Even after a century of Christian expansion worldwide, Europe still matters immensely in the map of the faith. According to the World Christian Database, Europe--including Russia-has 580 million Christian believers, which is more than a quarter of the global total.
Though few of them realize it yet, a great many of these Christians are about to experience a far-reaching change in their legal, political and cultural environment. Europeans who have long been familiar with established churches are soon going to find themselves living with a U.S.-style separation of church and state, enforced by powerful secular-minded courts.
This revolutionary change results from the process of European unification. What was in the 1960s the European Economic Community morphed rapidly into the European Community. Now there is the European Union, with a set of emerging federal institutions, and prominent among these is the European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg, which has the power to judge and condemn the statutes and policies of individual nations. Suddenly, and with remarkably little discussion, Europe has acquired something like an overarching supreme court.
As in the U.S., religious affairs are attracting judicial attention. Last year, the Court of Human Rights heard a complaint by Soile Lautsi, who felt that the display of crucifixes in Italian classrooms violated the secular principles by which she wished to raise her children.
The court agreed in a sweeping ruling that raised fundamental questions about countless aspects of ordinary life. Not only should crucifixes be kept out of classrooms, said the judges, but so should any signs that suggest the school environment "bore the stamp of a particular religion. This could be encouraging for religious pupils, but [it was] disturbing for pupils who practiced other religions or were atheists."
Religious freedom implies the freedom not to believe in any religion, the court said, and that means the right not to be confronted by "practices and symbols which expressed a belief," especially when these are associated with the state itself.
The Lautsi decision would not surprise Americans, but it is quite explosive in the European context. However secular Europeans seem to be, a majority still takes very seriously the notion of established churches. (France is passionately committed to laicite and strict secularism, but it is in the minority.) In Sweden, for instance, a land which many academics take as a classic model of extreme secularization, governments still do things that would strike American observers as alarmingly theocratic. …