For American observers, the transatlantic religious difference is most evident in terms of the public expression of faith. For all the rhetoric of the separation of church and state, Americans are well accustomed to politicians invoking God and religion, even if in merely conventional terms: no member of the U.S. House or Senate publicly admits to atheism. Matters in Europe are generally quite different. When Great Britain joined the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Prime Minister Tony Blair initially planned to end his address to the nation with a remark like "God bless you." His horrified advisers urged him to remove such a phrase, which for them, connoted "American-style" religious fanaticism or hypocrisy. In Germany, the former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and several of his cabinet refused to add the anodyne formula "so help me God" when swearing their oath of office.26
Other recent events demonstrate a hostility of political elites at least to any acknowledgment of religion, and arguably to the toleration of overt Christian sentiment as such. During the debates over the European Constitution at the start of this decade, framers sought an exalted protocol that would describe the roots of European values and civilization. Though many wished to include at least a passing nod to the Christian heritage, others strenuously resisted even such an acknowledgment. Instead its preamble declared,
Drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, which, nourished first by the civilizations of Greece and Rome, characterized by spiritual impulse [sic] always present in its heritage and later by the philosophical currents of the Enlightenment, has embedded within the life of society its perception of the central role of the human person and his inviolable and inalienable rights, and of respect for law.
The 70,000 words of this prolix document thus fail to include a single specific reference to Christianity. This omission was appropriate for those who believed, in the words of former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, that "Europeans live in a purely secular political system, where religion does not play an important role."27
For George Weigel, the constitution affair indicates the "self-inflicted amnesia" provoked by Christophobia among Europe's elites, for whom Christianity is at best irrelevant, at worst an obstacle to social progress and the expansion of human rights. Historically, this reactionary image was far from inevitable. On many issues, the churches found no difficulty supporting liberal or even socialist reforms, and both Catholic and Protestant churches have for over a century included powerful components supporting social activism. Labor unions have long been able to ground their operations in the clear statements of Catholic social teachings. From the late 1960s, however, social reform increasingly became identified with issues of personal identity and rights, particularly as these involved gender and sexuality. On some critical issues, especially abortion and gay rights, secular progressives found themselves in stark conflict with traditionally minded Christians, by no means only within the Roman Catholic Church.28
One contentious issue has been the spread of forms of gay marriage or civil union, a recognition of homosexual status that goes far beyond the mere removal of legal impediments to personal sexual expression. The idea is so controversial because homosexuality is so explicitly condemned in the Christian scriptures, not to mention in centuries of scholarly tracts and commentaries. As Pope Benedict writes, the mere idea of gay marriage "would fall outside the moral history of humanity." The spread of liberal legislation in this area provides a rough index of secularization. As recently as the 1970s, the gay marriage issue barely existed even as an idea for most Europeans, but it has since become commonplace. In 1989, Denmark became the first nation to approve civil unions, and over the following decade, most Scandinavian countries allowed gay couples adoption rights. By 2001, several European nations including France and Germany had introduced some form of civil union granting same-sex partners rights comparable to those of heterosexuals, and Britain followed by 2005. The
Irish government has promised that some form of civil partnership will soon be introduced in that nation too. Generally, liberal north European nations of Protestant heritage took the lead in liberalization, but Catholic states followed only a little way behind, despite staunch opposition from the Vatican and local church hierarchies. In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country to approve full-scale "gay marriage," followed by Belgium in 2002 and Spain in 2005. In the Spanish case, the legislation was strongly supported by Socialist Prime Minister Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who on this and many other matters stood out as an aggressive opponent of church influence and doctrine.29
Gay issues indicate the mainstreaming of attitudes and policies condemned by most Christian churches, to the point that Christian critics of homosexuality found themselves labeled as politically deviant, and perhaps as too extreme for public office. As the European constitutional debate was in progress, Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione was a candidate for the position of European Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security, the kind of appointment that is rarely challenged. Buttiglione, however, had expressed the view that, based on his Catholic faith, homosexual behavior was sinful. However, he continued, "I may think that homosexuality is a sin but this has no effect on politics, unless I say that homosexuality is a crime. . . . The state has no right to stick its nose into these things, and nobody can be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation." Yet with all these qualifications—mildly expressed, from an American perspective—he was rejected for the office.30
Pursued to its logical outcome, the decision excludes any and all Christians of traditional or orthodox leanings from office within the European Union, and soon, presumably, within member states. In 2006, Catholic politician Ruth Kelly acquired a new position within Britain's Labour government as Minister for Equality: the office's title itself reflects a dramatic statement about the proper scope of government intervention in social arrangements. Kelly, however, was widely attacked because her religion, and especially her affiliation with the rightist group Opus Dei, attracted charges that she would be unable to act sincerely on behalf of gay equality. Critics pressed her to declare forthrightly whether she felt that homosexuality was a sin. In a response that would have startled most earlier generations of Christian politicians, Kelly replied only that "I don't think it's right for politicians to start making moral judgments about people. That's the last thing I would want to do."31
Like the Buttiglione affair, the Kelly controversy suggests the subordination of Christian moral imperatives—even the right to "make moral judgments"—to liberal concepts of personal rights. Tony Blair reputedly holds strong Christian beliefs and is said to be on the verge of conversion to Catholicism. Yet when discussing his views in the media, he sounds apologetic. Asked if his faith shaped his politics, he replied, almost nervously, "Well I think if you have a religious belief it does, but it's probably best not to take it too far." Buttiglione himself uses such cases to argue that the European Union is succumbing to "soft totalitarianism," founded upon a state religion that is "an atheistic, nihilistic religion—but it is a religion that is obligatory for all." Former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton sees in the constitution controversy "a form of secular intolerance in Europe that is every bit as strong as religious intolerance was in the past."32
Was this article helpful?