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The return of religion to Europe

by Jan-werner Mueller

BUDAPEST — It’s a well-worn contrast: the United States is religious, Europe is secular. Yet, in some respects, this cliched opposition has actually been reversed recently: Religion played virtually no role during the last American presidential election, while in a range of different European countries major controversies about religion have flared up, suggesting that questions of faith are back at the center of European politics.

Consider French President Nicolas Sarkozy. On numerous occasions, he has argued that his country needs to rethink its traditional strict separation of state and religion. In particular, according to the twice-divorced self-confessed “cultural Catholic,” France should develop a “positive secularism.” In contrast to a negative separation, which according to Sarkozy “excludes and denounces,” a positive separation invites “dialogue” and recognizes the social benefits of religion.

In a much criticized speech in Rome at the end of 2007, Sarkozy acknowledged the Christian roots of France, “the eldest daughter of the Church”; he also praised Islam during a visit to Saudi Arabia. Now he wants state subsidies for faith-based organizations — a policy proposal that upsets his many secularist critics.

This new appeal to religion — after a long period when it was taken for granted that secularization would make religion less and less politically relevant — is not an exclusively French phenomenon. The Spanish People’s Party tried hard to mobilize Catholics during the election campaign in March 2008. The church supported the PP against Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose advocacy of gay marriage, more relaxed divorce laws and the removal of compulsory religion classes from the national curriculum, upset many religious conservatives. Zapatero eventually felt it necessary to tell a Vatican envoy that Spanish bishops should stop meddling in the elections (which the prime minister won).

In Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi precipitated a constitutional crisis by trying to rush through emergency legislation to prevent a comatose patient from being taken off life support. This reminded many observers of what America’s Republican Party tried to do to demonstrate its “pro-life commitments” during George W. Bush’s presidency.

Finally, there is Britain, usually seen as perhaps the most secular country in Western Europe, and thus the least likely candidate to see the return of religion of any kind (outside its Muslim community). Under David Cameron’s leadership, the newly invigorated Conservative Party is listening to a number of thinkers, dubbed “red Tories,” who urge the party to turn its back on Thatcherism and embrace civil society, local community, the family and, not least, religion as a major force in fostering responsible social behavior.

In short, there is a pattern here. But the point is not that individuals in different European countries are becoming more religious — there is hardly any evidence for that. Globally, there might be good reasons to talk about what sociologists describe as the rise of “postsecular societies,” but Europe remains the exception. What really explains these new public controversies surrounding religion is something else, something political: the dilemma in which rightwing and center-right European parties find themselves.

Many of these parties used to advocate market radicalism, or at least strong doses of economic liberalization. Not just since the financial crisis have they retreated from these positions and tried to fashion a gentler, more socially conscious image.

Yet, in the search for what Cameron has called a new “look, feel, and identity,” these parties have been treading a fine line: On the one hand, they have attempted to appear more modern — for example, by appointing an increasing number of women and members of ethnic minorities to Cabinet posts. On the other hand, they have painted themselves as sworn enemies of the left’s supposed moral relativism — an image for which the recourse to religion is obviously helpful.

In fact, some intellectuals close to the right have long advocated an opening toward Europe’s Muslim immigrants and their descendants. Where they can vote, so the argument goes, Muslim traditionalists would rather vote for a conservative party, even if it has Catholic roots, than for a secular leftwing party perceived as advocating loose morals.

This is not to say that all appeals to religion are just cynical election ploys. Especially in the face of the financial crisis, religion has been presented as a source for what Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have called the project of “moralizing capitalism.”

That is not an absurd idea. There is a long and distinguished tradition of Catholic social thought. But taking these traditions seriously would require much larger transformations of capitalism than even avowed Christian Democrats are prepared to contemplate, including a much wider distribution of ownership and mechanisms for involving workers in management. Theories of “red Toryism” might go some way in this direction, but it remains to be seen whether they will ever translate into practice.

For the moment, the temptation is for the European right to find its “new look” through a selective appeal to religion — and wait and see whether it works as an electoral strategy.

They should remember, though, that starting a Kulturkampf is to play with fire: It might be possible to instrumentalize religious passions for a time; but such passions cannot permanently be controlled from above.

Jan-Werner Mueller is associate professor of politics at Princeton University and an Open Society fellow at Central European University, Budapest. © 2009 Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences (www.project-syndicate.org)