need to contradict popular aspirations for social justice, equality, democracy and progress, is not foreign to the Italian left. The Italian Communist Party was historically very tolerant of the clergy and churchgoers. It deliberately sought a coalition government—the “Compromesso Storico,” or the historic compromise—with the Christian Democrats. While Italian Communists were never able to fully realize this compromise on the political level, in everyday life Communists and Catholics cooperated to pull Italy out of its post-WWII depression. The phenomenon was so cherished even the entertainment world celebrated it with an extremely successful TV series called “Peppone e Don Camillo,” which ran in the ‘60s. It recounted the story of a real-life Communist mayor of a small town and its real-life parish priest. Despite being ideological foes, the two were able to work together to solve the town’s pressing problems.
Now, some of Europe’s leading left voices are eager to rediscover the lessons of that political episode, thanks to the recent shocking defeat of American Democrats and liberals.
Paolo Pontoniere is the San Francisco-based correspondent of Focus, Italy’s leading monthly magazine.