Former president of the Italian Senate Marcello Pera makes no bones about it—Western culture is in danger of collapsing if it denies its Christian heritage. And he’s not even a true believer in the religion. 

We talked with Pera at his home in Italy about the debut of Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians: The Religious Roots of Free Societies. Here, he talks about Christianity’s role in the formation of modern liberal cultures and how Europe—and the United States—would do well to heed his dire warnings. 

Read more about following Mother Teresa in 'An Unquenchable Thirst.'

Isn’t it a bit incongruent to have an agnostic professing Christianity’s importance to the West?

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The existence of God cannot be proven in the ordinary, scientific, rational sense of “proof,” but it cannot be disproved either. It is a question of faith. You believe because that gives sense to your life, because you need it, because you think there is something beyond earthly life. Reason can neither compel you to have such feelings, nor to conclude they are meaningless.

Said that, I cannot even affirm I am a true believer, simply because I do not know. Let’s say I have a faith and let’s keep undecided what sort of faith. This does not prevent me from promoting Christianity. Kant maintained that Christianity is the best vehicle of morality and civilization. I do believe the same. A distinction here is fundamental: one may be a Christian by faith, that is by believing and having personal experience in the Christian God, and a Christian by culture, that is by thinking that Christian values are the most suited to our life. My case is certainly the latter. As for the former, I keep silent and I continue to interrogate myself.

In what specific ways will the West suffer if it does not heed your advice? 

The West—the culture of the West—has been shaped by Christianity to such an extent that it cannot be explained without it. Our fundamental liberties and rights, that is what nowadays we take as the most distinctive tenets of Western civilization, are both historically and conceptually linked to Christianity, more precisely to the Judeo-Christian view that man is the image of God and has been “endowed” of certain gifts by God.

This was the view of Locke, Kant, the American Fathers, Tocqueville and many others. I do believe that if we deny this view or if we “detach” it from its religious sources, the West is doomed to face a crisis of identity. Who are we? If we cannot answer that we are those shaped by Judeo-Christianity, we cannot even answer to the other question—what do we stand for?

Where does that leave members of the West who adhere to faiths other than Christianity?

Religious freedom is out of question. Even the Catholic Church now preaches it. One may be a good citizen in any Western, liberal, democratic country and believe in any God or in no God. But the point is that one cannot be a good citizen of the West if one does not believe in the dignity of the person, any person, in the moral primacy of the individual, in the respect of others, in the tolerance of different views.

Here the distinction between “Christian by faith” and “Christian by culture” is helpful. To be a member of the West one needs to profess such values. If it is true that they have been introduced or justified in Judeo-Christian terms and are linked to Judeo-Christianity, then to be a member of the West one needs to accept the cultural core of Judeo-Christianity.

To people of different cultures coming to Western countries I do not ask for a religious conversion, I simply ask for a cultural conversion. In different terms, this is what our politicians actually mean when they say that everybody must accept “certain fundamental principles and values.”

In what ways should the West “profess” its Christianity? 

We do not have to be Christian believers. We do not have to be members of Christian churches. These are personal questions that must be left to our free individual consciences. We must profess those fundamental principles that are now written in our constitutions and charters and that belong to the Judeo-Christian culture and tradition. 

The rise of right-wing religion already alarms many in the United States. Don’t we have to worry about Christo-fascism?

That is a novel notion for me. I hate fascism as much as I hate Nazism, communism, anti-Semitism, and I oppose any merging of Christian faith with such secular, mostly pagan, ideologies.

What impact do you think your book will have on American readers?

My book was published in Italy in 2008. Pope Benedict XVI made me the exceptional gift of writing a preface. The book has been translated into Spanish, German, French, Croatian. I made several corrections and additions for the American edition, and I wrote a new introduction. What I can say is that since its very beginning the book was conceived with the American audience in mind.

In Europe it is getting more and more difficult to speak about religion. The prevailing secularist ideology, the infamous politically correct language used by cultural elites, the fear of a “clash of civilizations,” the poor spiritual situation of the continent, the guilt syndrome intellectuals and politicians are affected by, are obstacles that are not easy to bypass.

I admire America for both personal and cultural reasons, but as I write in the introduction now the house is catching fire not only in Europe but in America as well. That is why I am curious about the reception of my book.