Two years ago, Europe was in the middle of its cartoon jihad, as thousands of Muslims protested images believed to insult Muhammad.  At the time, despairing observers saw the affair as yet another milestone in Europe’s descent into Eurabia, a graveyard of Christianity and Western civilization.  In hindsight, though, it rather looks as if the cartoons might have marked a turning point in a quite different direction.  Since 2005, and precisely because of those cartoons, the prospects for Christianity in Europe seem better than they have for decades.

The aggressive militancy of immigrant populations forced Europeans to spell out the minimum terms on which all citizens should agree.  In itself, this willingness to claim superiority for certain values over others represented a massive departure from anything-goes multiculturalism, although many might argue with the definitions of core European beliefs that elites have offered.  Generally, these were presented in terms of Enlightenment values.  Wouter Bos, leader of the Dutch Labor Party, enshrined the “freedom of expression, the equal treatment of men, women, heterosexuals and homosexuals, the separation of church and state, the principle of democratic government and the rule of law.”

Secular liberal ideas also shaped the tests that various European governments created to prevent Islamists from entering their countries or gaining citizenship; these were popularly known as the “Muslim Tests.”  You know what I mean by Islamist fanatics—those religious lunatics who object to public nudity or public expressions of homosexuality, or have qualms about legalizing gay marriage.

Such a list demonstrates what is wrong with the idea of core European values.  Which core?  What Europe?  Arguably, if “mainstream” values can be deduced from the last 150 years of European history, they would be authoritarian, militaristic, and hyper­nationalist, rather than pluralist and liberal.  But most centrally, an honest laundry list would not exclude religion.

Religious bodies were among the groups most affected by the cartoon affair.  The more directly Christian ideas and institutions are challenged, the more need there is to justify and defend these, to think more, say, about why Catholic schools maintain crucifixes on their walls.  In Italy, the main Muslim federation demanded that Muslims receive the teachings of their own faith in the time set aside for Catholic religious instruction in the schools.  Though some Catholic leaders were sympathetic, others forcefully reasserted the Catholic nature of Italian culture.  Cardinal Ruini, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, urged the state to recognize that Catholicism is still the religion of the overwhelming majority of Italians, “to say nothing of the demand to conserve and reinforce our roots, that’s strongly present in the Italian people.”

After the cartoon row, Europeans were heard wondering whether the next step would be a ban on going to church—not that concern about church had been much of a motivating force in the recent past.  Even in highly secular Denmark, epicenter of the crisis, if few Danes cared noticeably about the People’s Church, most deeply resented the challenge to its role in national life.  And some asked why Danish high schools required pupils to read the Koran but not the Bible. 

In Britain, the right has received an unexpected symbolic bonus in recent years, as the growing independence of the different components of the United Kingdom has encouraged a new sense of English identity, using as its flag not the old Union Jack, but the Red Cross of Saint George, and the related celebration of St. George’s Day.  Although few English people currently use the new cult as an explicit token of religious confrontation, extremists exploit its Crusader associations.  The English fondness for Saint George dates back to the great wars against Islam, when the saint reportedly appeared to Christian forces during the siege of Antioch in 1098.

The churches, of course, reject such manifestations, and some clergy want to displace George as England’s patron saint precisely because of his military image, preferring the native-born martyr Saint Alban.  Yet the churches, too, have become more forthright about reminding Europeans of the roots of their culture.  Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali declares that “Almost everything you touch in British culture . . . has been shaped by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, by the Bible, by the churches’ worship and belief.”

In a 2006 report, the liberal Church of England challenged the whole multifaith concept and the “privileging” of Islam.  “It could certainly be argued,” the authors suggested, “that there is an agenda behind a claim that a five per cent adherence to ‘other faiths’ makes for a multi-faith society.”  That’s the Church of England speaking?

Last September, the Washington Post published a piece claiming that, across Europe, atheists and secularists have developed a new militancy, speaking out forcefully against all expressions of religion.  True, such pressure groups are on the rise, but we can argue how we interpret the fact. Perhaps there are more secularists or—just possibly—for the first time in decades, they actually have something to be worried about.  God bless those cartoons.