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Secular Europe and Religious America: Implications for Transatlantic Relations

Pew Research Center Washington, D.C.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Council on Foreign Relations co-hosted a luncheon roundtable entitled “Secular Europe and Religious America: Implications for Transatlantic Relations” on April 21, 2005 at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C.

According to a 2002 Pew Global Attitudes survey, there are striking differences in public opinion between the U.S. and European countries on issues such as the importance people attach to religion in their lives and the linkage they perceive between belief in God and morality. The survey shows that a large majority of Americans consider religion important in their personal lives and closely associate religion and morality. Furthermore, Pew Forum surveys over several years show that Americans are generally more comfortable with religion playing a major role in public life. In contrast, Europeans generally place much less importance on religion in their lives, and general indicators show that major churches in Europe are declining in terms of membership, recruitment of clergy, financial contributions and overall public influence. The Pew Forum convened distinguished experts Peter Berger, John Judis and Walter Russell Mead to analyze these differences between the U.S and Europe and to assess their impact on transatlantic relations.

Speakers: Peter Berger, Professor of Sociology and Theology and Director, Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs, Boston University John Judis, Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Senior Editor, The New Republic Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations

Presider: Luis Lugo, Director, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

The discussion was part of a joint project on religion and U.S. foreign policy undertaken by the Pew Forum and the Council that is designed to help policymakers and analysts better understand religion’s role in world affairs and the possible policy implications. Although the roundtable was off-the-record, the speakers agreed to make their prepared remarks available online:

Remarks of Peter Berger

Well, I have about eight minutes to cover – at least to begin to cover – this enormously complicated issue. Let me say that much of what I have to say is the result of a research project which our research center has been conducting on religion and secularity in Europe. The research on this is finished. We had a wonderful international team. The research director was, I think fair to say, a brilliant French sociologist, Danielle Hervieu-Leger. And we are working on a book that will summarize some of these findings. I have an article coming out, which is my take on what we did called, I guess the same title of this seminar, “Secular Europe, Religious America?” And it’ll come out in The National Interest in their summer issue.

Now, very briefly, I think if one is to get a grip on this phenomenon, which obviously has rather timely interests, one has to get rid of two very common but, I think, mistaken ideas. One is the idea of American exceptionalism – an especially beloved idea in Europe. America is, indeed, a very exceptional country. However, this exceptionalism does not extend to the realm of religion. Most of the world is fiercely religious, and the United States is a strongly religious society. Thus, the exception is not the United States, but rather the exception is Europe. And when I say Europe, I mean specifically Western and Central Europe. You come across a different situation in the orthodox sections of Europe, especially Russia, the implications of which I can’t pursue here. Europe is the exception, and the exception is always more interesting than the rule. When thinking in terms of the comparative cross-national sociology of religion, Western and Central Europe are the most interesting areas in the world, much more interesting than places like Iran. There have always been fanatical mullahs in Iran; it’s the Swedish taxi drivers who are interesting, not to mention French intellectuals.

Okay. The other idea one has to put aside is the idea that modernity necessarily leads to a decline in religion. This notion of modernity, for obvious reasons, is an idea very much favored in Europe – modernity leads to secularization, in other words, presumably necessarily. This idea was very widely held by historians and social scientists in my youth, which now seems about 200 years ago. I had the same idea and then had to change my mind, not because of some philosophical or theological change, but because the evidence to the contrary was overwhelming. Modernity does not necessarily lead to a decline in religion. What it does lead to – and the evidence is around us on this – what is does lead to, I think necessarily, is pluralism, by which I simply mean the coexistence within the same society of very different religious groups (you can also apply it to racial or ethnic groups). And this fact has enormous implications, which I can only allude to very briefly. I will come back to it in a moment.

Now, if one looks at Europe as I just defined and America as America – by the way, I exclude Canada, Canada is different. If one looks at these two regions, some things are indeed very different in terms of religions, and others are similar, and it’s important to understand both. What is different? The major difference is in institutional behavior. The major churches in Western and Central Europe, both Protestant and Catholic, are in very deep trouble by any indicator you want to take. Attendance of people at services, loyalty to the institution, recruitment of clergy, financial contributions, influence in the public realm all have declined – a reality that’s very different from the one in United States. Not all American churches are equally healthy in terms of these things, but compared to Europe, almost all of them are. And you have something in America which is almost totally absent in Europe – a massive presence of evangelical Protestantism, ranging somewhere between, I don’t know, maybe 50 to 70 million Americans. As Walter Mead pointed out, religious demography is extremely difficult to measure. If businesses ran statistics like churches, the CEOs would all be in jail. But still, there are millions of Americans who are born-again Christians of one sort or another – there is nothing like this in Europe except in very small groups. Big difference.

Now what is similar. The similarity has a lot to do with the fact of pluralism. Pluralism means, for one thing, that all religious associations and institutions can become, in effect, voluntary associations. Churches can no longer rely on the police to fill their pews, a fact that has enormous implications. And that’s true in Western and Central Europe as it is in the United States, and has been for quite a while. Separation of church and state in France is now exactly 100 years old, to take one dramatic case. People have a choice, even people who still want to be traditionally Catholic or Lutheran or what have you, choose to be traditionally Catholic, Lutheran or what have you. And as a result, people have a different relationship to the churches. It’s a voluntary relationship. The laity becomes very important because there’s a market, and there are consumers. US Airways – they always tell you when you fly the shuttle, we know you had an alternative; thank you for choosing US Airways. Well, we know you have an alternative; thank you for coming to the Presbyterian Church.

There is a big difference also in terms of the relationship of religion to individuals. In America, where this has been so for a long time, you have the wonderful phrase, religious preference, a term that comes from market economics. I came to America from Europe as a young man, and I registered for college and I was asked, what’s your religious preference? I didn’t understand the term. What does preference mean? The German word with which I was familiar was konfession, confession, which suggests passionate witness, martyrdom; preference suggests a supermarket. Enormously important.

And now, that is true on both sides of the Atlantic. And different sociologists and students of religion have used good terms for it. Hervieu-Leger, the French sociologist whom I mentioned a moment ago, uses a term derived from Levi-Strauss; she uses the term bricolage, which I guess you translate as tinkering. It’s like a child who puts together a Lego piece. So, I am Catholic, but in a peculiar way, and here is how I am Catholic. Robert Wuthnow, who is a very good sociologist of religion in this country, uses the term “patchwork religion” for the same phenomenon; in other words, everyone does his own religious thing. And that’s quite similar on both sides of the Atlantic. An important difference is that Americans who do their patchwork usually stay within a church or they start a new one. I think one mistake people make, which I don’t think is relevant particularly to this discussion, is the mistake to think America is a very individualistic country. It isn’t. It’s a very associational country, and as such quite conformist. When you have three Americans on a desert island, they create four organizations, neighborhood groups or something. The Europeans stay out of institutions. They do it in their basement, so to speak, or in their living room, and it’s much more difficult, as a result, to study.

Now, one complicating factor in all of this – and the more I have time to talk about it, the more complicated it will get – is that in America we do have an increasingly Europeanized intelligentsia. The history of this is very interesting; it goes back several decades, and as long as you move in what I’ve called the “faculty club culture” in the U.S., you may as well be in Europe. And that is very different from most of the population, and I think many of the political problems in the United States over the last 40 years or so have been a result of a strongly religious population rebelling against the secularity of an intelligentsia which is relatively small in numbers but very influential in the society.

Now, the final point – we have no more time to talk about this. Of course, what we want to know is why does this difference exist? And I can’t, even in a few minutes, summarize this. Let me just say one thing. When you deal with historical or social phenomenon of that magnitude, you can be sure of one thing: there’s not going to be a single cause. There’s going to be a complexity of causes, a multiplicity of causes. I’ve come up with seven. And I’m still not sure. Why is Europe different from America? Seven reasons. I’m sure it’s not an exhaustive list, but I’m beginning to understand, I think, what is happening. You have to go back a couple hundred years. It’s not something that started yesterday. I suspect the crucial century is the 19th century.

Are things going to change? In this respect I see very little likelihood of this. I don’t think the United States is becoming more secular. On the contrary, the unenlightened populace is getting much more assertive against the intellectual elite. Is Europe becoming more religious? Well, there are a few upticks on some values, studies suggest, but not very dramatic. I don’t expect any significant changes.

Let me conclude with one interesting factoid that most of you probably haven’t heard. By any criteria – we have to look at the world all the time, not just one country – the most dynamic religious movement in the world is Pentecostalism, which is strong in the United States and enormously explosive in other parts of the world, including Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia. It’s almost absent in Europe, except for one very interesting exception – gypsies. Gypsies are becoming Pentecostal by tens of thousands in Europe. And the image of protestant gypsies I find profoundly interesting.

Well on this note, I think I’ve talked for a little more than my time so I’ll stop.

For a more in-depth discussion, please see Dr. Berger’s forthcoming article in the Summer 2005 issue of the National Interest.


Remarks of John Judis

I was in Germany after the election, this last election, and people were just freaking out about the Republicans and Jesus and George Bush and all this stuff. And so I was having this one conversation with a German and said, “well, you know, you have in your country a party called the Christian Democrats. Now, do you realize that if we had a party in the United States that was called that or was called the Christian Republicans, it would be a major scandal?” That’s the kind of paradox on which you can build a whole understanding of the difference between Western and Central Europe and the United States. I’ll begin by making two observations about this difference.

Two things strike you right away in thinking about that. The first is that in Europe there was historically an identification of church and state. And this identification is still reflected in political parties, so you have this kind of odd situation of a Christian Democratic Party, whether in Germany or Italy, which doesn’t tie its politics explicitly to statements in the Bible or to the life of Jesus or what have you. They are militantly secular. So you still have this vestige in a sense, of church-state, but at the same time, you have within the popular dialogue, within the understanding of what politics consists of, an identification of religion with a certain kind of zealotry. And that, I think, is a lot of the source of the secularism. It’s not so much whether you believe or not, but the identification of religion with religious wars, with communism, or what have you.

In the U.S. it’s almost the opposite. In our country we began in terms of our first émigrés from England and Holland. Thus, you have religion as being an anti-establishment view. We don’t have an official religion in the United States, and that’s, again, reflected in our discomfort. But at the same time, religion has been intrinsic to our discourse, and it’s acceptable in a way that it is not in Europe. And this, again, brings us to the starting point of the difference between the two countries, the two worlds, and the two continents.

Let me now talk about the United States and how religion has figured in the relationship with politics. And I think there are two things that I would cite. The first, which I talk about in this pamphlet and in my book, is that the way in which we think of ourselves as a nation, the way in which we envisage our role in the world, very much comes out of the 17th century experience. There is a kind of transition that occurs in the late 18th century between the early Protestant millennialism of the Puritans and what the historian Nathan Hatch calls civil millennialism. So you get certain concepts that carry over from the 17th century all the way to the present and appear, not just in George Bush, but also in Bill Clinton, George Bush’s father, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. You can find them, you know, in just about every one of our presidents, including ones like Lincoln that may not have been believers.

One is the idea of Americans as chosen people — in former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s version, that America is the indispensable nation or in George Bush’s version, that America has a special role in the world. This idea is at the heart of American exceptionalism.

The second is that as a chosen people, as a nation with a special role in the world, we have a calling, and that calling is, to put it in a kind of gross way, and obviously you can be more specific, to transform the world in our best image; not so much to transform the world into what we are, but into the way we think the world should be. This has been true from the beginning, in 17th century, all the way to the present where you talk about the spread of freedom and global democracy. But again, the idea that we have a calling recurs time and time again.

And the final feature that we carry over from the 17th century is the idea that what’s involved in this is a struggle of good and evil, that it’s not simply a matter of prudence but there are much higher stakes in our foreign policy. And you find this again, right from the 18th century to the present. Just parenthetically, that’s a reason why, for instance, European realism – Walter and I have discussed this a little – has so little currency in America except among academics. It’s a view that just simply does not have any resonance in our popular culture and with our way of understanding ourselves.

The second way in which religion is important is in terms of political crusades. In this, we’re talking about domestic issues that have been infused with religion and understood religiously. One can start with the abolitionists; the temperance movement, which again was led by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and through the present with the so-called religious right, religious conservatives. So we’ve had this kind of religiosity. The first thing I talked about – this millennial framework -has been consistent pretty much throughout our history. There have been a few bleeps in the middle of the ’30s; there’s also been the moments of isolationism, but that’s been fairly consistent. The religiosity is more cyclical. You know, religious historians talk about awakenings. It’s more than that obviously, but it’s not something that’s consistent and runs through. We are, it seems, in a more heightened period of religiosity than we were, let’s say, in the 1950s.

Now, Europe is different in both respects. First of all, obviously Protestant Millennialism comes out of Europe. It doesn’t come out of the United States; it comes out of both the continent and particularly out of the English Puritans. And the English themselves in the 19th century saw themselves having a kind of millennial role in the world, as bringing about a new civilization and a new world through British imperialism. One can see the same kind of themes in Marxism itself – Marx, again, comes out of one of the headquarters of Protestantism, the Rhine country. There’s a historian, Ernest Tuveson, who wrote a kind of explication of the Communist Manifesto, comparing it to the views of Protestant millennialism and illustrating this point exactly. I think again, in terms of Europe, Marxism played a similar role to our kind of American version of millennialism.

Take the Soviet Union. The idea of Russia being a third Rome, then again being the headquarters to this world empire. So I think that in Europe you very definitely had these kinds of ideas, but what happened was that each of these countries that held these ideas suffered defeats and setbacks. The sun finally did set on the British Empire; the Soviet Union collapsed; the Nazis, who were kind of an extraordinary aberration, but, again, had elements of this same framework, were defeated by the Allied Powers. After World War II on the Continent itself, I think you start to get a much more modest view by Europeans of their role in the world, which is different from the kind of view that Americans have of their role. And the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, that’s really the end, I would say, of this period of European millennialism.

So the framework in which these countries think of themselves is very, very different. And I think that’s responsible for a lot of the tension and a lot of the feeling among Europeans, a lot of the paranoia about American intentions and also a lot of our feeling that these people aren’t really serious about the world.

There are similar differences in religiosity. I think that in Europe, what was important, and relevant was the rejection of Marxism, and I’m not talking so much about social democracy, but Marxism, again, as an apocalyptic view that there were stages of history and that we were going to enter a discrete stage of history called socialism that would really radically transform the way we were as human beings. I think that the rejection of this thinking that had its roots in religion was an important factor, in an odd sense, in making European politics more secular. It, like older religion of the religious wars, became associated with fanaticism.

And just to end up, why is the American intelligentsia more secular than the population as a whole? I think it again – there’s obviously exceptions, but again, you go back to the end of ideology and to Daniel Bell and to the disillusionment of American intellectuals with the idea of a kind of millennial future. So I think that that’s a factor in explaining why American intellectuals are different from the population as a whole.


Remarks of Walter Mead

Before beginning, I should make my usual disclaimer. When first appointed the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy, I had a conversation with Dr. Kissinger. We agreed that he was not responsible for anything I said and I was not responsible for anything he said, so I’m certainly not speaking as his representative here today. Regarding the discussion at hand, I have three points, in particular that I would like to convey.

In understanding the historical roots of the difference between the contemporary American religious situation and the European, the most important element – as determined in the 18th century by Adam Smith – is the religious pluralism of the United States. Secular authorities throughout Europe confronted religion as essentially one force during the process of state building that took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In most European states, one confession had won either the reformation or the counter-reformation. The victor then established a state church in such a way that the society’s religious interest was represented by a hierarchy that was organizationally independent and potentially challenging to the state itself. It is important to note there were differences in Protestant and Catholic Europe and in Lutheran and Calvinist Europe.

In the United States, the multiplicity of religion meant that no single religious organization could aspire to rival the power of the state. Adam Smith, in “The Wealth of Nations,” – likely using information about Philadelphia, Pennsylvania provided to him by Benjamin Franklin – asserted that an invisible hand stemming from sectarian competition would produce religious peace and toleration. This historical experience that the religious feeling of the populace could be tamed to a certain extent and made a part of civil society without challenging the state is one reason why Americans have not faced some of the choices that Europeans have. The closest we came to a Kulturkampf occurred in the 19th century. The arrival of large numbers of Catholic immigrants caused many Protestants to fear a religious interest would emerge that would try to rival or in some way affect the state. This was largely laid to rest in the 1950s – but up until then, the fear that we might be in one of those situations where some form of aggressive secularization might be necessary was in the background of the American intelligentsia’s thinking.

Second, the association between modernity and secularization has broken down in the U.S. and in many other countries and parts of the world. The promise of the secular enlightenment – its ability to tame history and create a smooth peaceful future for the world – has been unfulfilled in the experience of many people. You can argue that Hiroshima and the Holocaust are the root causes behind the return – not only to religion – but to a more colorful and apocalyptic kind of religion in much of the world today. The idea that the historical process could lead to the destruction of human life and human civilization became terribly real as a result of Hiroshima. This common fear led to an uncertainty as to whether programs of secular betterment inevitably led to calamity. The facts of the Holocaust – that it arose in the center of Europe; that it is not the only case of irrational mass hatred and genocide, armed with the weapons of modernity, to occur in recent memory – suggest that secular modernity doesn’t tame history. Rather, it may empower the dark forces that people have feared in the past. And this may be one reason why the secularization model has broken down in much of the world today.

Let me end with the most controversial item I want to address today, which is to give a sense of the way that red-state America might look at Europe – at the connection between European politics and religious history. Partly because John and Peter are both right – that the academy in the U.S. is more like Europeans in its thinking than the rest of Americans – there has not been a lot of organized thought given from the perspective of red state America as to what Europe is and why Europe is the way it is. We’re beginning to see some of this discussion emerge with the formation of a counter-academy and a counter-establishment. This trend builds on a covenantional sense of history that is very strong in the American mind. These folks might say that history, for us, the chosen people, is a record of our dealings with God and of God’s responses to our behavior. If red state America looked carefully at Europe – which it does not – it would think that Christianity is what made Europe great; that Christian civilization – whether in a Protestant or a Catholic form – was the cause of Europe’s blessing. In other words, a religious person would say God’s blessing to Europe was contingent upon its faithful response to the message of the Gospel.

Red state America would draw comparisons between stories in the Hebrew Scriptures and Europe’s reduced religiosity during the idolatrous worship of the nation-state in the late 19th early century leading up to the catastrophe of World War I. The people turned away from worshipping God so He punished them. Did they listen? No. They went from worshipping Him to worshipping the nation state. And when that was seen to fail in World War 1, they did not return to God. No, they turned to communism and fascism – even darker forms of idolatry. And then He really whacked them. But did they listen? No.

The ideals of communism and fascism are not popular in Europe today; rather the people participate in the worship of a consumer utopia of sorts. I think Pope Benedict XVI might echo some of these sentiments. What you see now in much of Europe is that it has lost the biological will to live. A red state American might say that Europeans are failing to reproduce themselves and are being visibly supplanted by Muslims who at least believe in God, even if they are of the wrong religion. This is a portrayal of American red state view of the last 100 years of European history. I’m trying to channel the opinions of people who don’t have opinions on this subject, and I realize it’s kind of a risky thing to do.

If you plug the data points into a certain set of cultural values and beliefs, you will see this is a fairly accurate portrayal. In recent months – as Americans from the red states have taken more notice of the intellectual and political climate in Europe – you have started to hear some of these sentiments communicated, especially the relationship between the lack of fertility in Europe and the lack of religious belief.

How does all this affect the transatlantic relationship? From an American perspective, I don’t think that these ideas, in themselves, would cause a great divorce between Europe and the United States. But if the divorce process continues for other political reasons, people in the US trying to interpret what’s happening will be examining the divergence from this perspective.

As I close, I would like to reinforce points that we heard earlier. It is not that simple to talk about religious America and secular Europe. A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to spend some time in Germany and went up to the summit of the Zugspitze – the highest mountain in the country. At its peak is a large cross – something that you would generally not see on the summit of a high American mountain, particularly one operated by the federal or state park service. If you did, the ACLU would be in court regarding the cross rather quickly.

I was actually there with a Jewish friend whose mother had survived the Holocaust in Germany by hiding in a basement. He was speculating on whether there would be any response if a team of Israeli mountaineers came one night and pulled down the cross and put up a Star of David on the high peak and, if so, what it would be. There is still a symbolic connection between identity and religion, whether the connection is felt historically or in other ways. It is important to reiterate there are still some very strong connections. One certainly sees it in the debate over Turkish membership in the European Union. Many people who rarely or never attend church still feel that Europe has a Christian identity and believe that identity is threatened by the membership of a secular Turkish republic.


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