Religion and the Struggle for European Union

Confessional Culture and the Limits of Integration

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Brent F. Nelsen, James L. Guth
Religion and Politics
  • Washington, DC: 
    Georgetown University Press
    , March
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This is a pre-Brexit book on the fate and future of the European Union [EU], yet the book is far from being outdated. Its topic and central thesis are even more impressive after Great Britain’s scarce referendum to leave the EU. Written by two renowned American political scientists, the book argues that religion, or more specific the difference between Roman Catholic and Protestant cultures across Europe, lies at the heart of the European integration process after 1945. Why did Europe not succeed in building up a “more perfect union” in recent years? Why did Europe stop short of becoming a fully-fledged nation-state-like democracy? According to Brent F. Nelsen and James L. Guth the “short answer is that it has thus far been unable to create a sense of community deep and broad enough to constitute a new European national identity. Why? Because at the heart of European Union there exists a cultural division rooted in the Reformation that to this day makes it difficult to forge a sense of community between Catholics and Protestants. Furthermore, the confessional cultures produced disputes over the appropriate extent and shape of integration that undermine any common “vision” for a united Europe” (25).

The book fleshes out this thesis and it does it in a most scholarly manner. Although the material tackled is complex, the authors provide the reader with a brilliantly written, easy to grasp narrative on the deeper roots of European politics in religious cultures and their consequences in the 21st century. The study never turns into an idiosyncratic historical endeavor. Although presenting many elusive details, the authors stay focused on their central thesis up to the last page.

This is not at least a fruit of the impressive first chapter. It starts from a thoughtful literature review on religion, societal integration, and European integration theories. Reaching back to the early studies of Karl Deutsch on making peace between former enemies and Emanuel Alder and Michael Barnett’s work on security communities, Nelsen and Guth develop an approach based on Antony Smith’s ethnosymbolism. In short, they argue that religious identities lay at the heart of all modern states. To them, identities are made of historical experiences and longstanding memories rooted in the beliefs, emotions, and passions of nations and people. Although identities can be shaped, political elites cannot reshape them arbitrarily. According to Nelsen and Guth, collective national identities are sticky entities evolving slowly over centuries.

This basic concept is used for Europe and the process of European integration. European collective identities are carrying a Christian heritage of roughly two thousand years. Most important, the Reformation and the confessional wars transformed Western Christianity into two distinct cultures separated by the split between Catholic and Protestant states. While Catholic territories kept a deep sense of being part of a transnational superstructure (the Roman Catholic church headed by the pope), Protestant states developed a political theology that allowed them to understand their members as a chosen people of God fulfilling a particular destiny in God’s plan of salvation. No transnational links of solidarity were needed to be a good Christian. The Protestant nation states confined freedom and belief to the borders of its sovereignty. Confessional cultures became paramount to European civilization (chapters 2 to 4). 

After 1945, the impetus to overcome belligerent nationalism was mainly Catholic—this is a well-known fact. Catholic politicians and Christian democratic parties constructed the foundations of the later EU (chapters 5 and 6). Protestants resisted (chapter 7). Even when joining the EU, Protestant states clearly preferred limited international cooperation to deeper European integration. The authors offer many historical details on Great Britain to underline this. Describing the role of political elites, political groups and the (missing) “European constituency” (chapters 8 to 10), the authors try to give evidence to their argument and central conclusion: “Protestant confessional culture helps us to understand why Protestants and the protestant-majority EU member states lack enthusiasm for the European project that has been embraced by most continental elites. Their national identities were forged in the fires of the Reformation” (341). In 2015, the authors could think of only two options left for the EU: it should have to accept either a slow disintegration (342) or the Protestant view of a purely intergovernmental form of integration (343).

The authors’ claims are provocative in many respects. Two of them must be addressed here. First, to attribute the most decisive influence on European integration to a difference of religious cultures laying beneath the well-known secularization of many European countries is to renounce a massive literature on EU integration ranging from federalists to functionalists and constructivists. This provocation is needed. Questions of identity, including religion, are of supreme importance to the future EU remaining the only realistic European peace project. Second, the claim of a confessional trap leaves room for only a dim future for the EU. Yet this conclusion does not hold according to the evidence presented. The EU crisis is not purely a confrontation between Catholic and Protestant cultures within Europe. Neither is it sufficient to declare EU-critical Poland and Ireland to be “outliers” (291), nor is it accurate to tackle Great Britain as intrinsically united by an anti-EU effect rooted in anti-Catholicism. (The EU has a strong majority in Protestant Scotland as well as in Greater London.) Hence, the core problem of European integration must be researched in a more multilayered fashion. Sentences like “the harder Brussels pushes for a new identity, the more the citizens of the Protestant-majority countries have difficulty feeling attached to Europe. Confessional culture makes all the difference” (325) clearly overstate the case. Yet, and very important to further research, Nelsen and Guth bring religion as a living heritage and culture back into the discussion of EU integration. There is theoretical inspiration and historical truth in their reading. Therefore this book is a great scholarly achievement. It will certainly inspire future interdisciplinary research on EU integration and the changes in identities needed to overcome Europe’s current stalemate.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Antonius Liedhegener is Professor of Politics and Religion at the Centre for Religion, Economy and Politics [ZRWP] at the University of Lucerne, Switzerland.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brent F. Nelsen is a professor of political science at Furman University. He is the coeditor of The European Union: Readings on the Theory and Practice of Integration and editor of Norway and the European Community

James L. Guth is William Rand Kenan, Jr. professor of political science, Furman University. He is the coeditor of The Oxford Handbook of Religion and American Politicswith Corwin E. Smidt and Lyman A. Kellstedt.


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