Last week, I discussed Walter Russell Mead’s interesting post on how the Greek crisis implicates the divide between the Eastern and Western Christian worlds. Here’s another reference to the religious implications of the eurozone crisis, in an essay by Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Ilves complains that northern countries have been trying for decades to be fiscally responsible. Now, he says, the EU is asking these countries, even relatively poor countries like Estonia, to fund transfer payments to profligate southern countries like Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. And when political leaders in the northern countries object, their counterparts in the rest of the eurozone accuse them of courting “populism,” which, in the European context, carries the connotation of fascism.
These accusations irritate Ilves, and he says so bluntly. In the course of his essay, he makes a startling religious reference. It’s only a quick reference in a long essay, with a subtle, almost dog-whistle quality. But I think it’s significant. Ilves draws on the image of the Protestant Reformation to explain the current eurozone crisis:
When we still talk about new and old members, we still talk nonsense about “populism” in all the wrong ways. Indeed I believe that the “populism” and the “specter of the 30s” that all kinds of pundits unknowledgeably appeal to has nothing to do with the populism we see in Northern Europe. That is not a populism of the dispossessed, the unemployed. It is a populism more akin to what Calvin and Luther appealed to than what the fascists of the 1930s appealed to. It is, like most populism, based on resentment, and resentment at unfairness. But the unfairness is, as it was in the 16th Century, a resentment of those who flaunt their flouting the rules by which others abide. Resentment on the part of those who take commitments seriously regarding those who do not: Is that the “specter of the 30s”?
It would be silly to ascribe the whole eurozone crisis to the different worldviews of Protestants and Catholics, and Ilves doesn’t do so. Some fiscally responsible countries that Ilves praises, like Austria and Poland, are historically Catholic. And, anyway, politics throughout Europe is quite secular, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. Still, one can’t help noticing that the “frugal” countries happen to be mostly northern and historically Protestant, and the “profligate” countries tend to be southern and historically Catholic (or Orthodox). Paging Max Weber! H/T: Rod Dreher.