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


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Session Two

Professor Barry Kosmin

Professor Kosmin presented the results of an opinion poll in the United States and Europe, which tries to show the relationship regarding the secular and religious Europe versus the secular and religious America.

The participants were asked the following three questions:
  1. In your opinion, to what extent should religious leaders influence political events or should they have and/or exercise no influence whatsoever?
  2. How important is religion in your life?
  3. What is your image of God? How would you describe your image of God?

After analysis of the poll results, the most noticeable extremes in the answers to most questions were found to exist between the United States and France. Therefore, Professor Kosmin elaborated on these positions.

France in contrast to the United States quite clearly expressed its objection to any influence by religious leaders on political events, whereas the United States considered such influence largely as positive and necessary. It is not surprising therefore that a large portion of those polled in the United States consider religion to be important for their life, whereas this number was very low in France, with Germany being somewhere in the middle between these two positions. Of 100 percent of those polled only 2 percent in the United States did not believe in a personal God, while it was 19 percent in France. The conviction that there is a God is held by 70 percent of the Americans but only by 24 percent of the French. An additional interesting result relates to the affirmation of the belief in a higher power but not in a personal God: an opinion found among 11 percent of the Americans, 14 percent of the French, 33 percent of the Germans, and 8 percent of the Italians.

To allow for a better understanding and analysis of these results, Professor Kosmin continued his lecture by elaborating on the gender and age structures represented in these figures, since both the age factor and the sex of poll participants are often decisive, especially on religious issues for a proper understanding of the results (often much more than the actual substance of a faith).

On question one: In all polled countries, male poll participants responded considerably more negatively regarding any religious influence on political affairs, whereas female poll participants seemed to tolerate such an influence. An exception here was Great Britain.

On question two: In the United States, 75 percent of polled women said that religion was of essential importance in their personal life, while it was only about 49 percent of polled men. Only 4 percent of polled women attribute no importance to religion in their life; 10 percent of men in the United States share that position.

On question three: An overwhelming majority of polled women professed their faith in God, be it as a belief in a personal God or in the mere fact that God exists. The belief in a higher power but not in a personal God was about equally represented among male and female poll participants (especially in Germany).

Summarizing the results for the age structure it can be said that large numbers of all age groups in the United States, but especially the age group of over sixty-five years, advocated religious life and welcomed religious influence on politics, whatever form it may take. In Italy this influence seems to be tolerated more by the younger generation, whereas all age groups in France were found to have strong resistance to such an influence.

The last group of poll participants examined in greater detail by Professor Kosmin were the [Roman] Catholics; since 24 percent of the population in the USA, and 71 percent in France are [Roman] Catholic, which again represents the two ends of the spectrum of countries polled.

In the United States, Catholics appear to be slightly more tolerant in comparison to the other polled countries with respect to any religious influence on politics. As regards to the importance of religion, a majority of Catholics in France consider their religion not to be important at all; they would not even call themselves religious. Whereas the majority of Catholics in the United States consider their religion to be important and decisive for their life.

In summary, a general conclusion from these poll results can be drawn that secularization in large parts of Europe seems to be progressing; whereas the United States represents a movement in the opposite direction.

Professor John Green

In his lecture Professor Green explained some aspects of American religiosity in light of the fact that religious faith represents an important link to politics and the understanding of politics. As outlined in the earlier lectures, the United States is an unusual country of exceptional religious faith, on the one hand, and of extreme modernity and modernization, on the other hand, a paradox which exists only in the United States. The United States is undoubtedly a religiously pluralistic country. If you look at the United States within the context of other nations, it is easy to determine that America has the highest number of firm believers of any faith. Religion as an important factor in their life can be found among 59 percent of the Americans, followed by Canadians at 33 percent, Germany at 21 percent, and France at 11 percent. But if you look at the so-called developing countries, you find much greater percentages. In Pakistan, for example, the percentage of the population who consider religion to be essential for their life is 91 percent; in Indonesia it is even 95 percent. In comparison to these countries, America almost looks like a "developing country." How are these figures achieved and to what extent does the type of religious faith found in American society differ from that found in the other "developing countries"?

The United States is a country in which religion is not only of great importance for a majority of the population, but also one in which there are as many faithful among the wealthier social classes as there are in the lower and middle classes. Thus, America combines two factors. Wealth and great importance of religion, which makes it fundamentally different from the developing countries mentioned earlier. Religion is no escape or sole ray of hope within an otherwise hard daily life, as one might assume it to be in the poorer countries.

In addition, only 15 percent of the population in the United States do not belong to a church or religious community. The main denominations are: evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, and ethnic Protestants. In addition, there are many other faiths, such as, for example, different variants of Catholicism (black, white, Latino), additional Christian denominations, other faiths, and not least Judaism. Hence, the United States has an immense diversity in the realm of religion. Often Europe is aware only of the largest of these groups, the evangelical Protestants, since this is the community frequently of great concern to Europeans because of its often evident religious radicalism, such as for example during the last presidential elections in 2004.

By looking at the religious affiliation of Americans, it is possible to draw some conclusions regarding political life. In general, the more traditional denominations are found mostly in Republican circles; whereas the Democrats often tend to have secular attitudes and do not consider religion and tradition as their main interests.

Thus, the following figures are not surprising: about 45 percent of Americans read the Bible at times other than during church services; daily prayer is a matter of course for 70 percent; and the faith in God is beyond question for over 80 percent, just as the Bible is the unquestionable word of God for about 50 percent.

In general, affiliation with a community of faith and religious life and presence is extremely diverse in the United States. In comparison to Europe (especially France and Great Britain), about 80 percent of the American population still have at least some knowledge of the Bible.

All of these facts show that America is an exceptional country in the area of religious faith.

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