The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God By George Weigel Basic Books 202p $23

(Written summer, 2005. Unpublished.)

The spiritual and demographic sterility of contemporary European culture is an important topic, and it deserves a more balanced treatment than it receives in George Weigel’s The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God.

Weigel is author of a major biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, and is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

The book is spurred in part by the refusal of European politicians to acknowledge the role of Christianity in the formation of European society in the proposed constitution for the European Union. (Recent votes against the constitution by nations such as France do not seem to be motivated by this concern, however.)

Weigel’s argument that Europe’s denial of God is cutting it off from the source of spiritual life and political vitality is often convincing.

But things the author doesn’t acknowledge — and other things he doesn’t seem to see — undermine the book and make it a quite predictable, and at times rather juvenile, exercise in polemics. For, in The Cube and the Cathedral, Weigel is like a 16-year-old who brings home the family car with a big new dent in the side but doesn’t mention it to his parents the next morning at breakfast. Maybe the folks just won’t notice.

For instance, early in the book he states: “In the aftermath of 9/11, and especially during the debate that preceded and followed the Iraq War of 2003-2004, Americans became acutely aware that they have a ‘Europe problem.’ ”

In fact, after 9/11 both France and Germany sent troops to Afghanistan, and governments throughout Europe mobilized to round up terror suspects. But nowhere in 202 pages does Weigel mention this cooperation, for it does not fit in with his thesis of a spiritually barren, politically bankrupt, and militarily effete Europe.

Then there is the issue of the bogus expiration date on the Iraq war — 2004? We’re now well into 2005 with no end in sight.

The book clearly takes it for granted that European opposition to the Iraq War equaled “a Europe problem.” However, the run-up to the war made millions of Americans more acutely aware that they have a “neoconservative problem.” Weigel ignores the possibility that nations such as France and Germany tried to keep the U.S. from pursuing a disastrous misadventure.

Again and again, both in the beginning and at the end of the book, Weigel states that he is not writing because of European opposition to the Iraq War. His issues are much deeper, he claims, and indeed to a large extent they are. But the persistent disclaimers make one want to paraphrase Hamlet: “Methinks the man doth protest too much.”

And indeed, someone might well read The Cube and the Cathedral and remain unaware of Weigel’s close professional and personal ties to such top neoconservatives and Iraq War advocates as Bill Kristol, Midge Decter, John Lehmen, Norman Podhoretz, and Jeanne Kirkpatrick.

Early in the book, Weigel quotes Robert Kagan’s acid putdown that “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus,” implying not only wide differences of foreign policy outlook but also European effeminacy. Weigel does not mention that Kagan is a pro-war neoconservative, nor that he is in fact director of The Project for a New American Century, a group which for years advocated war to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

Weigel’s own off-putting adolescent putdowns include frequent references to Europe’s “ultramundane” humanism. The rhetoric is ratcheted even higher when he suggests that Europe’s approach to radical Islam has been “appeasement.” This word is the ultimate insult out of the mouth of a neo-con, most of whom seem to fashion themselves present-day Winston Churchills, warning a soft, pacifist world of the gathering storm.

When at another point he sneers at the “political elite in the Brussels-Berlin-Paris axis” one can only be reminded of Weigel’s political hero, George W. Bush, and his “axis of evil.” Not surprisingly, Rome and London (ie. Italy and Britain) — though as good examples of Europe’s rampant secularization as any — are not held up for much specific criticism in Weigel’s book. After all, their leaders did send troops to Iraq as part of Bush’s so-called “coalition of the willing.”

Weigel does his argument a disservice by attempting to hide how much it owes to the deep resentment in his professional circle over European resistance to the Iraq War. Similarly, ideological blinders limit his effectiveness in applying the lessons of Europe to the United States.

In the place of God, Weigel writes, “the kinder, gentler exclusive humanism of contemporary European high culture has enshrined various secularist deities: tolerance, which it misunderstands as indifference; pluralism, which it imagines to be a mere sociological fact rather than a cultural achievement; la´citÚ [extreme secularization] and all the rest. But the worship of these substitute gods has drastically lowered Europe’s moral and historical horizon.”

When it comes to comparing the U.S. with Europe, Weigel does not seem to realize that a society that distorts God may be as decadent — and perhaps even more morally culpable — than a society that denies God. (This oversight is indeed odd, since we are fighting a group of Islamist fanatics motivated by a distorted image of God.)

Weigel’s list of what is wrong with America is a rather predictable and narrow Republican litany: divorce, abortion, Internet pornography, judicial activism, political correctness on college campuses. He takes heart, however, that “whatever else you can say about the United States, it is most certainly not a Christophobic or post-Christian society.”

Indeed, this is a society which likes to paint a religious veneer on its false gods: nationalism, militarism, consumerism, laissez faire economics, quick and violent problem solving, and American exceptionalism. In recent years, conservative Catholics have joined with fundamentalists in dressing up and propping up several of these idols.

Weigel frequently identifies himself as a Catholic theologian. As such, he first might take a new look at the Iraq War — which his beloved Pope John Paul II opposed — and ask whether the ongoing death and chaos can be justified under Catholic social teaching.

He then might want to examine the wisdom of uncritical Catholic cooperation with Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals on social issues. They may agree with Catholic teaching on abortion, but where are they on war, the poor, international development, the right to a living wage, the environment?

Weigel argues “that great social and political questions are, more often than not, ultimately theological in character.” It would make sense, then, to examine if Catholics, who believe that the end of the world is a mystery known only to the Father, can share a social vision with Christians who are convinced that any time now the elect will be “raptured” up while the rest of humanity takes the highway to hell.

Finally, Weigel might take a hard look at American society. Might we be a people — whether liberal or conservative — who say “Lord, Lord” and then go ahead and do exactly what we please? Does ritual genuflection really make us a more moral and durable society than agnostic Europe? Might the Christian veneer hide the rot of a uniquely American “civilizational crisis”?

— Mark E. Rondeau

Mark E. Rondeau is a freelance writer who lives in North Adams, Mass.

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