TAKING RELIGION SERIOUSLY : They Do It in Godless Europe

By Pfaff, William | Commonweal, November 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

TAKING RELIGION SERIOUSLY : They Do It in Godless Europe


Pfaff, William, Commonweal


A striking difference between intellectual debate in Europe and in the United States is the importance accorded religion and religious thought in what otherwise is a largely secularized-even "post-Christian"-Europe.

The United States has the churchgoers, the highest level of religious attendance in any of the industrial countries. Religion has a place in American public life, but a narrowly limited one. The Senate has a chaplain who prays over its deliberations. The president presides over "prayer breakfasts." Most presidents make a point of conspicuous Sunday church attendance, even when their piety is not otherwise evident. Clergy are invited to deliver the innocuous homily or bestow an "interfaith" blessing on public occasions. But when political figures, academic specialists, and public intellectuals get down to serious business, the clergy are expected to leave and shut the door behind them.

Religious and "value" issues are intensely debated in the country's political campaigns. Communities are riven by the abortion debate and "creation science." Public school prayer and other civic manifestations of establishment Protestantism-which were commonplace in the United States in the 1950s and before, when the country had not yet decided to become a multicultural society-would still be widespread were it not for the modern Supreme Court's rulings against them, and the unflagging vigilance of the American Civil Liberties Union. However, religion and religious thought find virtually no place in the mainstream intellectual debates of the nation. Religions exercise public influence only as pressure groups or lobbies-not on the merits of the arguments they make about society. Their statements on general public issues have an impact on congressional debate or executive policy making only when there is a threat of political campaign intervention.

Recently, I spent three days at a forum sponsored by the Czech government and presided over by Czech President Vaclav Havel. The topics included issues confronting the so-called "transitional" countries of the former Communist bloc; relations between the developed countries and the poor ones; and the prospect before us as we enter the new millennium. This was one of many such meetings held this premillennium year. Notable, though, was the mix of backgrounds among those invited. Participants included former Communist-bloc dissidents-President Havel and Adam Michnik from Poland; Russian human-rights defender Serguey Kovalyov; Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel; South Africa's former president, Willem de Klerk; the Hashemite Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan and Hanan Ashrawi of the Palestinian Legislative Council; George Soros, Jeffrey Sachs, and Osvaldo Sunkel from the worlds of finance and economics; and political intellectuals from academia and journalism.

However, there was also a Christian Orthodox metropolitan from Turkey, a Tendai Buddhist abbot from Japan, an American rabbi now living in London, a German theologian, and an Islamic scholar. …

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