An unpleasant populism is sweeping across Europe and beyond

If you were to ask any prominent politician, or indeed churchman, in this country to articulate what Western values were, I would bet my trousers that the first two words out of their mouth would be “tolerance and respect”.

We can all agree that we like tolerance and respect, they are essential components of an open and free society. But if you look straight at them, they are not actually a positive ethos; on the contrary, they presume and protect disagreement.

The freedom to dissent and hold one’s own position is, of course, fundamental to a free society. But if, as seems to be the case, tolerance and respect have become the very centre of our cultural consensus and are now the only values which we are able to affirm without giving offence or starting a row, then we have, paradoxically, devolved into a very intolerant society indeed.

In fact, it is hard to assert we have any real common cultural values to speak of if our collective motto is “We All Agree To Disagree”.

One of the ways we avoid confronting this gaping whole in the centre of our common life is by focusing on other cultures or values by which we are mutually appalled. ISIS, while a very clear and present evil in the world, have also presented a useful distraction from our own internal confusion.

It’s become a snappy soundbite to refer to them as a “death cult”, and, indeed, it seems like a fair description of a system of belief that champions violent martyrdom, the mass beheading of religious dissidents, sexual slavery for women, and pushing gay people off of buildings. But by agreeing that their barbarity is pro-death, have we not excused ourselves from seriously questioning if we, as a society, are truly pro-life?

The current conversation in Canada about legalising medical euthanasia (surely an oxymoron if ever there was one) for “mature children” and the mentally incapacitated is generally held to hinge upon questions of “too far” rather than right or wrong.

Surely a society which is pro-life should see the suffering of anyone, let alone a child, which is so grim as to make death preferable as a shamefully unanswered challenge to how we care for them? We revile at the reports of ISIS troops dashing infants against rocks, but is a society which permits partial-birth abortions really any different, at a moral level, from the Spartan practice of leaving sickly babies to perish on windswept crags?

Similarly, we abhor Vladimir Putin’s totalitarian regime, which silences dissenters and tramples upon basic freedoms, yet we have no coherent response to our own internal crisis of confidence in freedom of speech, with the rise of the phenomenon of “no platforming”.

Set within this context, it is a little clearer why Europe is having such great difficulty in responding to the ongoing migrant crisis. It is not simply a question of numbers and access to services and benefits; at an emotional level, increasing numbers of Europeans understand that they do not have a sufficiently robust culture to assimilate large numbers of people who may be much stronger in their own cultural identity, and who may prove less willing to treat the public sphere as one big “safe space”.

What is needed, and urgently, is a conversation about what are our common positive values in the West, and it is essential that this impetus comes from the Church and from other faith communities. Part of our cultural settlement is the separation of Church and State, but we are not (yet) facing a crisis of government but of society, in which the Church can and must play a role as a coherent voice for life, for justice, and for freedom.

The secular refusal to acknowledge that society is built upon and influenced by such un-PC factors as religion, history, and nationality, and ignore the atomising effects of an unalloyed creed of tolerance and respect, has led to a doubling-down on faith in governmental structures and mechanisms, gradually expanding them until there is no longer such a thing as society, only democracy and the state.

The unwillingness to confront a lack of consensus on our basic values, and the misunderstanding of democracy as some kind of curative good in and of itself, is beginning to produce its deeply unpleasant harvest of confused populism across Europe and the United States.

Political debate removed from cultural consensus degenerates remarkably quickly, as we are seeing. It is clearly no longer enough for our cultural leaders, both in the Church and from elsewhere, to mouth the secular creed of tolerance and respect.

A creed is meant to be a positive affirmation of what “I believe”, and there is much that needs affirming in our society if it is to survive.

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