Secular Europe, Religious America: Religion, Politics, and the Transatlantic Divide

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Msgr. J. Anthony McDaid

Religion and politics can be discussed on an abstract academic level. But what is really important, what ultimately is behind all these abstractions, is the human being. Religion and politics are combined in every single individual. The believer, just like the politician, is first and foremost a human being and not an institution and has to be treated and seen as such. Each human being has spiritual values, even the avowed atheist, his spiritual values being simply not associated with religion but related to general morals and ethics. Whenever human persons meet, politics is present; no institution is needed for it. Politics, like faith, is embodied in the human being. No one can act independent of his faith or his beliefs, not even the institutional politician. Therefore, politics will always have a religious element, just as religion will always have something to do with politics, simply because human beings get together there. Every human being has inalienable rights and dignity which must not be violated. The important question ultimately is not about politics or faith/religion in general but about the "who" of the human being. Who is this human being we meet? What beliefs does he have? From the very beginning, these encounters must be based on respect. The classical Catholic view is never to seek a theocracy, but also to insist that the believing politician not act in contempt of his belief.

Religious values are especially deep in the United States; religious practice in all its forms is especially vital and diverse. The questions that remain to be answered are: Does America in spite of its diversity really follow the path to the hearts and the deepest needs of human beings with all the necessary respect and sensitivity, without yielding to the tremendous urge of having to rush to judgment and action at once and sometimes without reflection? Is Europe, which speaks so eloquently about many things relating to religion and politics, really able to act when necessary and do more than just talk?

Dr. Peter Steinfels

Dr. Steinfels wondered aloud about the motivation for the conference. He noted that the conservative Catholic intellectual George Weigel, recently published a book about the possible decline of Europe as a consequence of its secularism. In his reading, however, Weigel's book is as much about America as about Europe. That is, it is intended as a warning shot to an American audience; it is a move within our culture wars. He also expressed some impatience with statistical presentations. Much more analysis of the structures that lie beneath findings about public opinion is necessary. Close attention to the processes of secularization on both sides of the Atlantic is needed. As an example of the complexity of secularization, he noted that Americans are both proud of American science and very skeptical of it at the same time.

Europeans, he asserted, see a gap between the evangelical piety that seems to pervade our society and drive its foreign policy on the one side and the crass culture that we export on the other. The divorce rate and other features of American domestic life also fuel European skepticism about us. French adolescents, he remarked, are more chaste than American teens.

Professor James Kurth

Professor Kurth spoke of the religious foundations, in dissenting Calvinist Protestantism, of American national identity. Dissenting Protestantism, which was rare in Europe with its territorial churches, was a voluntary, frontier faith with a constant exit option. It generated more and more sects and factions. Pluralism became a dominant fact of life. With pervasive pluralism, a civil religion was needed as a common denominator. For the elite, that civil religion was shaped by the Scottish Enlightenment and Unitarianism. For the masses, revivalism provided a common ethos. Individualism was pervasive. The secularization of these trends produces the American creed.

Kurth argued that Europe's drift away from religion does not go back to reaction against the wars of religion but to the generation of the 1960s. He asserted that through the 1950s, Europeans remained religious. After the '60s, the unofficial religion of Europe became, as he put it, "secular hedonism."

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