Two events last year neatly frame the challenge: In the United
States, a California man tried to remove "One Nation, Under God"
from the Pledge of Allegiance. Americans cried foul - roughly 90
percent wanted to keep the phrase - and on June 15, the Supreme
Court halted the bid on procedural grounds.
Three days later, in Brussels, officials agreed on the final text
of the European Union's new Constitution. The charter made no
mention of God, despite calls that it recognize Europe's Christian
Indeed, its secularism has led to jokes that Europe is one big
"blue" state. But Europeans aren't laughing. Buffeted by the
crosscurrents of secularism, Christianity, and Islam - and mindful
of a history of religious violence - they are wrestling with their
values and identity as never before.
"The clash between those who believe and those who don't believe
will be a dominant aspect of relations between the US and Europe in
the coming years," says Jacques Delors, a former president of the
European Commission. "This question of a values gap is being posed
more sharply now than at any time in the history of European-US
relations since 1945."
Religion's role in public life, and its influence on politics,
have been center-stage questions worldwide since Sept. 11, 2001. But
the debate in Europe has been complicated by the continent's
difficulty in integrating its fast-growing Muslim immigrant
minority. It has been sharpened by tragedies such as the bombing of
a Madrid train station last March, and the brutal murder of Dutch
filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist last fall.
Those incidents "will reinforce secularism" in Europe, predicts
Patrick Weil, a sociologist of religion at the Sorbonne in Paris.
"The tendency now in Europe is to say we have to be clear on the
limits to religious intervention" in public life. "We are not going
to sacrifice women's equality, democracy, and individual freedoms on
the altar of a new religion."
Secularists who think like that are swimming in friendly waters
in Europe, where religious convictions and practice have dropped
sharply in recent decades, and where mainstream churches -
especially the Catholic Church - continue to lose members and
Today, just 21 percent of Europeans say religion is "very
important" to them, according to the most recent European Values
Study, which tracks attitudes in 32 European countries. A survey by
the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that nearly three
times as many Americans, 59 percent, called their faith "very
Although a Gallup poll found last year that 44 percent of
Americans say they attend a place of worship once a week, the
average figure in Europe is only 15 percent, although the picture
varies widely across the Continent.
For some Europeans, that slump marks a defeat for moral values at
the hands of godless secularism.
"The new soft totalitarianism that is advancing on the left wants
to have a state religion," complains Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian
politician whose ambition to become the European commissioner for
justice was thwarted last year by the European Parliament, which
objected to his description of homosexuality as a sin.
"It is an atheist, nihilistic religion - but it is a religion
that is obligatory for all," Mr. Buttiglione adds.
Luis Lopez Guerra, the Spanish government's point man in its
campaign to wrest from Catholic influence social legislation on
questions such as abortion, divorce, and gay marriage, sees things
He wonders why, in a country where less than half the population
ever goes to church, he should have found a Bible and a crucifix on
his desk, along with the Constitution, when he was sworn in as
undersecretary at the Ministry of Justice a year ago.
The Spanish government's plans to legalize gay marriage this
spring, to liberalize divorce and abortion laws, and to permit
stem-cell research, do not represent an attempt to impose an atheist
state religion, he insists. Rather, he says, they "extend civil
rights and make the law independent of Catholic dogma.
He adds, "The government has a responsibility to represent the
majority of the people. Our policy has to depend on the people's
will, not on the preferences of the Catholic church."
Spain is currently the front line in the Vatican's rear-guard
battle to retain church influence over public policy in Europe. But
with public opinion ranged firmly on the government's side, there
seems little it can do but make its displeasure known.
Pope John Paul II lashed out at Madrid recently, accusing
authorities of "restriction of religious freedom" and "relegating
faith to the private sphere and opposing its public expression."
The changes in Spain, Catholic church leaders worry, are part of
a broader trend. Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical
Council for Justice and Peace, recently attacked "a new holy
inquisition ... motivated predominantly by prejudice toward all that
Other traditional churches have felt the same cold winds. The
president of the French Protestant Federation, Jean-Arnold de
Clermont, warned Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin last December
of a climate of "secularist zeal" that was undermining all
Such zeal has known peaks and troughs over the centuries, but it
is not new to Europe, where political leaders and ordinary citizens
experienced religion and felt its weight in ways quite unknown to
The differences are rooted in the 18th century, when the
Enlightenment, the philosophical revolution that laid the
foundations of the modern Western world, was interpreted quite
differently by Americans and Europeans in one crucial respect.
divergence | 1 | 2
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