Will Europe Rediscover Its Christian Identity?

Many believe this bastion of secularism will never again embrace religion. History shows otherwise.

“The late 20th century has seen a global resurgence of religions around the world.” That was the observation made in 1997 by renowned thinker on international relations Samuel Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order).

The statement has only become truer in the time since. Is there any other time in history where religion has exploded onto the world scene in such a short space of time? Thirty years ago, Islamists who were so religious they would blow themselves up for Allah were virtually unknown. The East was largely dominated by atheistic communism. Today, radical religion has resurged among Muslims to the point that Islamic terrorism is making headlines around the world every day, and the Middle East is dealing with an Islamic terrorist group so large that it is a pseudo-nation of its own.

But radical fundamentalists are, as Huntington wrote, “only the surface waves of a much broader and more fundamental religious tide.”

In 1989, Central Asia had only 160 active mosques. Four years later, there were 10,000. Moscow had 50 churches in 1988. By 1993, it had 250. Around the same time nearly a third of Russians under age 25 said they had switched from being atheist to believing in God.

In the still officially atheist state of China, the World Religion Database shows the total number of followers of all religions jumping from around 300 million in 1970 to around 700 million today. Despite government attempts to stop it, religion has spread much faster than Chinese population growth.

In South Korea in 1962, 2.6 percent of the population were Buddhist and 5 percent were Christian. Now 23 percent are Buddhist and over 29 percent are Christian.

“Religion continues to dominate our everyday lives, and we see that the total number of people who consider themselves to be religious is actually relatively high,” wrote Jean-Marc Leger, President of win/Gallup International Association after conducting a global poll in late 2014. “Furthermore, with the trend of an increasingly religious youth globally, we can assume that the number of people who consider themselves religious will only continue to increase.”

Those of us in the West, watching our society become increasingly secular, are the exception. The Gallup International poll found that Western Europe and Oceania were the only two regions in the world where around half of the population were either atheist or not religious.

“In the modern world, religion is a central, perhaps the central, force that motivates and mobilizes people,” wrote Huntington (op cit).

This raises the important question: Could the same dramatic trend sweep the secular West? Could religion surge back in the most secular region of the secular West? Could Europe turn religious?

This change has been one of the key forecasts of the Trumpet. If you’ve read this magazine for any length of time, you’ll have come across articles forecasting that the Catholic Church or Europe’s Christian heritage will be used to unite the Continent.

To many, the idea of the Catholic Church playing this major political role is completely alien. But is it possible?

It would be foolish to just assume that Europe will stand as the sole exception to this worldwide trend. History shows that the religious revolution that has swept the rest of the world could, in fact, come to Europe.

A Religious Revolution

You might think that Europe is as secular as any region has ever been. But early 19th-century France was far more radically secular. The Catholic Church and its rich bishops had been one of the top targets of the French Revolution. Crosses were destroyed. Priests who refused to swear loyalty to the new Civil Constitution of the Clergy were arrested; many were put to death.

The new order even eliminated the Gregorian calendar and abolished the seven-day week, using (in their opinion) a far more scientific 10-day system. To satiate any lingering desire for organized religion, revolutionaries set up their own alternatives, such as the Cult of Reason and Cult of the Supreme Being.

Napoleon Bonaparte opposed the church from the beginnings of his career. In his campaigns in Italy from 1796 to 1797, General Bonaparte often ended the church’s inquisitions, repealed Catholic-inspired anti-Semitic laws and nationalized church property. The Catholic Church led local opposition to Napoleon, with its priests stirring up revolts. Napoleon responded with massacres and village burning. Church bells used to summon rebels to arms were destroyed. Priests who were found leading armed bands were shot.

Pope Pius vi supported the first international coalition against revolutionary France. Napoleon’s army forced the pope to surrender as it stood ready to invade the Papal States. The Catholic Church soon resumed supporting France’s enemies, and Napoleon’s army fought directly with soldiers from the Papal States, though Napoleon refrained from marching on Rome. In 1798, the French took Pius vi prisoner. By this time, Napoleon had already left Italy; he was busy evaluating the suitability of France’s northern ports for launching an invasion of England. It’s unlikely he would have consented to the arrest.

Napoleon learned from this experience. Italy “instilled in him a respect for the power of the church as an institution, which he realized he could not wholly oppose,” wrote Andrew Roberts in his book Napoleon: A Life. General Bonaparte wrote back to his superiors in Paris that “it was a great mistake to quarrel with that power.”

Napoleon soon had an opportunity to put this lesson in the power of religion into effect. Later in 1798, he led an invasion of Egypt. “People of Egypt!” he wrote. “I am come to restore your rights, to punish usurpers. I reverence … God, his prophet Mohammed, and the Koran! … Have we not destroyed the pope, who made men wage war on the Muslims?”

Asked many years later about this, Napoleon said, “I always adopt the religion of the country I am in.” In this case, it came back to bite him. After invading Egypt, Napoleon went on into Palestine and Lebanon. Here he posed as a Christian hero. The local British commander, Commodore Sir Sidney Smith, collected Napoleon’s letters professing loyalty to Mohammed and passed them on to Syrian and Lebanese Christians. Smith’s brilliant psychological and also physical warfare handed Napoleon one of his first defeats at Acre.

After failing to take Acre, Napoleon returned to Egypt and then to France. On Nov. 9, 1799, he took over the country, becoming France’s “first consul.”

One of his first moves was to return France to the Roman Catholic Church.

Napoleon saw that the support of the pope and the church would improve his position domestically and abroad. “In religion,” he told one adviser, “I do not see the mystery of the Incarnation, but the mystery of the social order …. Society is impossible without inequality; inequality intolerable without a code of morality, and a code of morality unacceptable without religion.”

The concordat with the church was signed in July 1801. But it was nine months before Napoleon made it public, such was the opposition to the Catholic Church within the top ranks of the army and the post-revolutionary regime.

“The government of the republic acknowledges that the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman religion is the religion of the great majority of French citizens,” it began. Catholic worship was reestablished.

But it was a state Catholicism. The pope and Napoleon would each choose the archbishops. Bishops would swear not to “disturb the public tranquility.” The church promised to read Napoleon’s decrees to the congregation and preach that conscription into the army was a patriotic duty.

The seven-day week was restored, with Sunday as the day of rest. Eventually the Gregorian calendar was also restored. The Catholic Church regained control of primary education. The church did not regain all the wealth and power that it had before the revolution, and still it was vastly more powerful than it is today.

The clergy hailed Napoleon as the “Restorer of Religion.” The archbishop of Besançon said he was “like God Himself.” Many in the army and government grumbled. But the move gained Napoleon great support in rural France. In fact, the concordat was so popular that it lasted many decades longer than Napoleon himself.

In 1804, Napoleon looked to the papacy to secure his rule once again. He asked Pope Pius vii to come to Paris and crown him emperor. In just six years, the head of the Catholic Church had gone from being France’s prisoner to its chief priest.

Napoleon told his officials to treat the pope as if he had 200,000 soldiers. The pope anointed Napoleon—though the emperor crowned himself, lifting above his head the replica of the crown of Charlemagne (the Austrians wouldn’t let him use the original). In his coronation oath, he swore to uphold the concordat he had signed with the Catholic Church.

Even in a regime so thoroughly secular that it had abolished the seven-day week, Europe’s leader found it to his great advantage to restore the power of the church.

That same potential exists today.

Religion’s Power Today

Christianity is far from a spent force. In Poland, Malta and Ireland, around half of the population say they attend church every week. In Italy, it’s about one in three; Portugal and Greece one in four; Spain around one in five.

But as impressive as those numbers are, there are far more adherents beyond those who attend church every week.

Over three quarters of Europeans identify as Christians of some form. About half of these Christians are Catholic. This Christian identity crosses all borders, uniting east and west, north and south. Just about all of Europe has at one time belonged to the Christian Roman Empire, or one of the empires that tried to resurrect Rome.

As the Arab Spring demonstrated, the post-Cold War world is still in ideological flux. People are still struggling to determine what defines them now that the secular and other ideologies of the 20th century have crumbled.

For Napoleon, the Catholic Church provided a common heritage that helped hold his empire of the French, Germans, Spaniards, Poles, Italians and others together. Today, Europe is searching for a similar glue.

The Cold War imposed an ideological identity on the Continent: Europe was part of the anti-Communist West. Now Brexit and the migrant crisis are forcing Europe to ask the existential questions that have gone unasked for years. What is it that holds the nations of Europe together? What is the EU for? nato is already unraveling in the face of such questions.

In this new search for cultural identities, fear and enemies are hugely important. As Huntington wrote, “We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against” (op cit; emphasis added throughout).

Europe right now is being confronted with “what they are not” like no other time in recent history. When France was attacked by radical Islam, it responded by attacking the burkini. Banning a form of swimwear has nothing to do with making the nation safer, and everything to do with cultural identity.

“In the post-Cold War world flags count and so do other symbols of cultural identity, including crosses, crescents and even head coverings, because culture counts, and cultural identity is what is most meaningful to most people,” wrote Huntington. “People are discovering new but often old identities and marching under new but often old flags, which lead to wars with new but often old enemies” (ibid).

What is the dividing line between old Europe and the newcomers? Nationalism is one, but it’s also an identity that divides Europe into competing nationalities. Nevertheless nationalism is Europe’s fastest-rising response to radical Islam and mass migration, and it is threatening to split apart the European Union.

But Europe’s cultural, civilizational and religious identity is a powerful alternative. That Christian, Roman identity solves the two biggest problems facing Europe right now: how to face radical Islam and how to unify the Continent. Nothing else fits the problems that Europe faces today so perfectly.

“People do not live by reason alone,” wrote Huntington. “They cannot calculate and act rationally in pursuit of their self-interest until they define their self. … For people facing the need to determine Who am I? Where do I belong?, religion provides compelling answers …” (ibid).

There is a Catholic Church-shaped hole in the heart of Europe. It’s only a matter of time before a new Napoleon tries to fill it.

While Christianity, in general, provides an identity all of Europe can aspire to, it is divided. The north is largely Protestant. The south is Catholic. The east is Orthodox. But these differences diminish greatly in importance when compared to the “otherness” of Islam.

Of course, most of those who identify as Christian do not attend church regularly. But Christianity’s power as a unifying force lies in its ability to foster a sense of shared identity, history and destiny, rather than its ability to force obedience to church doctrine.

The First Glimpses of Change

The resurrection of a Christian identity would be a radical step. The very idea of Western-style nation-states is founded in the rejection of a religion-based state in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century. That ideal was further cemented by the Age of Enlightenment. Many take it for granted that religion is now separate from politics, and it will take some force to change that thinking.

Even so, that separation is not so great as it first appears, particularly in Europe. Italy, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland and Iceland all fund an established church, or churches, with tax money. But it would take someone with Napoleon’s vision to bring the church around to Europe’s cause.

Yet a shift in this direction is occurring. Germany’s Christian Social Union (csu), the sister party to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, called for a new Immigration Limitation Act in September. One of its slogans was, “Germany must remain German.” How would it accomplish that goal? Limit immigration and place a “priority” on “immigrants from our Western Christian culture.”

Central and Eastern European countries have made this kind of call before. But now this is a call from the Bavarian, Catholic heart of Germany, and from a political party whose star is rising because it shares the concern of many Germans about mass migration.

“What stands out is the rejection not only of Islamism, but also of Islam,” wrote Tagesspiegel, describing the new proposals (September 8; Trumpet translation throughout). Additionally, “the summoning of the Christian culture” is also noteworthy, according to the German daily.

The csu’s policy paper also promised to anchor the term “dominant culture” in the Bavarian constitution.

These are logical and simple steps in response to a mass Islamic migration that is intrinsically changing parts of Europe. But they are also radical proposals. They bring back religious identity not just into law, but even into the state’s constitution. In response to these Muslim “others,” Europe’s sense of its Christian self is growing in a way never seen in recent times.

As for the Vatican, Pope Francis is positioning the church to play a greater role in the global economy. But up till now, he hasn’t followed up on his predecessor’s efforts to make the church Europe’s leader against radical Islam.

That could be changing. On September 14, Pope Francis stiffened his stance against radical Islam. Discussing Jacques Hamel, the French priest murdered by two Islamic State-supporting terrorists on July 26, the pope said that “to kill in the name of God is satanic.” Christian Today reported that “Pope Francis has signaled that he is preparing to canonize” Hamel (September 14). Such a canonization would be deeply symbolic, telegraphing the Catholic Church’s opposition to radical Islam.

A few days earlier, on September 11, Archbishop of Vienna Christoph Schönborn warned of an “Islamic conquest of Europe.” He was speaking on the 333rd anniversary of the Battle of Vienna, when Christian nations of Europe joined forces to prevent Muslim Ottomans from conquering Vienna and continuing their expansion in Europe.

“Will there now be a third attempt at an Islamic conquest of Europe?” he asked. “Many Muslims want that and say: Europe is at its end.”

“God have mercy on Europe and on thy people, who are in danger of forfeiting our Christian heritage,” Schönborn prayed, according to local media reports.

It is important to note: These are words not just against radical Islam, but against Islam as a whole.

Schönborn is a former pupil of the former pope, Benedict xvi. It’s not hard to imagine Catholic leaders who fear Islam and German leaders who fear Islam’s arrival in Europe getting together. We are not far from someone copying Napoleon’s alliance.

Centuries of Mistrust

But there is a more fundamental obstacle to a Vatican-EU pact, and it underlies Europe’s modern secular identity. Napoleon’s alliance with the Vatican did not end well, for either party. The relationship between emperor and pope deteriorated until, in 1809, Napoleon annexed the Papal States, the pope excommunicated Napoleon, and Napoleon arrested the pope. In 1813, they patched things up with another concordat. Just over a week later, the pope decided that the agreement was a mistake and asked Napoleon to cancel it. The emperor reminded the pope that he was infallible, and thus could not have been mistaken.

At the roots of this conflict was an ancient disagreement. “You are sovereign in Rome, but I am its emperor,” Napoleon wrote the pope in 1806. He instructed his ambassador to the Vatican, Cardinal Joseph Fesch, to tell the pope “that I am Charlemagne, the sword of the church and their emperor. And that I should be treated as such …. I have briefly laid out my intentions. If he does not reply, I shall reduce him to the condition of his predecessors before Charlemagne.”

The pope responded that “the Holy Father [referring to himself] does not recognize and has never recognized, in his states, any power superior to his own, and that no emperor has any rights over Rome.”

At issue was the pope’s refusal to cut relations with Britain. But the substance was a question as old as the Catholic Church: Is the pope the superior of the emperor, or vice versa? It was “a theory of papal world government,” as historian Paul Johnson put it, that caused the Holy Roman Emperor Henry iv to fall out with Pope Gregory vii in the Investiture Controversy. It was a bitter feud, and 200 years later the Catholic Church was still hunting down Henry’s last remaining descendants.

No wonder Europe tired of religious leaders meddling in its affairs. This lies at the root of the secular traditions that hold European leaders back from drawing on the power of the pope. European leaders talk about Charlemagne often. They like his vision of European unity. But they forget that Charlemagne kneeled before the pope to receive his crown. It will take a crisis before Europe’s current leaders are willing to bend their knees. But those crises are here, and the attraction of what Rome alone can offer is growing.

A Biblical Prophecy

The pattern of the Catholic Church granting legitimacy to a rising European power is familiar to historians. It should be familiar to students of the Bible too. It describes a political power led by a church, a model that continually recurs in Europe’s history. For an in-depth study on this, request our free book The Holy Roman Empire in Prophecy.

Herbert W. Armstrong described how this empire would function in modern times. The leaders of Europe, he wrote in 1980, “talk continually of political union—which means, also, military. So far they have been unable to bring about full political union. This will be made possible by the ‘good offices’ of the Vatican, who alone can be the symbol of unity to which they can look” (The United States and Britain in Prophecy; request your free copy).

That is Europe today—unable to bring about full political union. Among its elites, the desire for union is stronger than ever, and they have tried just about every other option for unity and seen each of them fail.

The church may have to compromise to bring about this church-state entity. Mr. Armstrong wrote in 1978 that “liberals will object to this enforcement of the Catholic faith, if it is to enforce the traditional conservative doctrines” (Good News, Aug. 28, 1978). Mr. Armstrong was speculating about the outcome of a specific conclave, but it’s clear he considered this a possible outcome more generally.

“The conservative cardinals may give some ground,” Mr. Armstrong wrote, noting that the church “may emerge with a slightly changed Catholic doctrine” to facilitate the church’s leadership in Europe. However, he still believed that “traditional conservatism will probably carry the balance of power” within the church.

Just as in the past, this will not be a harmonious marriage or meeting of minds. Church and state will still have their own ambitions and will disagree on who is in charge. Their alliance will vault both of these entities into great power. But once that power is attained, the nations of this coming European superstate “shall hate” the Catholic Church (Revelation 17:16). They “shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire.”

“One of the most remarkable aspects of the Revelation 17 prophecy,” notes our book The Holy Roman Empire in Prophecy, “is that in addition to forecasting the unity” between church and state, “it says that there would also be tension and confrontation.”

The fact that Europe has moved away from the Catholic Church in recent decades is not a sign that the two can never cooperate. But it is a foreshadowing of their eventual fallout.

Europe has hosted the bloodiest empires the world has ever seen. Autocratic powers have repeatedly arisen, claiming the mantle of Rome and working with the Catholic Church to further their power.

The Bible says only one more of these destructive empires is to come, and it will only last “a short space” before it all falls apart (Revelation 17:10). Ultimately the history of Napoleon and of other “holy” Roman emperors shows that European powers have a strong incentive to work with the Catholic Church, but also that that power cannot last long.

That is the good news behind Europe’s migrant crisis. It is hastening the arrival of the final resurrection of the Holy Roman Empire. With today’s modern technology, that empire will be able to inflict more destruction than ever before. But after a short span, that empire will be gone forever.

The Bible clearly prophesied of this repeated church-state empire. Details about this empire recorded in Revelation 13 and 17 and elsewhere have proven correct.

These same prophecies foretell what happens after this final empire is destroyed. Jesus Christ will return and set up His benevolent empire. It won’t be an empire that uses religion to dominate men. Instead it will use religion to finally bring peace to the world.