That Old-time Religion In Europe
, the churches are finding their political voice again – By Robert MisikThe Atlantic Times
, July 2008After decades of restraint, Europe’s Christian churches – above all Catholicism – have re-entered the political arena. It’s partly because this has already happened elsewhere in the world.
To Americans, Europe is a continent predominantly populated by atheists. The few remaining believers live their faith quietly. That religion belongs in the private sphere and has no place in public life is a consensus that has become second nature to most Europeans.
By the same token, from Europe, the U.S. seems pretty much the opposite – an inscrutable land where almost every second inhabitant believes the Bible to be literally true and where 90 percent of the citizens would never vote someone into a political office if he or she didn’t believe in God.
As so often with clichés, neither is completely wrong nor absolutely correct. In Europe, it’s especially the Catholic Church that is intensifying its presence in public life and, more specifically, in politics once again.
Political Catholicism remained influential in Catholic Europe into the 1930s. While at that time it was at loggerheads with democracy, today – ironically – religious political activism is justified as being particularly democratic.
Religion-based attitudes and opinions, too, are “the sentiments of the citizens,” as Vienna’s Archbishop Christoph Cardinal Schönborn recently put it. In practice, however, the devout aren’t always as innocent as they might claim. Recent attempts by the Spanish and Italian clergy to intervene in elections, governments and lawmaking have made for headlines all around Europe.
Before Spain’s parliamentary elections last March, the government of Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was locked in a showdown with the church, the likes of which hadn’t been seen for years. Referring to a law authorizing gay marriage that the government had approved, the Spanish Bishops’ Conference declared that those who embraced such initiatives were “unelectable” for devout Catholics.
On appeals from the bishops, 200,000 people took part in a demonstration “for the traditional family.” Madrid’s Archbishop Antonio María Rouco Varela openly called for “voting (the Socialists) out of office.” Cardinals raged against “radical secularism” to the cheers of the crowd.
Notably, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the demonstration live on a huge screen, per videoconference from Rome. There are also persistent rumors in Italy that the Vatican and Italy’s bishops helped engineer the downfall of former Prime Minister Romano Prodi earlier this year.
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, said in January, “again, at long last, we need a Christian-aligned government that represents and implements our values.” On the same day, Christian Democrat Clemente Mastella, who until then was Prodi’s justice minister, announced he was withdrawing his support of the prime minister.
By now pundits are warning, for example in the liberal Viennese daily Der Standard, of a “second coming of papist politics.” In response, Vicar General Camillo Ruini, the direct representative of the Pope in his capacity as the Bishop of Rome, insisted that the church “…couldn’t act in any other way but to intervene when questions of ethics hang in the balance.”
Signs of a new, harder political line are becoming more frequent, even in ostensibly liberal Western European Christianity. There is a series of reasons for these trends. One is that the worldwide discourse on the renaissance of faith is bolstering the confidence of religious authorities – including in Europe. Although places of worship aren’t necessarily filling and the established churches still bleed more members than they gain, when viewed from a historical perspective, times are changing.
Ten or twenty years ago, even church leaders saw secularism as the historical trend. Today, by the same token, the secularism of Europe appears exceptional in history. During the past 15 years, entire regions of the world have been engulfed by a wave of re-spiritualization. Additionally, it’s becoming clear that the long-term trend of secularization seems to have come to a halt even in Europe. The percentage of those who call themselves “a-religious” has not significantly increased in the past 20 years.
The rise of political Islam, gains in power for evangelical circles in the U.S. and fundamentalist trends in the Russian Orthodox Church all have “inspirational” effects. Political designs of religious leaders and activists certainly have different causes in different places but they also interact and feed on one other. The Catholic bishops of the European West are becoming more politically active partly because they are being confronted with examples of clerical politics that, from their point of view, are succeeding.
In the course of these developments, both allure and fear play a role. Many devout Christians in Europe are fascinated by what they perceive as the Muslims’ “intensity of faith.” “This courage of confession is impressive,” said Hans Küng, theologian from Tübingen, himself a respected and enlightened Catholic thinker. Meanwhile, wallowing in fear of Muslim immigrants is becoming a favorite pastime. Against the newcomers the continent’s “Christian identity” is continously invoked.
All this is supplying church leaders with new allies. Even the president of a country as secular as France, Nicolas Sarkozy, recently said, “The roots of France are essentially Christian.” Statements like these promote the emergence of a religiosity that first and foremost serves to set oneself apart from others. Studies have shown that the appearance of religious minorities also make the Christian majority feel more “Christian.”
Pope Benedict XVI has declared the “re-evangelization of Europe” part of the program of his pontificate. It sounds harmless enough but would not be good news. The revival of religion in political discourse brings with it an “us-against-them” rhetoric. Religions are a potentially powerful force to stir up hatred against other people, and the distance from a renaissance of faith to a rivalry of fundamentalists is mostly a small step.
Racism and xenophobia increasingly pop up in religious jargon. Hardly surprising, then, that anti-immigrant and radical right-wing parties – for example in Austria, Italy, Denmark – have taken up the alleged threat of Islam to Europe as one of their central issues.
When religion espouses politics, patterns of identity harden as a result. The world is placed in compartments. Here are “we,” there are “the others.” But it is mutual tolerance and respect that the world needs.
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