Thursday, January 21, 2010

America and Europe: the religious divide

American and European attitudes toward religion differ quite a lot. The following article examines, in depth, many of the factors that account for this:

Religious Divide Across The Atlantic
[...] In Europe, for many centuries, the nexus of religion with political power was very strong. The Catholic Church preached not liberty but authority and obedience. Calvinism, which preached equality and individuality, had quickly degenerated into theocracy where it could acquire political power. And revolutionary Lutheranism, which had opposed papal power, soon turned into a state religion that sanctified secular power in Germany and Scandinavia. It is only in the last century that full rights of citizenship have become independent from belonging to the ‘correct’ faith in much of Europe. Just like secular ideologies try to cling to political power today, following the Treaty of Augsburg (1555) churches accommodated themselves to the supremacy of Kings and aristocracies, and they traded the granting of the ‘divine right’ to rulers for many privileges (regarding land, taxes, etc…). Therefore, whoever wanted to attack authority in Europe had to attack the churches, and while these churches might have been different among individual countries, within countries usually one church had a near-monopoly on faith. Revolutions on the European Continent thus became as much anti-clerical as anti-royal (or anti-prince), and the common denominator of the civil faiths that arose in the 18th and 19th centuries – liberalism, socialism and communism – was anti-clericalism. Also in the 20th century, fascism and nazism saw churches as rivals for power and effectively ‘nationalized’ them (like Lenin/Stalin did before, and Putin does today). To this very day, to be a “progressive” in Europe requires to be a-religious (and often anti-religious), and hence there is the mistaken belief that modernity necessarily leads to (or requires) secularization.

The American experience has been very different, and there never existed a significant split between anti-clericalism and clericalism in the United States like it did in Europe. The Founders of the American Republic were on the whole very religious people, and they did not have to burn down churches and murder priests to establish their republic, like they did in France. Already de Tocqueville had pointed to the paradox that by establishing a rigorous separation of church and state (through the rejection of the concept of a state religion) the Founding Fathers had actually strengthened the role of religion in general in the United States. Faith (in its myriad forms) was viewed as the friend of freedom, not its enemy, and it was not despised or derided as an enemy of the Enligthenment in America. The contemporary Joffe points to another factor, namely that the protestants who settled America spoke largely English, not French. That means that they had benefited from the Scottish-English Enligthenment which was already a hundred years old at the time of the French Revolution. The latter was marked by Danton’s and Robespierre’s “deadly hatred of all things Deist”. By contrast, the great minds of the earlier Scottish-English Enlightenment - Berkely, Hume, Locke, Hutchinson – had no problem with God. And neither did the American offspring of that Enlightenment. They saw “natural law” and “natural rights” as transcending man-made laws, and Berkeley’s empiricism required God as ultimate proof of reality.

So, in short, because religion had been part of an oppressive state in Europe, it was later banned from the public sphere. Europe’s buildings, cathedrals, art, etc…attest to it having been a great Christian civilization in the past, but a visitor there today will not find much God in the public space. In America, the same visitor can easily encounter God in a football stadium, or at the end of a speech by…President Obama. And the essential reasons for that are (a) the early separation of church and state in America’s original 18th century Constitution, which has stood the test of time more than any other to this day, as well as (b) the non-denominational character of God in America. In America religion was never politically as powerful as it has been in Europe, but its influence has proven to be more lasting because it has relied on its own resources and thus remained in control of its own principles/message or, if you will, free from state control. [...]

If you read the whole article, it's rather long, but there is lots of meat to chew on. It is, to me, a very interesting topic.

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