Secular Europe, Religious America: Religion, Politics, and the Transatlantic Divide


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Session One

Hon. Mickey Edwards

The root causes for the complex tensions between the United States and Europe seem to be summed up in a fundamental problem: Europe is secular; America is religious. Is this true?

This statement is overly simplistic. What seems to be more appropriate is to say that religion has lost much of its former standing in Europe, whereas it continues to enjoy the same influence and status in the United States. America's religion and piety did not start with Bush's or with Clinton's presidencies. America's piety is not identical with any political party or ideological orientation. The US seems much the same, in terms of religiosity, as it was in Tocqueville's time.

Looking at it from a historical point of view, it is clear that the United States and Europe evolved in completely different ways. If you look at the history of religion in Europe, you are confronted with negative historical events, such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, and pogroms. America, in contrast, does not have such a history. For centuries, Europe saw what could happen when a faith or when religion in general, of whatever denomination, becomes too dominant. On the other hand, from the beginning, America has been based on the principle of liberty, which was the attraction for all immigrants. America was based on freedom in every respect, but above all freedom from those bloody battles in the name of religion, which almost seemed to represent what was normal in Europe. Unlike Europe, America, a supremely religious country, never had an official national religion.

Are America and Europe then two completely different civilizations? Not quite. America itself is split, from a religious-cum-political point of view, into "red," traditionally religious, Republican states, and a "blue," Europe-like Democratic America with a comparatively weak religious identification. Religious conservatives in the red states do not see themselves as imposing values on the country but as preserving them under secularist siege. The religious impulse in American politics today emphasizes moral rectitude, not compassion, although Bush has tried to change this.

Values voters play a crucial role in Republican electoral success. In the poorest states, which vote Republican, voters like Democratic economic policies, but they vote for Republicans because they believe they better reflect their moral values. How did this shift occur? About twenty–five years ago, conservative activists founded organizations, such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, to mobilize Democrats whom they believed could be alienated from the Democratic Party. This was a successful strategy. It resulted not only in a strengthening of the Republican Party, but also in the fact that candidates for any political office today are under great pressure not to disappoint the voters of this bloc.

Europe views America as radical with respect to religion. Yet, the differentiation of America-as-religious versus Europe-as-secular is too stark, if not just plain wrong. If you look at the fundamental values on which Europe and America are based, they are similar if not the same: Democracy, liberty, social justice, the inclusion of minorities; all these values and beliefs are shared, so there is no reason for such a radical differentiation between America and Europe.

Ministerpräsident a.D. Erwin Teufel

During his political career, former Minister President Erwin Teufel was frequently asked what made him go into politics. Looking back, he thinks it was basically two decisive factors: his studies of the resistance movement during the Third Reich, starting as a young student in secondary school; and his involvement in working with young people in the Catholic Church.

One crucial conclusion resulting from his studies has remained his firm belief: that you have to be actively engaged if you do not want the ungodly policies of the Nazi era of 1933–39 to be repeated.

As chairman of the Kreisjugendring (local youth group), he learned to understand early on how important organizational and rhetorical skills are, and because of his position he almost automatically got involved in politics. At the age of seventeen he became a member of the CSU youth organization, Junge Union, and at the age of twenty–five he was elected as the youngest mayor in Germany.

Regarding politics and political activity he has always been firmly convinced that politics starts by looking at what is real. If you want to change reality, you need to observe reality with extreme acuity while approaching it with a keen intellect, an open heart, and with no prejudice towards those observed. All human beings must be seen as equals. You must not despise or neglect their desires, needs, opinions, problems, fears, and hopes. You must not be arrogant but must understand the point of view of the other. Only this approach to looking at the world, combined with appropriate knowledge and skills, can result in sound judgment and proper action.

What are the links between politics and religion? In answering this question Teufel gave insights into his own career as a politician and his life as a practicing Christian. His membership in the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) is based on his deep faith. The C of CDU stands for Christian and is no mere title, but represents great responsibility. It is an additional obligation for everyone to take being a Christian seriously (and that should mean every party member). It is a responsibility not only vis–à–vis human beings but ultimately vis–à–vis God.

In his statement Teufel then raised the question, whether there actually is something like Christian politics. It is Teufel's opinion that there is no such thing as Christian politics; yet there are policies that are un-Christian; there are policies by Christians; and there are policies based on Christian ideology.

The New Testament is neither a political guidebook nor a political or general philosophy. It is a book filled with Christian values, addressed not only to Christians but to all of mankind.

Politics of an un-Christian nature sacrifices the human element; reduces man to a means towards an end; kills; enslaves; and treats man as an object. Politics by Christians is a form of policy where the politicians, although fully aware of their shortcomings and imperfections, strive, nevertheless, to lead their lives in accordance with the Gospel. They know of their responsibility for their acts towards their fellow man and towards God.

This belief is fundamentally based on the conviction that every human being is God's creation, and every one of us is on his way to God.

Man possesses an inalienable and unchanging dignity. John F. Kennedy once put it like this: "Human beings do not get their dignity from the state but directly from God. Human dignity is owed to every man; it is there at the beginning and the end of every life. Everyone has the right to live, to be educated, and to take part in public life, which includes having his basic needs met."

The Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once stated it as follows: "Gemeinde ist nur dann Gemeinde Christi wenn sie Gemeinde für andere ist", (A community is only a community in Christ if it is a community for others). Love of God and love for human beings are the essence of the two Testaments. Christians have a mission in this world to act humanely and to respect all forms of life. The Christian faith is a faith present in this world and throughout history, but it does not end in this world since there is something "more."

A Christian nation is ideologically and religiously neutral. The fundamental values and beliefs for people living in such a nation are the prerequisites that cannot be created by such a nation itself, as Böckenförde stated. The nation lives on the basis of prerequisites found in religion.

How does such a nation act vis–à–vis the church? In France we still have a strict separation of church and state. There is no room for God in the constitution. The USA is the classical example of a country with a "benign separation," as Professor Meier of Munich put it. In Germany you have a situation of mutual interaction and interconnectedness in spite of, and in addition to, fundamental separation. As Bonhoeffer sees it: the state is responsible for the penultimate questions of human beings, the church for the ultimate ones. Yet, there are many interconnections. The church is responsible for education in denominational schools and for religious instruction in all [public and private] schools; religious instruction being a subject like any other in the curriculum. There are church youth groups and youth centers, adult education, and theology departments at public universities. The government collects church taxes and pays priests their salaries. Overall, it can be said that there simultaneously is identification with and distance from each other, and also separation and mutual interdependence.

The government is responsible for the commonweal in an ever more globalized world. So you can not stop at your own state or national borders, but you must broaden your field of view, especially when confronted with problems such as hunger, poverty, and injustice. This is a mission both for the government and also for religion. Many people today live in fear and under stress, have worry and concern for their daily bread, their job. They suffer pain and addiction, and are scared of life and scared of death. For this very reason, the nation needs religion; religion is a true affirmation of life.

Professor Wilfred McClay

During the twentieth century we have been faced with the unexpected longevity, the growing perseverance, and diversity of religious faiths and religiosity in America. Traditionalism and religion are in full bloom. Religion, which had been expected to continue to exist in the private sphere only, has become an important component of public life.

The conventional wisdom had it that modernization leads to secularization. Almost as a logical consequence it causes religion to disappear (at least from public life) to the benefit of rationality and progress; supernaturalism is dismissed as childish superstition. Yet, this secularization does not seem to have gained firm ground in America. Religion continues to be present, probably because the alternative secular substitutes are not able to replace religion in the ethical and spiritual realms of human life with all its needs. Yet, there are areas in America where religion is barely present any longer, such as in the curricula of most high schools. The standard version of how American history is described is as follows: the history of liberty is the history of the victory of reason over irrationality. Does this refer to religion as it is defined in the European (and especially the French and German) sense? During the Enlightenment this ideal was favored, especially by France but also by some Americans. America is currently a battleground to determine the meaning and interpretation of the First Amendment of the American Constitution, which shows the essential importance of religion for public life.

As the best analyst of religion and American culture, Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, in contrast to France (and large parts of Europe), freedom and religion work hand in hand in America and are not contradictions. Tocqueville held that religion balanced pure self-interest and contributed to "self-interest rightly understood." Religious faith, because it is entirely voluntary in America, supports and sustains institutions instead of undermining them or being buried by them. Freedom supports religion by declaring it to be voluntary, and religion supports freedom by strengthening the ethics and values necessary to sustain it.

This is the American version of secularization, which is so diametrically different from the European one, because it does not oppose religion as something irrational. The American understanding of secularization is not simple, but ultimately it supports a capacious pluralist liberalism more effectively than a hard core secularism does.

Professor Michael Zöller

As Professor McClay's presentation already showed, the concepts and manifestations of secularization and modernization are a rather inadequate model to explain the current status and influence of religion. If it were a suitable and convincing model, America and Europe would not have evolved so completely differently in terms of religion and modernization. Today we see two forms of religion:

  • Political theology or, using a different term for it, "fundamentalism". This form of religion tries to achieve or compel social cohesion by means of tradition and religion. This is a type of community which inevitably excludes anyone who does not want to belong to it or is unable to do so—a radical, exclusive model of religion.
  • Private faith or civil religion. In contrast to political religion, this model is inclusive. Rousseau wanted to keep it as simple as possible. If one looks at the form(s) of private religion in our time, the question remains whether Rousseau's expectations were or can be fulfilled.

American religion has always been friendly towards other religions. In America there is a lively religious atmosphere in which individual denominations often compete with each other. It is due to this situation that religious faiths and religiosity have survived in the United States. Civil religion was always able to develop its full capacity in this form.

Germany on the other hand is characterized by the bipolarity of the official churches, a two-pronged system which manifests itself primarily in the negative development of opposition and dropping out (Albert Hirschmann). Anyone who is unable or no longer able to find favor with one of the two official churches simply drops out by leaving the church altogether. In America this is not necessary; you can simply switch to a different denomination.

Germany is (currently) experiencing the full effect of the negative aspects of its right to freedom of religion, which was never more clearly expressed than in the Augsburger Religionsfrieden (Augsburg religious peace agreement): "cuius regio eius religio" ["whose the region, his the religion"]. This principle results in an external competition of the two internally unified churches, competing externally while having internal unity (the actual [theological] differences between the two faiths are not great enough to offer an appreciable and viable alternative when a person drops out of one of them, so that a complete rejection of religion is the result). Margeret Anderson once described this competitive situation and isolation with respect to Catholicism as follows: the Catholics are seeking refuge in their tower.

This bipolar situation of mutual exclusion results in both churches knowing exactly who they are and who the others are, a phenomenon that later was used by the Nazi regime to its advantage.

There has always been a very strong Catholic (and also Protestant) immunity to anything different, non-inherent, even long before World War II. Each church was strong within its borders and on its territory, and within Germany there was a strong presence, especially with regard to Catholicism.

Political reality has changed completely after the Second World War. Secularization has reached a degree not foreseen by anyone. The Catholic and Protestant churches have continuously been losing members and have very few actively engaged people today. If you look at a German map of the distribution of religious faiths within Germany, you find that cuius regio eius religio still seems to be valid (especially in the Catholic south and Protestant north of the country); but these are only numbers on paper and do not really represent the actual engagement and religious commitment and faith of the people represented by these statistics.

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