TCS Daily

Religious Differences

By Jamie M. Fly - July 29, 2004 12:00 AM

On a Sunday morning this past May, I stood in Beethovenplatz, in the center of Bonn, the sleepy former German capital, admiring the architecture of the Bonner Münster, the city's thirteenth century basilica.

While my tour group gazed heavenward at the spires, the mass taking place inside ended and parishioners began to exit the cathedral's massive doors. The congregation consisted solely of elderly Germans shuffling out into the square, interspersed with clusters of Asian tourists clutching cameras. No German under the age of fifty was in sight.

This phenomenon is not confined to Bonn. Down the Rhine in Cologne the next day, I saw an advertisement touting a ten-minute mass to lure passers-by from one of the city's main shopping streets.

Religion is in decline throughout most of "Old Europe" -- in France about one in 20 people attend weekly religious services. In Britain, religious leaders are debating how to dispose of thousands of unused church buildings.

As Christianity dies in Europe, it is thriving in the United States, where one in three Americans attends religious services each week and as many as 85% of the population identify themselves as Christians.

Empty pews have begun to impact European politics. Leaders recently resisted heavy pressure from the Vatican to include a reference to Europe's Christian heritage in the European Union's new constitution.

This secularization of Europe is one of the roots of the cultural divide currently confronting the Atlantic alliance, a fact that few scholars on either side of the Atlantic have acknowledged.

Despite the United States' much heralded separation of church and state, Americans accept public displays of religion as part of our heritage. As George Washington declared in his Farewell Address, "Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

In contrast, in most of Europe, public expression of religious belief is increasingly controversial.

In a recent book on Tony Blair, Peter Stothard recounts that Blair wanted to end his address to the British people at the onset of the Iraq war with "God bless you," a sentiment common in any U.S. presidential speech. His advisers immediately counseled (successfully) against, with one advisor huffing, "You're talking to lots of people who don't want chaplains pushing stuff down their throats."

Despite this religious chasm, the Bush administration, often ridiculed in Europe for its White House Bible studies and overt religiosity, has chosen to look the other way. Europe's religious landscape has only been addressed in the context of concerns about rising anti-Semitism in Europe.

Resurgent anti-Semitism in Europe is indeed cause for concern. Attacks against Jews have been on the rise in some areas, largely due to Europe's growing population of disaffected Muslim youths.

But solemn communiqués from international gatherings like April's Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe conference on anti-Semitism in Berlin do little to improve the situation for Europe's Jews, who face a rapidly growing population of Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East, including many who hate Israel and the West. France alone is home to 600,000 Jews and six million Muslims.

As Christianity declines, the only religion flourishing in Europe is Islam. Roughly fifteen million Muslims (three times the number of Muslims in the United States), many radicalized by their experiences with secular European culture, now call Europe home. Combined with a secular elite which international legal scholar Joseph Weiler has described as "Christophobic," this is a recipe for disaster. The real problem is not nascent anti-Semitism, but Europe's attitude toward religion in general.

The United States should do all it can to press its European allies to improve integration of its immigrants, while avoiding actions that harm all religion, as does the recent effort by the French government and some local German officials to ban all religious symbols, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, from schools.

More importantly, religious Americans must fortify our system from the forces of Europe's postmodern secularization and understand that on the issue of religion, we are, and always will be, leagues apart from our Atlantic allies.

As President Reagan so eloquently explained in a 1984 prayer breakfast address, "we poison our society when we remove its theological underpinnings. We court corruption when we leave it bereft of belief. All are free to believe or not believe; all are free to practice a faith or not. But those who believe must be free to speak of and act on their belief, to apply moral teaching to public questions."

"Never again" should continue to be a mantra for the fight against anti-Semitism, but the Bush administration must ensure that in trying to win one battle, the broader battle for any religious expression in Europe (and eventually the United States) is not lost.

Jamie M. Fly is a Research Associate working on European issues at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed here are his own.


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