Clergy are colliding with Christian soldiers across Europe

ALICE WEIDEL, champion of the Eurosceptic German right, claims that her Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is the only really Christian political group in the country. The much larger Christian Democratic Union has betrayed its own name by failing to defend the nation’s religious and cultural heritage, in her impassioned view.

In London, a former leader of the UK Independence Party, Lord Pearson, denounces the political establishment for giving in to politically correct definitions of equality and hate speech: soon, he fears, it will be illegal to assert the divinity of Jesus Christ. And in Italy, the regional nationalists of the Northern League are up in arms over the fact that a prime location in the Florence region has been made available for the construction of a mosque.

Across Europe, parties on the political right and far-right are talking the language of Christian nativism. But in many cases their strongest adversaries include the clergy and bishops of the continent’s Christian churches, whose political pronouncements on matters like welfare and migration generally hew to the centre-left.

This makes for some peculiar standoffs. Last year, when the AfD began rallying in the German city of Erfurt, the local Catholic bishop Ulrich Neymeyr said he would switch off the lights of the cathedral, because the party had ideas which were incompatible with Christianity and it did not deserve such a fine backdrop.

An Anglican bishop, Pete Broadbent, once dismissed UKIP has “a vacuous...blot on the political landscape”. There was dismay in mainstream English church circles over a leaflet circulated at this year’s UKIP conference. Penned by a hard-line Christian faction, it accused supporters of the European Union of “spiritual treason”. (The party did not endorse the tract but said it was entitled to an airing.)

And in the Italian case, the prime adversary of Northern League politicians is precisely the lily-livered (as they see it) leadership of the Catholic church, which handed over part of its own land for an Islamic place of worship. As the League’s Florentine branch thundered, this was a “tragically grotesque” action by a church which in better days had guarded the gates of Christian Vienna against the Ottoman hordes.

It’s not only the far-right which rubs up against clerical leftism. There are figures on Europe’s centre-right which profess exasperation over the socialist leanings of Christianity’s robed representatives. Britain's Conservative government has clashed with the Church of England over welfare reform and food poverty. Its leader, Archbishop Justin Welby, while endorsing no party, has called for greater care for the homeless and economically inactive.

The editor of Die Welt, the voice of respectable German conservatism, made waves this Christmas by grumbling that Nativity sermons sounded little better than propaganda statements by young Socialists or Greens. A cardinal in the eastern city of Görlitz duly chimed in with a festal homily that denounced the “capitalist thinking” behind the planned closure of a factory.

France offers both confirmation of, and an important exception to, this general pattern. In many elections since 1985, the country’s Catholic bishops have warned people not to vote for the Front National (FN), despite that party's claim to be a guardian of traditional French culture.

But not in this year’s presidential ballot: the Catholic leadership made general warnings against selfish and introverted attitudes, but stopped well short of telling people where to cast their ballots. That was in contrast to the country’s Protestant, Muslim and Jewish leaders, all of whom urged people not to back the Front. In the event the FN candidate Marine Le Pen took a slightly higher share (38%) among practising Catholics than in the country as a whole (34%). One bishop is reported to have said that if he opposed the FN, he would be going against half his flock. Still, some individual bishops made known their anti-Front feelings.

There are good historic reasons why Europe’s clerics are averse to the political right and inclined to lean in the other direction. Although certain priests, like Germany's Dietrich Bonhöffer, opposed fascism with supreme courage, today’s clergy are still somewhat haunted by the memory of right-wing predecessors (for example, under the collaborationist Vichy regime in France) who gave comfort to, or failed to oppose, totalitarianism. England's state church wants to shake off its former image as "the Conservative Party at prayer".

It’s probably a fair generalisation that most European church-goers are a lot more moderate and sensible than the far-rightists who are trying to woo them, but also stand a bit to the right of their own clergy and bishops. (In England, practising Anglicans are disproportionately Tory, while Catholics lean toward Labour.) The longer-term challenge for Europe’s historically preponderant faith is to find a language which asserts its right to exist, even in locations where it is now an unpopular minority, but does not demand any unearned privileges.

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