Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How to hobble religion. By Ronan McCrea

Contrary to popular belief, migration from Muslim countries is one reason why Europe is becoming more secular, not less

(AeonThe European relationship between religion, law and politics is a strange creature. Religious influence over political life is weaker in Europe than in almost any other part of the world. To adapt the phrase first used by Alastair Campbell when he was spokesman for the British prime minister Tony Blair, politicians in Europe generally ‘don’t do God’. The EU’s Eurobarometer surveys of public opinion suggest that religion has a very limited impact on the political values and behaviour of European voters. Europe has no equivalent to the politically powerful religious right in America, nor to the theological debates in the political arena that one sees in many Islamic countries.

Recently, however, this long-standing distance between religion and politics has been threatened. Migration is one factor that has helped religion to return to centre stage in public life. While Muslim minorities have protested over questions of blasphemy and free speech, Catholic leaders have intervened in political debates about gay marriage and abortion, and conservatives have lamented that European societies are losing touch with their Christian past. The political scientist Eric Kaufmann has argued that religious believers have a demographic advantage in birth rates that will see Europe's secularisation reversed by the end of this century. 

Religious justifications for terrorism might be the most visible and dramatic threat to liberal states from increased religiosity, but the separation of religion and politics has recently been challenged in multiple ways and in many countries, not just in Europe. Both the US and Canada have experienced controversies over the attempted use of religious law in family arbitration, while Islamic leaders in Australia have provoked intense debate after giving sermons denouncing gender equality. However, the renewed visibility of religion in public affairs provokes particularly intense challenges in Europe since it undermines well-established, but often tacit, conventions on the limits to religious influence on public life.

Secularism in Europe has been in part influenced by the original recognition in Christian theology of separate secular and religious realms (the Bible’s injunction to ‘render unto Caesar’). But the distinctive European ‘settlement’ on religion stems from the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. The suffering caused by these conflicts across western and northern Europe brought a strong desire for political norms and structures that could end the misery and instability caused by religious contestation for political power. The Peace of Westphalia — a series of treaties concluded in 1648 — established the principle that sovereign states would respect each other’s boundaries and differing state religions. This acceptance of the permanence and legitimacy of religious diversity between (if not within) European states combined with the work of thinkers such as Grotius, Hobbes, Locke and Hume to provide Europe with ways of thinking and speaking about politics that were separate from religion.

Religious bodies in Europe have more limited political influence than in most of the rest of the world, but this has generally been a cultural norm rather than a legal or constitutional principle. In the modern postwar period there has been an expectation that religions will keep their distance from politics. Of course, the churches and other religious institutions have not stayed out of European politics entirely: in France, last month’s bill on gay marriage was vigorously opposed by the Catholic Church. Even on this issue, religious influence is notably weak in Europe, where legal recognition of gay marriage is more widespread than any other part of the world.

To assume that there is a simple separation between religion and state here in Europe, or that religion has no political power, would, however, be to misunderstand European history. The weak political influence of religion in Europe has been accompanied by considerable cultural ties and legal links between particular churches and individual European states, and these are reflected in many residual echoes of religious influence and privilege in public life.

The populations of most European states have a clear majority of one particular denomination of Christianity. This means that, until recently, to be of a particular nationality usually meant to belong to a particular religion: to be Spanish was to be Catholic; to be Swedish, Lutheran; to be Greek, Greek Orthodox; and so on. The overlap between religious and national identity meant that the symbols and other elements of a country’s predominant religion played a significant part in public life, and in many cases still do. In this sense, European secular states are very different from the principle of separating church and state in the US, a nation built on religious pluralism, even if mostly under a Christian rubric.

Several European countries recognise official state religions (including the Anglican Church in England), while the constitutions of others invoke Christianity. Even where there is no official state religion, the influence of the dominant form of Christianity is visible in many areas of public life. Church taxes are levied by the state on behalf of religious denominations in many countries, the government funds a range of religious schools and hospitals and, in most European states, the working calendar remains structured around Christian festivals. Many European countries have the cross as part of their national flag and religious festivals such as St Patrick’s Day double as national festivals.

Indeed, not a single European state has institutional arrangements that would satisfy the requirements of the US Constitution, which prohibits symbolic or financial endorsement of religion by the state.


The clarification of limits on the role of religion in law and politics, if fairly applied, could help to alleviate the sense of double standards and unfairness that many migrants and their naturalised descendants feel. European secularism will be harder to portray merely as disguised Christian privilege, or free speech as an excuse to undermine Islam, once it is clear that established Christian faiths are not exempt from these norms.

Either way, what we see is a general process under which greater religious diversity is making it difficult for religion in Europe to retain the residual political and symbolic roles that it has had until now. These roles relied on religion being seen as a national cultural symbol, and on implicit understandings that churches would largely steer clear of politics and would not use their legally privileged status to restrict criticism or mockery of religion to too great a degree.

Such a system is proving unsustainable. There are now too many diverse cultural expectations about religion, its role in political life, and the degree to which it can be criticised or mocked. The more muscular religiosity of some migrant communities, among other factors, is provoking European governments to restrict religion firmly to the private sphere, and to render the public sphere a strictly secular one. Perhaps, as Giuseppe di Lampedusa wrote in his novel The Leopard (1958), ‘everything must change so that everything can remain the same.’ ... ► Read the full article by Ronan Mccrea in Aeon Magazine

Source: Aeon MagazinePublished on 17 June 2013
Author: Ronan McCrea is a barrister and a lecturer at the Faculty of Laws at University College London. His latest book is Religion and the Public Order of the European Union (2010) ... more

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