The other day, the guy on my local radio station mentioned that The Passion of The Christ was the number one movie in America. “So congrats to Mel Gibson,” he said. “And it’ll probably hold on to the number one slot until the new Starsky & Hutch opens.”
It’s always useful to keep things in proportion. But, in fact, Starsky & Hutch opened and The Passion cleaned its clock. Last weekend, it took in $51.4 million, as against S&H’s $29.05 million. By then, The Passion’s total gross was up around $212 million. Pace my radio guy, mid-Seventies nostalgia is no threat to early first-century nostalgia. It’s true that, as the critic Stanley Crouch likes to point out, nothing is that popular. If 10 million people see a movie, you’ll make 80 million bucks, and 97 per cent of the American public won’t even have to be involved. But I think it’s reasonable to say that, strictly in Hollywood terms, Mel Gibson has a huge smash on his hands. I would expect the week-on-week fall-off rate to be slower than most movies, including The Lord of the Rings, and the DVD sales to be colossal.
In the United States, that is. Britain and Europe are another matter. Leaving aside for the moment the question of anti-Semitism, the most notable characteristic of the negative reviews is a metropolitan condescension that Mel Gibson has had the bad taste to make a religious movie about a Jesus who isn’t an Episcopalian social worker with enlightened views on women, gay marriage and so forth. Jesus, they assure us, is about “love” not “violence.” Fine. Make your own Jesus movie. But this is the one Mel wanted to make, and it seems there are many millions of Americans prepared to sit through an R-rated movie in Aramaic and Latin on Christ’s suffering.
In Britain, I’ll bet, those of an Anglican sensibility will find it all a bit strong meat, and the godless masses will ignore it, and on the Continent, Mel’s fellow Catholics, having wiggled free of their church in little more than a generation, will have no desire to be reminded of what they’re missing. At the European box office, Starsky & Hutch stands a good chance of clobbering The Passion. If so, this movie will join that select group of cultural markers that separate Europe from “Bush’s America.” I say “Bush’s America” because even though, at least in his impeachment period, Bill Clinton had hordes of “spiritual advisers” and was on a permanent touring circuit of “prayer breakfasts” and had his press secretary issue press releases on which psalms he was studying during the impeachment trial and ostentatiously carried his Bible in his hand on any number of occasions – including the Easter Day service, after which he went back to the Oval Office to observe the resurrection in a more personal sense with his trusty intern – despite all that, it’s George W. Bush’s religiosity that seems to have got under Europe’s skin.
As Max Hastings wrote in the Guardian, “It is hard not to hate George Bush. His ignorance and conceit, his professed special relationship with God, invite revulsion.” Just for the record, he does not claim a “special relationship” with God, just a relationship. But to secular Europe, where fewer and fewer profess any sort of relationship with the Big Guy, even that modest claim is enough for them to lump him in the same category as his near neighbours in Texas, the incinerated cultists of Waco. Malcolm Fraser, the former Australian prime minister and like Sir Max a nominal conservative, calls the Bush administration “fundamentalist.” If one had to distil into one sentence the contempt that Britain’s great thinkers have for Tony Blair, it would be from Jeremy Paxman’s interrogation about the prime minister’s relationship with the president: “Do you pray together?” The studio audience sniggered.
America is the last religious nation in the Western world, the last in which a majority of the population are practising believers and regular attenders of church (or synagogue, or mosque). So Bush praying is only a joke to foreigners like Pax’n’Max. No Democratic candidates have been suicidal enough to mock him on those grounds, and even in the party’s more decadent precincts, it’s understood that the hard math of electoral politics requires campaigners at least not to appear ungodly. God-wise, to the American people, Bush is normal, not weird. Going to church is normal. Going to Bible study is normal. Buying albums of sacred songs by country singers is normal.
Anti-Americanism makes strange bedfellows. The Arab Islamists despise America because it’s all lap-dancing and gay-phone sex; Europe’s radical secularists despise America because it’s all born-again Christians hung up on abortion. They’re both right. The free market enables Hustler to thrive. And the free market in churches enables religion to thrive. In Europe, the established church, whether formal (the Church of England) or informal (as in Catholic Ireland, Italy and Spain), killed religion as surely as state ownership killed the British car industry. When the Episcopal church degenerates into a bunch of wimpsville self-doubters, Americans go elsewhere. When the Church of England undergoes similar institutional decline, Britons give up on religion entirely.
“When men cease to believe in God,” said Chesterton, “they do not believe in nothing; they believe in anything!” The anything most of the Western world’s non-believers believe in is government: instead of a state church, Europe believes in the state as church – the purveyor of cradle-to-grave welfare will provide daycare for your babies and take your aged parents off your hands. The people are happy to have cast off the supposed stultifying oppressiveness of religion for a world in which the state regulates every aspect of life. The French government’s recent headscarf ban – which, in the interests of an ecumenical fig-leaf, is also a ban on yarmulkes and “large” crucifixes – seems the way of the future, an attempt to push all religion to the fringes of life. A couple of years back, a Canadian “human rights commission,” in its ruling that a Christian printer had illegally discriminated against a gay group by turning down a printing job for pro-gay literature, said he had the right to his religious beliefs in his own home but he had to check them at the door when he left for work in the morning. Who’s in the closet now?
Last year, I had a long talk with a “senior EU official” and I was amazed at the way, quite unprompted, he used the phrase “Europe’s post-Christian future,” presuming that I would agree with him that this was a condition to aspire to. Europe’s quite post-Christian enough, and most of the horrors of our time came about through the most prominent expressions of its post-Christian state, Nazism and communism. And yet, faith in secularism is indestructible. The other day a correspondent e-mailed a swipe at me by The Independent’s Johann Hari in a vain effort to goad me into swiping back. Mr. Hari was discussing the term “Islamofascism”: “It has been picked up by some people, like the vile Mark Steyn, who seem to think that all Islam is evil. I dislike all religions and would happily see the whittling away of every last church and mosque, but to imply that all Islam is on a par with al-Qa’eda is grotesque.”
I certainly don’t think “all Islam is evil,” though much of it is problematic for a liberal, Western, pluralist society. But I love the way that, even as he’s slurring me as anti-Islam, Johann Hari casually reveals that he’d like to see the end of “every last church and mosque.” Surely Islamophobia isn’t any more politically correct for being subsumed within theophobia, is it? The assumption of virtue by radical secularists comes so easily you wonder whether they ever stop to think it through.
For example, it is a fact that the most religious nation in the West is also the most powerful militarily, economically and culturally. Is that a coincidence? It could be. To suggest otherwise would be to claim the “special relationship with God” that so distresses Max Hastings. So let’s look at it the other way: what happens when you opt for the “post-Christian future”?
Take my beloved Quebec. As recently as 1960, the birth rate in the province was an average of four children per couple. (Jean Chrétien, the recently retired Canadian prime minister, was the 18th of 19 children of a Quebec mill worker.) But then came the so-called “Quiet Revolution,” determined to free the people not just from the House of Windsor but from the Church of Rome, too. There’s a fine scene in Denys Arcand’s Barbarian Invasions in which a sad Catholic priest in Montreal explains to an art appraiser from London that one month in the Sixties the churches simply emptied out and the people never came back.
Fast forward to 1995, and Quebec’s referendum on “sovereignty.” Lucien Bouchard, the separatist leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, wanders off-message in one speech and urges the women of the province to have more children because they have one of the lowest fertility rates of any “white race” on the planet. Immediately, all the bien pensant types berate him for his faux pas. But the thing is, he wasn’t wrong. A couple of weeks later, his side narrowly lost the referendum by a few thousand votes. Given that young Francophones tend to be separatist, had Quebec Catholics of the mid-Seventies had children at the same rate as their parents, Bouchard would now have his glorious république. Now he never will. Quebec couples have an average of 1.4 children, and their shrivelled fertility rate has cost them their country.
In the space of a generation, a Catholic backwater became the most militantly secularist jurisdiction in North America. Marriage is a dying institution: Quebec has the highest rate of common-law relationships on the continent. Families are a dying institution: Quebec has the highest rate of abortion in Canada. And more to the point, as far as the separatists are concerned, the dream of an independent country is dead. Andre Langevin, the enterprising mayor of Coaticook, a small town on my commute from New Hampshire to Montreal, offers his citizens $75 for their first child, $150 for the second, and $750 for every child thereafter, plus various other incentives. Langevin understands the basic arithmetic of the Euro-Canadian welfare state: without population growth, it’s insolvent. Unfortunately, the paradox of a welfarist society is that it weans people away from the familial impulse necessary to sustain it.
Maybe the collapse of the church and the looming demographic disaster facing Quebec and most of Catholic Europe is just another coincidence. But, for whatever reason, Europeans have less and less interest in God’s first injunction, to “go forth and multiply.” And, as a consequence, they’ll enjoy their post-Christian EUtopia, but only for the two or three generations it lasts. Russia is headed for the same fate. China, where Christianity is booming, seems unlikely to make the same mistake.
In his new book, Civilization and Its Enemies, Lee Harris begins with the following observation: “Forgetfulness occurs when those who have been long inured to civilized order can no longer remember a time in which they had to wonder whether their crops would grow to maturity without being stolen or their children sold into slavery by a victorious foe. That, before 9/11, was what had happened to us. The very concept of the enemy had been banished from our moral and political vocabulary.”
Very true. But other countries at other times have been made “forgetful” by civilized order. It’s the particular form of civilization that makes this bout of forgetfulness potentially fatal. In post-Christian Europe – where fertile women who not so long ago would have had three children by the age of 24 now have one designer child at 39, where social welfare programs depend on a growing population, where the main source of immigration is from a culture that despises secularism as weak, short-sighted narcissism – societal “forgetfulness” isn’t just a passing phase you can snap out of. In this situation, the Christian fundamentalists, Holy Rollers, born-again Bible Belters and Jesus freaks of America are the rationalists. It’s the hyper-rationalists of secular Europe who are living on blind faith.