John Connelly

University of California, Berkeley
Candidate for Vice President (2022)/President (2023)

Candidate statement

John Conelly

My candidacy for this position may seem unusual as I was not trained in church history, let alone theology, and religious history has not been a main focus of my scholarship or teaching.  My first book was on universities under Communism, my most recent on East Europe’s political and social history.  In between was a study of Catholic theology toward the Jews and how it shifted after the Holocaust. My teaching has been mainly on European and East European political history, and more recently I have taught on fascism, democracy, and World War II.

In fact, however, religion and religiosity run through my superficially secular work, in particular religion’s capacity to maintain itself in the face of political and cultural secularization over the past two and a half centuries.

Poland has been a major battleground.  What stood out at Polish universities in the Communist period was the regime’s encounter with an entrenched opposing world view, Catholicism bolstered by a ferocious and self-confident Polish nationalism. Such a tradition was lacking in universities elsewhere in the Bloc.  But this was not a triumph of Catholic doctrine: important was Catholicism’s merger with a vital sense of identity; so powerful was the Catholic nationalist milieu that it attracted secular intellectuals as well: in the cause of Polish freedom, and human freedom.

That study led me to believe that progressive elements of the Polish church must have resisted the racism that spread through Europe a generation earlier, yet research in Polish sources showed that view to be mistaken. Instead I found that anti-racism among European Catholics stemmed from one particular group, Catholic converts, often from Judaism, situated in the German cultural world, men and women who supported not democracy but authoritarian rule (as an antidote to Nazism) and later became conservatives. A prime example was Dietrich von Hildebrand.

In my last book, an 800 page behemoth on East European history, religion is there from the beginning because my major protagonists – romantic nationalists like Jan Kollár – were pastors or at least theologians of some kind.  Even as Europe secularized it carried Christian ideas and inspirations forward, usually in a tense dialogue with socialists and liberals.  Where Catholics and socialists cooperated in our past century, the result was relatively stable democracy; when they divided , each seeing in the other an ultimate enemy, the result was often fascism, a collapse of civilization.  Europe’s progress since 1945 is built on the foundation of Christian-secular cooperation in the political center.

In a similar way, the religious catches up to a lecturer on Europe’s history in unexpected ways. My students in a course on European democracy thought in early weeks that it was a course on Church history: studies of Danish political scientists reveal not only that the division of powers goes back to a dispute over appointing bishops in the middle ages, but that notions of the need for consent of the governed can be traced to church councils after the twelfth century.  This was a far more important thread leading to our current understating of liberal democracy than the better know case of ancient Greece.

During the 1990s, Europeans argued whether Europe could be defined by Christian identity. Even secular moderates argued fiercely that it could not.  But when one tells the European story, one does not probe very far to see how there is no thinking about Europe without considering the Christian tradition woven into its past.  My own stance is not neutral, I like to think of the progress of the church as progress as such; the Second Vatican Council and its statements on freedom of conscience, tolerance and celebration of other faiths, constituted in the words of John Courtney Murray the “growing end of tradition.”

But that tradition has always benefitted and needed dialogue with the world; absent this dialogue conducted in a serious way the results in public life are cynicism, populism, demagoguery. If attempts to remove religion entirely from civic life come at a cost of civility, efforts to squash or ignore the voices of non-believers court a collapse of humanity.  The point is to seek a going together, a mutual pilgrimage, prodded by allies in Christian churches, (TG Masaryk), of non-Christian belief, or from beyond religion altogether (take a sympathetic and knowledgeable outsider like Adam Michnik). I would hope, if chosen, to guide the association  in that spirit. I would endeavor to keep alive a vital sense of the church mattering for the world, now and deep in the past, but also vice versa.