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The ‘European’ constitution for dummies – 2

(see part 1 – Aug 9/04)

SO THE EU CONSTITUTION HAS NOW BEEN SIGNED, WITH GOD CONSPICUOUSLY ABSENT FROM THE PREAMBLE. Does that mean those of us who are EU citizens should all vote ‘no’ when a referendum is held in our country sometime in the next eighteen months?

Last Friday, 25 heads of government gathered in Rome’s splendid town hall to sign the new constitution. The Campidoglio, designed by Michelangelo and carpeted with Dutch flowers for the occasion, was the same hall where the Treaty of Rome was signed by six national leaders in 1957, launching the process that led eventually to the EU. But controversy about the proposed new European Commission, rejected earlier in the week by the European Parliament, tarnished the pomp and ceremony. And the knowledge that the newly signed constitution still had to be ratified by all 25 nations before June 2006 dampened any premature celebrations.

National referendums (referenda?) will be held next spring in Spain, Portugal, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, to be followed by France in the summer. The strategy is to start with those countries most likely to approve the constitution, and move onto the greatest risk countries, with Britain being the last, probably in March 2006. Not all countries are holding referendums. Some have chosen for a parliamentary vote: Cyprus, Greece, Estonia, Hungary, Sweden and Malta. Others remain undecided, including Germany, Italy and Austria.

So what happens if even one country votes ‘no’? That’s a very strong possibility. In France and Ireland the odds are even, while in Britain, Poland and the Czech Republic, a ‘yes’ vote is presently unlikely. A worst case scenario – a founding country like France saying ‘no’ – would throw the EU into deep crisis, and would threaten to paralyse the whole European project. Much is truly at stake.

But what should believers think of this constitution? And how then should we vote?

GOD & LAÏCITÉ
Lack of specific mention of God and of Christianity became the hottest issue for Christians earlier this year as the constitution was being drafted. The pope lobbied European leaders insisting on ‘a clear reference to God and the Christian faith to be formulated in the European constitution.’ Polish primate Jozef Glemp, said he supported Poland’s entry into the EU ‘only with God’. The Catholic primate in Hungary, Monsignor Peter Erdoe, stated that ‘without Christianity, the heart of Europe would be missing.’ Former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton formally proposed including a mention of Christianity. Jan Peter Balkenende, Dutch prime minister and present EU president, an outspoken Christian, personally wanted God and Christianity to be mentioned. But all this was to no avail.

Was this the result of a great humanistic, atheistic plot? I think not.

We can of course blame the French, primarily. But we need to understand where they-and Giscard d’Estaing, chief drafter of the constitution-are coming from.

French insistence that God and the Judeo-Christian heritage not be mentioned in the constitution is related to the recent ban on Muslim headscarves in public schools – and of other ostentatious religious symbolism, including large cross, stars of David and turbans. This is rooted in the official French concept of la√Øcit√©, which implies a separation of church and state, but not hostility towards religious beliefs. It assumes the absence of religious interference into government affairs, and vice versa. In a sense, it is not far removed from the Anabaptist view of church-state relations. And if we know anything about the history of church-state relations in France, we can empathise with the emergence of this concept, even if we don’t fully agree with its application.

La√Øcit√©-the term comes from the French word for ‘laity’, anyone who is not Catholic clergy-implies free exercise of religion, but no special status for religion. Religious activities are under the same law as all other activities. The government refrains from taking positions on religious doctrine. In fact, the French government is legally prohibited from recognising any religion, although does recognise religious organisations. The concept of la√Øcit√© is accepted by all of France’s mainstream religions-including most evangelicals-but not extreme-right or fundamentalist moslem groups.

La√Øcit√© is meant to protect the government from religious organisations pushing their agendas, and to protect religious organisations from political conflicts. It is a core concept in the French Constitution. Many French see this as a key bulwark against being overwhelmed by a Muslim immigrant population. Discretion with one’s religion is seen as a distinctly French characteristic.

While we may empathise with much of this, the separation of church and state does not have to mean leaving God out of the picture. That’s obvious from the American model, as evidenced in the role personal faith is playing in the current presidential election. The French model is obviously strongly influenced by its Enlightenment experience.

GREATEST INFLUENCE
I personally believe that to exclude mention of God in the preamble is to do violence to history. I’m reminded of C.S.Lewis’ comment that to argue against God is to argue against the very power that makes it possible to argue in the first place. To exclude God is to exclude the very power that made Europe ‘Europe’ in the first place. Why is Europe called a continent when it is merely the western peninsular of the Eurasian landmass? When and how did it become so distinct from Asia? After all, our Caucasian ancestors (those of us who have them) came from the east; they were polytheists. We still speak the languages they brought with them – Indo-European languages. So at what stage did Europe become distinct from Asia?

Answer: when storytellers came with a book about Jesus and a good, loving, forgiving, merciful Father God! That changed everything – for the Greeks and the Romans, the Gauls and the Celts, the Scot and the Picts, Angles and Saxons, Friesians and Franks and so on until eventually even the Vikings changed their lifestyles to align with the teachings of Jesus. This common social revolution – often ignored by us Protestants who tend to ignore everything between Paul and Luther – is what laid the foundations for European society, and eventually the European Union itself. The pagan Greek influence was only recovered much later at the Renaissance, blossomed during the Enlightenment, contributed to the French Revolution and continues to shape French thinking about society.

For a thousand years, the story of Jesus was the single greatest influence in shaping Europe’ past. Why shouldn’t the story of Jesus be the single greatest influence in shaping Europe’s future as well? Should followers of Jesus today conclude the anti-Christ or the beast has arrived with this EU constitution? that the future is doomed to decline? Has the story of Jesus lost it’s world-changing power? That’s not true in most of the two-thirds world. Some are calling Europe the great exception on the world scene right now. Let’s take the long view.

However, having said all of the above, I believe that what is far more important than that the name of God be mentioned in the constitution preamble is that His people should live out the presence of His name in Europe today, accepting responsibility for shaping the future of our communities, nations and continent.

GUIDELINES
This is a subject that deserves much more than a quick column. And between now and the referendums we should familiarise ourselves with the contours of the constitution so we can vote responsibly. Over the summer a proposal has emerged for evangelical leaders to consult together with other resource people, and formulate guidelines to help believers across Europe decide on how they should vote.

For example, some speak of 10 million evangelicals in
Europe. The constitution ma
kes it possible for a petition of one million EU citizens to submit proposals to the European Commission for action. There are other positive aspects of this constitution we need to look at more closely before we simply vote ‘no’ as a knee-jerk response to ignoring God and the Judeo-Christian heritage.

I’ll keep you informed of these guidelines as they develop.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

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