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Minarets and Crucifixes

Robert Wilken has a post arguing that the Swiss ban on minarets is not a curtailment of religious freedom since its really just about preserving culture and tradition:

For the Swiss, erection of minarets taller than church steeples would alter the skyline of cities and towns, visibly severing links to the past. The construction of minarets was seen as an assault on memory and memory is attached to things. Without memory a people have no sense of who they are. In Italy the assault on memory had to do with the central Christian symbol in the west. In a historic Christian culture wrote Barbieri, “the symbol of a naked, suffering, unjustly condemned man in whom all that is good and worthy of worship and respect . . . is centered, is buried deep in their souls.” In Italy even atheists and Communists respect the Crucifix “because it means so much about the condition and value of a man.”

The issue is not human rights or religious freedom, but respect for cultural traditions and fealty to those who have gone before. There is no reason to think that prohibiting the erection of minarets in Swiss cities will jeopardize the rights of Muslims to practice their religion. But if a society loses all memory of its Christian traditions, there is a real question whether those things that make western civilization unique, e.g. human rights, freedom of religion, will endure.

So presumably this would mean that if a historically Muslim country voted to band the construction of cathedrals that would also not be a matter of religious freedom and rights, but merely the preservation of a culture? Anyone else smell the bullshit?

This post strikes me as yet another display of a common presupposition among many of the First Thingers: that Christianity is inalienably tied to “Western culture” which should thus be propagated, maintained, and extended throughout the world without regard for other cultures or forms of peoplehood.


  1. Andrew wrote:

    That last sentence has my blood a-boilin’:

    “But if a society loses all memory of its Christian traditions, there is a real question whether those things that make western civilization unique, e.g. human rights, freedom of religion, will endure.”

    Well, not really a-boilin’, I just wanted to say something old timey. I do, however, find the statement laughable as many of those “Christian traditions” have a history of destroying human rights and disallowing freedom of religion. I also must automatically take a bit of umbrage to implications of Western civilization’s ownership of Christianity. It is a poor rationalization none the less.

    Tuesday, December 8, 2009 at 4:50 pm | Permalink
  2. Marvin wrote:

    Does Western culture include Arabic numerals?

    Tuesday, December 8, 2009 at 5:40 pm | Permalink
  3. kim fabricius wrote:

    “For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.”
    – Harry Frankfurt

    Yes, and not just bullshit, but ideological bullshit, reason deployed in the defence of self-interest masquerading as the Good. Much more insidious than an outright lie.

    Tuesday, December 8, 2009 at 8:11 pm | Permalink
  4. Okay…I don’t like that Wilken thinks that Christians have to be in charge and run things, or that Christianity exists to serve what is good according to Western society or that Christian symbols are generic symbols worthy of respect from people who don’t believe. This does violence to people outside the Christian community and misunderstands how peculiar Christianity is. When our fealty to western culture or our ancestors trumps actual discipleship to Jesus, then the cross becomes meaningless.

    Andrew says that “many of those ‘Christian traditions’ have a history of destroying human rights and disallowing freedom of religion.” I’m not going to disagree that certain habits of thought an practice, certain traditions in Christendom gave rise to incredibly damaging behavior in the west. It’s plain fact and it’s ugly.

    Nevertheless, I think he IS right that much of what is good in western culture (generally speaking) derivates from Christianity, and that most of the evils that came about in Christendom wasn’t uniquely Christian but came about because of other influences (the rise of the nation state and modernism) or were basic assumptions that predated Christianity about ‘the way things are.’

    A good read on this sort of thing is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and It’s Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart.

    Wednesday, December 9, 2009 at 3:21 am | Permalink
  5. Marvin wrote:

    I just now noticed who the author is. Wilken’s book “The Land Called Holy” is a really good story about how ancient Palestine became a religiously significant place for Christians. So now I’m having that all too familiar cognitive dissonance–How could such a good author disagree with ME, of all people, about such important matters?

    Wednesday, December 9, 2009 at 5:30 am | Permalink
  6. Geoff wrote:

    First thingers need to read more of the desert fathers and the anabaptists. As this becomes more and more frequent I become more and more irritated.

    Wednesday, December 9, 2009 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  7. Hill wrote:

    I am almost certain that Wilken has read more of the desert fathers than anyone who frequents this blog, by a lot. I find these comments unfortunate, but the man is a scholar–one of the best.

    Wednesday, December 9, 2009 at 10:56 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Agreed. His book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is excellent. It just makes this post all the more unfortunate.

    Wednesday, December 9, 2009 at 10:57 am | Permalink
  9. Hill wrote:

    Worth noting that the final two notes in the series are a bit more balanced.

    Wednesday, December 9, 2009 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  10. Paul Allen wrote:

    I think you ignore too quickly the insight that is implied in those few sentences of Wilken’s that Christianity is causally related to a form of humanism, without which we would indeed not have human rights traditions to speak of.

    Now, that is not the same thing as saying that Christians have everywhere and always been tolerant. But the minaret debate in Switzerland is inextricably tied to the larger, more significant demographic debate in which we can see that fewer Europeans are having children. That is a trend that is in some basic way ‘anti-humanist’.

    While I disagree on the ban of minarets, I do believe that the Swiss are at least confronting, however awkwardly, cultural decline – their own. I think some Christians (even firstthingers) are correct to see a theological stake in the vibrancy of a culture that is – broadly speaking – humanist. So, a bit more charity is in order for Wilken’s point there, especially the last line you quoted.

    Wednesday, December 9, 2009 at 6:17 pm | Permalink
  11. roger flyer wrote:

    Every tribe must have a flagpole.

    Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 7:25 am | Permalink
  12. james wrote:

    How is this about religious freedom? It’s like prohibiting big-box retail not religious practice.

    The minaret is an aggressive social statement though. Once again, Muslims don’t play by Anabaptist rules of secularism. The cathedrals of Europe may no longer symbolize Christianity but they are a secularized cultural historic symbol. Allowing a tiny religious minority to alter the symbolic skyline with the help of unending foreign funding would change the meaning of European urban architecture.

    This is not unlike the ubiquitous Mexican ghettos in the Southwest U.S.. When the signs of a whole section of town begin to be written in a foreign language, urban English-speakers flee, whites and blacks. The Swiss know the effects minarets wold have on tourism.

    Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 9:39 am | Permalink
  13. Scott Coulter wrote:

    And Muslim culture is anti-humanist?

    Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 2:59 pm | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    That is the argument that’s being made. I’m not saying it’s an obvious home run, but if you think humanism requires things like religious freedom, etc. it’s not an obviously stupid argument. Keep in mind there are quite a few Muslim countries that execute people publicly and condemn women to death for adultery. I don’t mean to set up some sort of facile comparison here between the “Christian West” and the “Muslim World” but I’d think anyone with an even rudimentary attachment to the value of freedom as understood by the secular west would have to admit that there are some issues there.

    Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 3:43 pm | Permalink
  15. Stephen wrote:

    Your argument for religious intolerance is that racism is good?

    Also, check your population statistics. Muslims are not a tiny minority in Europe anymore.

    Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  16. Hill wrote:

    What he’s saying isn’t racist. I see how it might be mistaken for racism, but it’s actually not. Most of the Muslims in Switzerland aren’t Arabic.

    Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 5:16 pm | Permalink
  17. Man, you really should have just studied with Milbank. You’d already be a doctor by now!

    Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 7:06 pm | Permalink
  18. Yeah… if you don’t mean to set up some sort of facile comparison you probably shouldn’t write what you do here. Jesus. I mean, do some research Hill! Otherwise you risk sounding like these EDL fucks we had to chase out of Nottingham last weekend.

    Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 7:08 pm | Permalink
  19. Hill wrote:

    What exactly do I have wrong here, dear Anthony?

    Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 10:42 pm | Permalink
  20. Scott Coulter wrote:

    But the question shouldn’t be whether there are Muslim-majority countries or even modern Muslim religious states that have anti-humanist policies & practices. The question should be what the European Muslims that are building the mosques in Europe think Muslim culture teaches about human rights. The Muslim Americans I know value things like freedom of religion and democracy and human rights — and in many cases, I suspect, these values would play some role in the story these Muslims would tell about why they are in the U.S. I would guess that things would be similar in Europe.

    Friday, December 11, 2009 at 8:17 am | Permalink
  21. Scott Coulter wrote:

    To the extent that Muslims are regarded as / treated as an ethnic group in Western countries, Islamaphobia deserves classification as racism, in my mind.
    But Islamaphobia is still a form of cultural imperialism and Western colonialism (perpetuated by white, Christian Europeans and Americans) even if it isn’t “racism” per se.

    Friday, December 11, 2009 at 8:19 am | Permalink
  22. Yes, that’s basically the point.

    Friday, December 11, 2009 at 5:35 pm | Permalink
  23. Are you honestly asking? For one, assuming that human rights or freedom of conscience is antithetical to Islam in some radically anti-European sense. Seriously man, read a damned book about Islam.

    Friday, December 11, 2009 at 5:37 pm | Permalink
  24. Hill wrote:

    You have a basic issue with reading comprehension that likely stems from a subconscious desire to see me as some sort of hyper-right wing fundamentalist. It’s worth thinking about.

    Friday, December 11, 2009 at 6:56 pm | Permalink
  25. Jeremy wrote:

    You never did Anthony’s question on whether or not you would’ve signed the Manhattan Declaration…

    Friday, December 11, 2009 at 8:54 pm | Permalink
  26. Theophilus wrote:

    The zero-sum logic train has just left the station. Honestly, these ideas of rights and freedoms developed in the West, at a time when Christianity was the predominant religion there, and therefore had a formative influence on the development of these concepts. But nobody said that that excludes these concepts having currency outside that kind of environment. You read that into Hill’s comments without justification.

    Saturday, December 12, 2009 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  27. If one skimmed history from the 30 Yrs War, thru the holocaust up to “shock an awe,” one might reasonably ask if the construction of minarets poses such a serious threat to ‘western cultural values,” (considering the “skylines” of Dresden, Coventry, Warsaw, Nagasaki, and Baghdad). Perhaps some ‘atheists and communists respect the cross’ in Italy as Wilken argues, but I have spent Sunday after Sunday at Mass in Rome in huge cathedrals with a mere dozen other worshipers (however, there is a shop a couple of blocks from Saint Peters where overflowing barrels of cheap crucifixes made in Chinese sweatshops are sold by the kilo!!). I am not sure the call of the Jesus was to build Christianist skylines and Gospel theme parks, but if so, one might just as well do it in Las Vegas where the aesthetics of Simulacra can be appreciated without anyone noticing the hypocrisy (now that the surviving Paiute, Walapi, and Western Shoshoni Indians have rendered “fealty” to the “Western Christian tradition of human rights” and built there own casino “skylines”). The “assault on memory” Wilken fears, might better be combated by helicopters spraying Donepezil and Ginkgo Biloba onto the herds of believers streaming into mega-churches on Sunday morning or pumped into the air ducts in Swiss banks where Nazi capital continues to compound interest. Obliged.

    Sunday, December 13, 2009 at 12:15 pm | Permalink
  28. Well, perhaps if you actually made some kind of point rather than simply being contrarian I wouldn’t have to guess, based on your contarianism, what you’re trying to say. I don’t read you as some kind of hyper-right wing fundamentalist. I read you as a vaguely culturally right-leaning convert to Roman Catholicism that tends to enter debates in defense of the general authority and rightness of the Catholic Church. That doesn’t seem that far from the truth.

    Monday, December 14, 2009 at 9:04 am | Permalink
  29. Hill wrote:

    You have me pegged, except for my tendency to enter debates. You are closer on the pure contrarian side. Maybe I’m just overly dialectical, but I tend to push back on whatever is being discussed, especially if it seems overly one-sided or intellectually disingenuous. I guess to be more specific, the opinions I’m most likely to criticize are the ones that I’m generally inclined towards myself, but that seem insufficiently motivated. My reaction to Scott’s question was motivated by the sense that whether or not Islam is anti-humanist doesn’t really matter, and in fact, I don’t even know how one could answer that question. It’s like asking whether or not Christianity is anti-woman. It depends on who you ask and whether or not we’re talking about the concept of Christianity or some historical instantiation of it. I fully admit that Islam (just like Christianity) is capable of being fully realized in a way that is compatible with “humanism” (which is basically a cipher here, but functional), however, much like Christianity, depending on one’s predispositions, one may accord an increased significance to certain forms of Islam (or Christianity) which happen to be ready to hand in either case, some of which may present problems, cognitively speaking, for accepting the ascendancy of one over the native cultural milieu of a given region. Suggesting that there is nothing whatsoever of concern in terms of the political or social ramifications of a growing Islamic population of Europe is a kind of knee-jerk political correctness. The failure to realize that one can raise this issue without impugning Islam generally or Muslims in particular is similarly motivated, I think.

    I want to reiterate that I think Wilken fails to capture the issue here and that his argument falls completely flat. For one not inclined to charity towards him, I can see how this might be damning. That being said, the issue is not as simple as a bunch of Swiss bigots conspiring to rid their country of Muslims, nor is it helpful to understand the encounter of post-Christian Europe with a growing Islamic population as simple unwarranted xenophobia. I certainly would not begrudge Saudi Arabia a certain amount of trepidation regarding an influx of Christians. In fact, I’m fairly certain they have extensive legislation in place.

    So here I am with the Vatican in opposing the ban on minarets but also in calling for an increased reciprocity in the way Christian countries relate to minority Islamic populations and vice versa, a reciprocity that requires concessions from both sides. The hope would be that this could open up a space for mutual good faith in a discussion of the changing demographics of Europe. All of this is in the service of the freedom of conscience and religious assent.

    Monday, December 14, 2009 at 11:13 am | Permalink
  30. Thanks for taking the time to think through an actual response. I still disagree with you, but it has more to do with a serious lack of empirical evidence than any kind of “higher” argument. Frankly, I have to disagree with you when you write, “nor is it helpful to understand the encounter of post-Christian Europe with a growing Islamic population as simple unwarranted xenophobia”. In Switzerland, for instance, the there simply isn’t a significant growth in the Islamic population. Same thing in England, where there is arguably more of an Islamic presence in the cities, where the population remains 92% white and “Christian” (encompassing all sorts of positions) yet you have people talking about resiting the influx of Islamic immigrants, wanting “their country back”, and the threat of Sharia law (a physical impossibility).

    I also, of course, agree that majority Islamic countries should treat Christian communities with the same respect and the respect required by most mainstream readings of the Quran (and many countries do respect Christian communities officially). Thing is, I don’t live there. I live here, where the threat is against Muslims and their community. I’m not a Muslim or even all that interested in arguing for the superiority of Islam. I mean, if I had my way we’d all be reasonable Communists that took the best bits of religious practice and left most of the dogma. Don’t tell James KA Smith or Steve Long though.

    Monday, December 14, 2009 at 11:41 am | Permalink
  31. Hill wrote:

    You’ve got the advantage of having a much more thorough exposure to Europe on the ground than I do, and I take your analysis of the empirical issue seriously. I do think that simple xenophobia is at work to some degree here. I just think we’d miss something to reduce it to that. Insofar as the conversation precedes an actual (though potentially impending?) demographic shift, perhaps it can be useful, but you may be right that there is a kind of violence being done in exaggerating the demographic facts themselves.

    Monday, December 14, 2009 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

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