What’s so secular about Europe?

A subtext of Mitt Romney’s speech about religion and American politics could have been, “we aren’t like those Europeans.” Another denigration of “Old Europe” gone awry, no longer relevant in the contemporary world. Roger Cohen, at least, took issue with Romney’s comparison of American religiosity and European secularism:

“Religiosity now seems at least as important for public office as leadership qualities,” said Karl Kaiser, a German political scientist. “The entrance condition for the American presidential race is being religious. If you’re not, you have no chance, which troubles Europeans.”

Of course, the us heritage of which Romney spoke is real. The Puritans’ vision of America as “a city upon a hill” was based on a covenant with God. As the Bill of Rights was formulated, George Washington alluded in his Thanksgiving Proclamation to “that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”

Religion informed America’s birth. But its distancing from politics was decisive to the republic’s success. Indeed, the devastating European experience of religious war influenced the founders’ thinking. That is why I find Romney’s speech and the society it reflects far more troubling than Europe’s vacant cathedrals.

Romney allows no place in the United States for atheists. He opines that, “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” Yet secular Sweden is free while religious Iran is not. Buddhism, among other great Oriental religions, is forgotten.

He shows a Wikipedia-level appreciation of other religions, admiring “the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims” and “the ancient traditions of the Jews.” These vapid nostrums suggest his innermost conviction of America’s true faith. A devout Christian vision emerges of a U.S. society that is in fact increasingly diverse.

Romney rejects the “religion of secularism,” of which Europe tends to be proud. But he should consider that Washington is well worth a Mass. The fires of the Reformation that reduced St. Andrews Cathedral to ruin are fires of faith that endure in different, but no less explosive, forms. Jefferson’s “wall of separation” must be restored if those who would destroy the West’s Enlightenment values are to be defeated.

Unfortunately, both Romney and Cohen missed the meaning of European secularism. Romney sees only the battle in the square–does religion belong in politics, must the state work to produce a religion-free public sphere, what role should education ascribe to religion in discussing the roots of American civilization, etc.? These terms are narrow, partisan, and ultimately relevant only to American politics. Cohen validates this misconception.

France, Germany and other nations had similarly contentious debates during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Needless to say, the effort to produce state-supported ethics separate from Christian morality, as Hegel desired was not entirely successful. Indeed, the debate itself undermined the process. The secularization that occurred, though, was not the wresting of politics, society and culture from Christianity, but the wresting of the state from the churches. As much as the clergy lost their voice in the life of the state, religiously-minded individuals positioned themselves in politics. Geez, the Queen is still the head of the Anglican Church, and poor Tony Blair can’t seem to convert.

Clearly, European politics cannot be called secular. Almost every state has a strong Christian Democratic party that, generally, represents the center-right within the spectrum. The successes of Merkel and Sarkozy in recent elections suggests that the desire to conduct politics within the spirit of religion is far from discredited. However, neither of them is as religious as the social conservatives in the Republican party (and perhaps some of the Democrats running for president). In several state, citizens are compelled to support religious institutions of their choice through taxation. Of course, the Poles continue to credit their resistance to Communism and Soviet domination to the Catholic Church.

Europe’s secularism must be seen in the context of post-war history. Rather than enforcing a harsh division between Church and State, a soft landing was achieved. Christianity became less important in the construction of national identity. Christian values related to social welfare gained acceptance. Politicians built parties that were independent of theological politics, allowing them to become mass parties rather than just representatives of interest groups and minorities. Romney might be unhappy to learn that ‘socialism’ in Germany and Austria was the product of Catholics interested in social reform.

The bigger question, though, is whether Europe can be distanced from Christianity. The Papacy’s campaign to canonize Robert Schuman (which failed without evidence of a miracle) reveals a polemic that is difficult to dismiss. Specifically, John Paul II wanted to connect the Church as an institution to the process of European integration, which was something of a reach. However, pious individuals have been strong voices in the advancing of integration since the European Coal and Steel Community. The character of Schuman has been one of the Church’s strongest cards.

Immigration has become the major test of Europe’s secularism. The increasing presence of Muslim in the public sphere has challenged citizens and governments to define the meaning of secularism. “Super mosques”, honor killings, plural marriage, headscarves, language, etc., test the extent to which religious expression is tolerated. Some are easy to proscribe. Others, like headscarves, can be claimed as important symbols of expression and identity central to Islam, even though the wider public regards them as symbols of liberty undermined. Tensions over Islam show one thing: Europe’s secularism is built on an assumed, internalized Christianity.

Europe’s secularism is what it is … another institution that can only be known in itself. It internalizes religion, rejecting the institutions of faith but institutionalizing its spirit. Freedom may not require religion, but in Europe, they are allies.

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