A toast to the French

Posted: May 31, 2005 12:00 AM

I was just closing a brand new book on the European crisis -- which I'll get back to in a minute, the book and the crisis both -- when came the news that French voters had overwhelmingly rejected the Constitution for Europe.

 Naturally, the first, ignoble impulse was to toast the defeat in good champagne on the theory that anything upsetting to Jacques Chirac -- no friend to the United States and its purposes -- is probably good, if not downright glorious. But the cleaner, saner impulse, which followed, was just to nod a quiet hooray for human freedom or the enlarged possibility thereof.

 The book I had just closed -- George Weigel's "The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God" -- does not exactly fling cold water on Europe's hopes for justice, peace and freedom in the 21st century, but it doesn't celebrate their prospects either. This is because, according to Weigel, an American scholar known as Pope John Paul II's biographer, Europe's elite have turned their backs on God -- if not as a figure worth occasional fragments of their time, then as the shaper of human freedom.

 Accounts of Christianity's decline in Europe are more than anecdotal. Church attendance plummets. One recent study asserts that a mere 21 percent of Europeans regard religion as "very important." Only 41 percent believe in a personal God. A recent Wall Street Journal opinion feature referred to Tony Blair as "the Christian leader of a pagan country."

 Last year -- getting back to the matter at hand -- those drafting the 70,000-word Constitution for Europe, a charter of increased political unity for a long-divided continent, refused to acknowledge the continent's Christian heritage. Doing so would have contradicted modern Europe's image of itself as robustly secular and free of supernatural claptrap.

 Well, here come the French, whose government has assiduously promoted just this dream. The French (56 percent to 44 percent) say to the Constitution: Non! If the French won't go along, the document could become a dead letter, even though nine other European Union members to date have approved it.

 The Constitution's defeat this week doesn't translate as victory for a God annoyed at being snubbed -- not when fears for the future of the welfare state mingled at the polls with deep distrust of Chirac. But what a chance now for some rethinking! About what? About the connection between God and freedom -- a connection that appears presently to escape most Europeans.

 Here is Weigel: "Christianity taught European man his own dignity" and "a proper respect for individuality." It can hardly have been otherwise. Christianity values the individual. The state doesn't. Answer: Restrain the state; make it respect individual dignity. John Paul II's assertion of that truth helped undermine communism. All of a sudden the pope's fellow Poles weren't just cogs in a vast machine. They were images of their creator with dignity and rights. Evil could no longer face them down. They faced it down.

 Weigel knows the church shouldn't run society. What the church can do is help set the moral tone. "Absent a secure and publicly assertive moral culture, the machines of democracy and the free economy cannot run well over the long haul; a moral culture capable of disciplining and directing the tremendous energies set loose by free politics and free economics" is vital to the free society.

 Politics without God? Can't do it. Or anyway those who attempt it, out of pride or indifference, can't do it right, "because God's search for man and the human response to that divine quest is the central reality of history."

 The Constitution of Europe, ratified or left to dry in the sun, is more a symbol than a civilizational question. But that which it symbolizes -- the quest for life without God -- contradicts everything our civilization has taught about means and ends and justice and freedom

 Could it be time for another toast to the intuition of the voters of la France?