For years we’ve been told that Europe is secular—postmodern, godless, and even indifferent to religion. I never bought the narrative. To me the post-World War II rejection of religion was just another variation of the hedonism that followed World War I. In both cases religious identity remained even as personal faith was jettisoned. The Clinton era Balkan War should have proved that point. Narrow religious identity can be politically and socially murderous.
One of the most inexplicable events of modern times was the recent march of tens of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees into the European Union. Even today we do not really know who they were. Early on at least 500,000 Christian Syrian refugees sought shelter at one camp in Jordan. They don’t seem to have left for Europe. All we know for sure are several rather sobering facts about the people stream. First, in spite of truly touching photos of drowned children, the group was made up of an inordinate number of military-age young men. Second, ISIS gloated publicly that this was in effect an invasion. Third, not unsurprisingly, conflict immediately arose as the groups settled in the European heartland—conflict over Sharia Law.
Then the killings began. I barely have space to enumerate horrific butchery in places like Paris, Nice, and Munich. And mirroring the well-planned operations is a growing number of “random” acts in which an ax-wielding crazy suddenly begins chopping up people. They call it terror.
I wonder if it is not something worse. I wonder if this is not the erasing of the social contract.
It’s not something you read of in the newspapers, even though every college student has some exposure to the principle.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) lived through the English civil war that saw a king who claimed a divine right to rule executed as a criminal and democratic process subsumed beneath a religious mandate. No wonder this philosopher tended to see the natural state of society as war. It would not be inappropriate to say that we are heading toward a “Hobbesian” state of affairs in the pejorative sense. For Hobbes the answer to amoral self-interest was a social contract designed to protect all against the other and empower the state to enforce the contract for “the common good.” The term is not his, but in its modern proposal I think veers toward his logic in favoring the group rather than the individual once the contract is in place.
The term “social contract” is more closely used with Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) an Enlightenment philosopher who also tackled the idea of self-rule and the group. As expected for a Frenchman on the eve of the French Revolution, he objected to the tyranny of the state. But government was necessary and ideally should come from submission of individual will by agreement to the collective or general will. Curiously he saw private property as almost the original sin, which led to greed and coercion and inequality.
For Americans the views of John Locke (1632-1704) are of more than passing interest, as it was largely his ideas that influenced Jefferson and others and lay behind the American Republican initiative. Locke saw the natural state of man as free because of the “law of nature” and the Creator behind the principle. It was from Locke that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution derived their views on natural rights and a fixation on property. For him, the natural rights were given over to the state, which would have no rights otherwise.
All three allow for a social contract, even as various modern systems favor one variant of their logic or the other. Absent the king, with his claims of divine right; and absent the dictator or despotic system that rules by might alone, these variants must be looked at when thinking of society, laws, and freedom—even religious freedom.
The newspaper headlines speak in the tropes of banality and grade school expectations so you may not have noticed what some of the thinkers of the age have murmured about lately. Many of them see in recent geopolitical developments the end of the modern nation state, which was essentially an outgrowth of the Treaty of Westphalia.
As the Protestant Reformation gathered steam it created fractures in the political structure. The Holy Roman Empire was a self-conscious empire of greater Germany, which owed its legitimacy to Rome. Beyond it lay various princelings and city-states and nationalist groupings, which generally existed under the blessing of a Papal mandate. As the Empire split and various regions turned Protestant and often nationalistic, there was an outbreak of wars that became known as the Thirty Years’ War. It was as vicious a period in European history as any recorded.
Finally, in 1644, representatives from 194 states met to end the hostilities. Four years later they settled. Protestant nations emerged as recognized powers. And, arguably, the modern state was born. Sovereign rights and protections were codified.
Fast-forward to 2016, and what do we have? Europe has played a dangerous experiment in subsuming national identities into a European Union. The Middle East is in flames and borders are no longer sacrosanct, since the will to abide by them is denied by both populations and the armies of drones or mercenaries that harass them. In the United States the elephantine logic of martial law shadows every further shooting by law enforcement or of law officers. The social contract is up for revision.
And now the wild card again. Even as the social contract is questioned by restive populations. Even as mobs yell out the truism that all lives matter and fear that they don’t. Even as think tank manipulators seek political vehicles to implement their post-Wesphalian vision. Even as social mores are in the toilet literally. Even as these things happen, we are faced with a global agitation by Islamists to insert Sharia into even Western systems. My point is that this is not just a rude call to impose a particular religious legal system, but a direct challenge to Western views of separation of church and state and the ideal of a secular state. It is a direct attempt to roll back to before Westphalia and create a multifront war against other religious forces. And it all rides on the breakdown of how the social contract is understood and implemented.
You and I can’t afford to be against Islam or any other faith construct, no matter how provocative or confrontational it may be. It is make or break to holding back the new dark ages that we continue to allow individual conscience rights.
You and I must work to reestablish the social contracts that in the West have not just contributed to religious freedom, but have made it possible.
In countering Sharia calls in places like London and Detroit, we must be adamant that it is unacceptable not because it is Islamic but because it is arbitrary and opposed to our social contract, enshrined in a Constitution and precious to a freedom-loving people.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."