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Coin of the Realm

Jul 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 40 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Scrapbook tends to avoid inductive reasoning—that is, drawing a general conclusion from specific examples—because any good polemicist can cherry-pick his anecdotes. But some recent tidings from Bratislava, in Slovakia, have tempted us to wander down Inductive Lane.

Coin!

It was, in fact, a story in the New York Times last week that caught our attention. Slovakia, which is a member of the European Union, is about to mint some commemorative euro coins, and had sent along design samples to Brussels for approval. That’s where the Times story comes in: “It .  .  . came as a rude surprise when, late last year, the National Bank of Slovakia announced that the European Commission, the union’s executive arm, had ordered it to remove halos and crosses” from the coins because their reference to Christianity was too explicit. The coins, designed by a Slovak artist, show stylized images of two Byzantine evangelist-monks, Cyril and Methodius. 

This order was especially galling to Slovakia, which is largely Roman Catholic, since the event the euros are intended to commemorate is the 1,150th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in that country. But it is also worth noting that the order to remove the crosses and halos came not from the infamous EU bureaucracy in Brussels—which has issued its share of tin-eared demands—but from rigidly secular member-states, notably France, where the Slovak euros would be legal tender.

In the end, we are pleased to report, the government of Slovakia stuck to its guns, the EU conceded, and those commemorative euros with halos and crosses, Methodius and Cyril, will soon be minted and circulating (we hope) in large numbers all over Europe. The Scrapbook says this not because we are members of Team Christianity, but because this episode symbolizes a problem, perhaps an insoluble problem, at the heart of European unity. 

It is true, as many point out, that religious faith in general, and Christianity in particular, is in retreat in Europe. It is also true that Europe, for good or ill, is home to large numbers of Muslims, as well as lapsed Christians and nonbelievers. But Europe now faces a dilemma that has, so to speak, bedeviled the United States for decades: how to reconcile a secular state with its religious background and the beliefs of citizens. For it is impossible to separate Christianity from the history of European civilization—and while faith may be quiescent in France and Germany and the Netherlands, it is very much alive in those parts of Central and Eastern Europe (Slovakia, for example) which languished for decades under atheist regimes.

Here in America, unfortunately, courts and school boards and city councils and federal agencies have mastered the balancing act by restricting religious observance and symbolism to the private sphere—in effect, offending a likely majority of citizens to avoid offending one theoretical citizen, who may or may not be offended. The result has been scattered defiance, and a clash of cultures that shows no signs of abating. Nor is there any reason to suppose that this cannot occur in Europe as well, where the quest for political and economic unity has revealed a fracture between Christian and post-Christian societies, and states and bureaucracies are equally ham-handed. 

A commemorative coin minted in Bratislava is a trivial thing in itself. But there is an irony in the fact that one unifying element in the history of Europe is now, through no fault of its own, a divisive factor, which may undermine the whole enterprise.

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