Religious Renaissance in European Politics

Article excerpt

In an interview last summer to Eurozine, a network of Europe's leading cultural magazines, Dr. Eder, the prominent Berlin-based sociologist claimed, "Not the Americas, not Africa, or Asia ... When you speak about secularization, you speak, therefore, only of Europe." From Socrates' questioning of the pagan Greek gods, to the Renaissance undermining of religious authority, to the Enlightenment period's emphasis on humanism and reason; the progressive story of the secularization of Europe is an irrefutable social fact.

In contemporary times, the sharp decline in church attendance is seen as testament of secularization's grip on the European public and thought. A 2004 Gallup poll found that just 15 percent of Europeans, compared with 44 percent of Americans, attend a place of worship weekly, and only 21 percent of Europeans say religion is "very important" to them. Moreover, despite last minute campaigning by Poland, Italy and Ireland, the European Union (EU) constitution omitted any mention of God.

Even though there is the appearance of an absence of faith in modern Europe, there are signs of Christianity's alliance with the powerful citizens and political leaders of the continent. Galvanized by actions such as the terrorist attacks across Western Europe and the murders of prominent Dutch figures in the name of Islam, mainstream politicians from Hague to Berlin are embracing the old continent's Christian identity. Daughter of a Lutheran pastor, Germany's Angela Merkel disclosed to a group of journalists in August 2006: "We need a European identity in the form of a constitutional treaty and I think it should be connected to Christianity and God."

Pope Benedict in his most recent visit to Turkey stressed Europe's "Christian roots", calling upon Christian communities worldwide to renew Europe's awareness of its religious heritage. France's center-right president Nicolas Sarkozy in his recent book La Republique, Les Religions, L'Esperance called for a greater alliance between religion and public policy. This public proclamation of Christianity is an abrupt change from earlier years, where devout Christian leaders--such as Tony Blair--would have kept their personal faiths away from the public arena.

Europe's Growing Identity Pains

With an increasing number of European politicians displaying public religiosity a la Americana, it seems the seeds of a reconsideration of the role of religion in European public policy have already been planted. The new pattern of religion's advance on a continent that had largely abandoned it, however, masks a much deeper crisis--a crisis of identity. According to Zachary Shore, author of Breeding Bin Ladens: America, Islam and the Future of Europe, Europe is "struggling to accept that it truly lives in a migrant society," one that is in a perpetual state of change on account of its new arrivals. As Europeans struggle with all the implications of integrating 'immigrant others,' it "undergoes the spasmodic growing pains familiar to Americans from centuries past," he writes.

"Now that Islam has emerged as Europe's second largest religion, and Muslims grow daily more assertive in the public arena, Europeans confront a challenge to what it means to be a European," he asserted in a recent interview with me.

According to Shore, this new awareness has jolted politicians into embracing Europe's Christian heritage not only as a unifying factor in attempts to create a 'supranational identity,' but also to gain appeal and influence across the continent. Mohammed Hirchi, a Moroccan born professor of French and Arabic at Colorado State University, mirrors a similar viewpoint; even though, religion does not necessarily occupy an important place in the lives of most Europeans, he points out, it serves as a means of cultural resistance in moments of ideological or identity crisis--especially with the "resurgence of a dynamic political Islam in and outside of Europe. …