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From the NYTs: Secular Europe’s Merits

December 13, 2007

I found this op-ed piece by Roger Cohen to be very interesting and spot on. I’ve posted a bit of it here.

Europe’s cathedrals are indeed “so inspired, so grand, so empty,” as Mitt Romney, a Mormon, put it last week in charting his vision of a faith-based presidency. Some do not survive at all. The Continent has paid a heavy price in blood for religious fervor and decided some time ago, as a French king put it, that “Paris is well worth a Mass.”

Romney, a Republican presidential candidate, was dismissive of European societies “too busy or too ‘enlightened’ to venture inside and kneel in prayer.” He thereby pointed to what has become the principal transatlantic cultural divide.

Europeans still take the Enlightenment seriously enough not to put it inside quote marks. They have long found an inspiring reflection of it in the first 16 words of the American Bill of Rights of 1791: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Thomas Jefferson saw those words as “building a wall of separation between church and state.” So, much later, did John F. Kennedy, who in a speech predating Romney’s by 47 years, declared: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

The absolute has proved porous. The U.S. culture wars have produced what David Campbell of Notre Dame University called: “the injection of religion into politics in a very overt way.”

Much too overt for Europeans, whose alarm at George W. Bush’s presidency has been fed by his allusions to divine guidance — “the hand of a just and faithful God” in shaping events, or his trust in “the ways of Providence.”

Such beliefs seem to remove decision-making from the realm of the rational at the very moment when the West’s enemy acts in the name of fanatical theocracy. At worst, they produce references to a “crusade” against those jihadist enemies. God-given knowledge is scarcely amenable to oversight.

But Bush is no transient phenomenon; he is the expression of a new American religiosity. Romney’s speech and the rapid emergence of the anti-Darwin Baptist minister Mike Huckabee as a rival suggest how estranged the American zeitgeist is from the European.

I’m religious.

But, I find myself as frightened as the Enlightened Europeans. A theocracy, as history proves over and over again, is a very frightening thing indeed, and not at all what I believe Christ had in mind for his followers.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2007 3:49 pm

    I doubt that Jesus envisioned any formal religious structure at all. There is something to be said for home churches even if I do like the pomp and circumstance and especially the music of the stereotypical Episcopal church.

    As far as religion and government are concerned, we have lots of successful examples? Israel. Ireland. Bosnia. Any of a number of African nations. shudder

  2. December 13, 2007 5:19 pm

    I am as upset as anyone with the Religious Right; I grew up and lived among them for forty years.

    Nonetheless, as a Historian, I won’t let a single cause argument stand as a complete explanation for the horror we are living through. The re-emergence of the Religious Right into politics (This aint our first time to the rodeo, Grrrls!) is an element or constituency of the Counter-reform coalition of American politics, led by Republicans since at least the Twenties, when the party gave up any inclination to do the right thing, and opted for office and greed. It has been mostly an ad hominem style; the Reds, unions, Minorities, GBLTs, Modernists, Secularists or whatever the current label is, are attacked as if they were bad with scurrilous charges, inexcusable logic, and plain lying.

    My favorite political motto these days is “Republicans delenda est”, a paraphrase of Pliny the Elder’s repeated “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed) in the ancient Roman Senate.

    Rant over.

  3. December 13, 2007 6:36 pm

    The Religious Right needs to be reminded that Jesus kept insisting “My Kingdom is not of this world … ” I also happen to think that “Render to Cesar what is Cesars” could equally apply to religion in government in addition to paying taxes.

    Would they would actually pay attention to what he said.

  4. December 18, 2007 7:49 am

    “Romney’s speech and the rapid emergence of the anti-Darwin Baptist minister Mike Huckabee as a rival suggest how estranged the American zeitgeist is from the European.”

    Well, I can see what he’s getting at, but I don’t think it’s that simple. For a start, I think “Europeans” are far too diverse to be lumped together in any category for anything… for example, the French and British attitutudes to faith in politics are probably further apart from one another than the British and the American. And really, one cannot equate “the Enlightenment” in Britain as synonymous with “secularisation”. if anything, I think it’s more about pluralism. I think the reason why the forefront of British politics lacks its Mitt Romneys and Mick Huckabees (they’re there in the background, though, definately) is because Britain has a strong history of knowing that it’s impossible to pin down God/Allah/the gods/G-d to any particular human viewpoint. on anything. The concept of “I’m telling you this because God told me therefore it’s true” doesn’t really work in Britain. That’s why Blair trying to tell us that God told him to attack Iraq didn’t persuade anyone… God had told the rest of us exactly the opposite…

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