Text Size:SmallerLarger

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Is it too early to sound the death knell for religion in Europe?

In Denmark, Thorkild Grosboel, a Lutheran priest, declares, “There is no heavenly God, there is no eternal life and there is no resurrection.” His local bishop, Lise-Lotte Rebel, suspends but cannot dismiss him. Not surprising in a country where just over 3 percent of the population attends church on a regular basis. Throughout Europe, church attendance is falling precipitously. In the United Kingdom, just over 10 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds attend church at least once a month, and fully 63 percent describe themselves as “closed to the church.” The situation is not very different in Catholic Spain, where 14 percent of young Spaniards attend church regularly, down 50 percent in four years. According to the Vatican, Europe is home to 200,000 of the world’s 400,000 Catholic priests. Yet for a decade the number in Europe has seen a net decline. In 2002 the decline in European priests (3,010) was greater than the increased number of priests on all other continents combined.

Does this mean that the question of the separation of church and state, or religion and politics, is over and done with and that Europe is inexorably becoming secular and atheist? Far from it. In 2007 alone, the interplay of religion and politics brought down a government, led to numerous lawsuits to further refine personal religious freedom, led us to seek a new balance in several countries regarding religious teachings and a community’s values, and called into question the European Union’s global leadership on protecting (and funding) sexual and reproductive health and rights. The Godlessness of Europeans has in fact opened up new and unexpected frontiers in the debates over the separation of church and state.

Freedom from a Dominant Religion

In Europe, the traditional process of separating religion from politics has sought to limit the powers of a dominant religion or religious authority in the public, personal and political life of Europeans. Two models emerged. The first, which predominated in mainly Catholic countries (France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy and Portugal), is based on a process of formally limiting religious authority through a series of laws, decrees and international treaties. A second model evolved in countries where the decision-making center of the predominant religion was closer to home and where there was not an overall religious authority for all members of a given faith, such as in
many predominantly Protestant and Orthodox countries. This involved a gradual co-option of the religious institutions into the purview of the state. This was possible in many of these countries because of the strong identification that many Protestant and Orthodox religions have with a particular nation. Indeed, in many cases, specific Protestant and Orthodox creeds owe their very genesis to a national rupture with a geographically and culturally distant religious center, such as Rome for Catholicism or Moscow for Orthodoxy. The proximity between the various Protestant and Orthodox religions and their respective nations means that the religions were essential components in forming and defining national identity. Being perceived as an essential element in national identity, religious institutions gradually were absorbed into the functioning of the state, either formally or
informally. This is most noticeable in northern Europe, where the predominant Protestant creeds have for a long time been official state religions and the national religion’s infrastructure was supported by the state, as in Denmark, where priests are employees of the government, or in the United Kingdom, were the reigning monarch is also the defender of the Anglican faith. It is for this reason that Bishop Lise-Lotte Rebel could not dismiss the atheist pastor Thorkild Grosboel, who is an employee of the Danish government, not the Lutheran church.

A consequence of this “merger” between the state and the church in many Protestant countries has been a gradual softening of the church’s positions on a range of moral issues, which ensures that they are more in line with the evolving values of the society it serves. That a similar softening of positions in Orthodox churches is not yet visible is more likely due to the fact that many are just now overcoming decades of Soviet oppression. However, signs are promising for such a shift; for example, in Georgia where the Saakashvili government is taking active measures to portray the Georgian church as tolerant and supportive of efforts to modernize the country. In sum, when religions are closely linked with national identity, the state has a duty to support the religion’s infrastructure. Conversely, as national identity evolved, the religion was required to adapt to the state’s changing views on a range of issues.

The Rules have Changed

The very basis upon which these two processes (formal separation and co-option) operate have eroded recently, calling into question both models and requiring a rethinking of how religion and politics need to be organized in Europe. That the nation-state is the primary locus for decision-making and, therefore, can strike deals with religious authorities, is an assumption that no longer holds true in Europe.

Today, Europe is a complex continent with multiple, at times overlapping, and mutually influencing legal systems. The nation-state has given away more of its authority in the past two decades than during any time before, both upwards to the European Union and downwards through regionalization, decentralization and devolution processes. While nation-states
are still the most important decision-making bodies, one also has to factor in the power of the EU and the reality that key decisions are now made collectively by groups of countries. The Vatican understood this a long time ago and successfully convinced the governments of Poland, Malta and Ireland to negotiate specific protocols guaranteeing that issues related to morality, such as abortion, would remain a national matter and could never be influenced by EU level decisions. These protocols are now part and parcel of the membership treaties of each of these countries and all other member states have recognized them. The Vatican was successful in ensuring that the system for the separation between church and state with which it was familiar remained the same as these countries entered the multi-local EU decision-making structure. Thus for Poland, Ireland and Malta, any reform of abortion legislation will have to be decided nationally, either by their respective parliaments or by way of national referendum, as happened in Portugal earlier this year. However, on many other issues dear to their hearts, religious institutions are on less sure footing.

An emerging continental legal system, namely the European Court of Human Rights based in Strasbourg (which covers the 47 member states of the Council of Europe), and the European Court of Justice (which cover EU legislation of the 27 EU member states), as well as other EU oversight structures means that developments in one country may become applicable in other countries. Similarly, these pan-European legal institutions may serve as a safeguard should the government
of one country wish to grant too many prerogatives to a certain religion. This was illustrated when a working group in the European Parliament on the separation of religion and politics looked into the concordat being considered between the Holy See and the Republic of Slovakia (an EU member state since 2004).The results of the European Parliament’s inquiry and the expert constitutional findings it considered in relation to clauses on “conscientious objection” were enough to force the suspension of the ratification process for the concordat in the Slovak parliament, which led to the collapse of the government and early elections. More recently, in November 2007, two advocacy groups, the Centre for Reproductive Rights and the Centre for Education and Counselling of Women, filed a legal challenge before the European Committee of Social Rights regarding Croatia’s abstinence-only sexuality education curriculum.

Another area where there is potential for greater movement than would come from the European-level courts, and against which religious institutions may be helpless, is in the area of non-discrimination based on sexual orientation. As an increasing number of countries pass legislation
legalizing same-sex marriage (for example, Belgium and Spain), there likely will be an increase in court cases of married gay couples settling in European countries that do not recognize same-sex marriage and claiming rights based on other established jurisprudence in the EU and Council of Europe area (for example, in the areas of pension rights, inheritance and possibly even child custody). Given the manner in which European courts traditionally have tended to rule in favor of
extending rights, the near future could see rights for same-sex couples acquired in one country slowly become applicable to the whole of the continent through litigation, by passing legislative discussion, which is where the game of separation of religion and politics usually is played out.

Meeting Voters’ Religious Expectations

A Turkish man who for many is a little too Muslim, and his wife a little too veiled, succeeded in becoming Turkey’s president, but not before millions of Turks took to the streets calling for their country’s secularism to be safeguarded. The June elections resulted in a significant victory for President Abdullah Gül’s Justice and Development Party, a center-right, mildly Islamic party. But many Turks see Mrs. Gül’s veil as an affront to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s vision of a secular and modern Turkey turned toward Europe.

In the United Kingdom, former prime minister Tony Blair patiently waited until his term in office came to an end to declare his intention to join his wife Cherie in her faith: Catholicism. Tony Blair ended his career under much controversy, not just because of his unpopular decision to bring the UK into the Iraq war alongside the United States, but also because of his close association with US President George W. Bush. That President Bush is openly religious and professes to turn to his religion in decision-making leaves many Europeans uneasy.

Poland’s former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynsky and senior members of his government rang alarms around the European Union, and specifically in Brussels, in the spring and summer of 2006 over a series of antigay statements based on their very conservative interpretations of Catholic teachings. Miroslaw Orzechowski, then deputy minister of education, announced in March, “Teachers who reveal their homosexuality will be fired.” (A measure that would be illegal according to EU treaty provisions guaranteeing nondiscrimination in the workplace.)

The prime minister himself declared, “It’s not in the interest of any society to increase the number of homosexuals—that’s obvious.” The reaction from Brussels was strong and unambiguous. José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission (himself of a center right party and from the largely Catholic country of Portugal), summoned the Polish prime minister to Brussels in August to deliver a public warning that the prime minister’s statements constituted a threat to European values. Kaczynsky immediately retracted his statement, going so far as to say at a Brussels press conference, “We have many gay clubs in Poland … [A]ll are functioning normally. Please do not believe in the myth of an anti-Semitic, homophobic, xenophobic Poland. Please come to Poland.”

These three examples illustrate the European public’s low level of tolerance when its politicians stray too far into religion and thus highlight a second premise which no longer holds true in the traditional manner of understanding the separation of church and state: namely, that a people’s religious behavior can be reasonably well predicted and, therefore, catered to. As noted earlier, Europeans are by and large filling their Sundays with non-church-related activities. In the EU’s three largest member states, monthly attendance at any religious service is 20.1 percent in Germany, 18.6 percent in the UK and only 14.2 percent in France. Even in Europe’s more devout countries, the trends are similar. Malta Today, a leading daily newspaper on the island nation that joined the EU in 2004, notes with pride that Malta has the highest churchgoing rate in Europe at 77 percent; however, among those aged 18 to 34, weekly attendance drops to 58 percent. Of further concern, notes Malta Today, is that nearly 10 percent of young people who attend church take communion “without ever confessing their sins, a practice considered sinful according to church catechism.”

When church attendance at such a low ebb, it is not surprising that religion should often be seen as more of a liability for a politician than an asset. In the majority of European countries, there are parties based on Christian or religious values or with overt links to religious institutions. They include the CDU (Christian Democrats) of German chancellor Angela Merkel, the CDA (Christian Democrats) of the former Dutch development minister Agnes van Ardenne (a strong supporter of reproductive health issues), the Popular Party of Spain and the Austrian People’s Party. With the exception of France, the United Kingdom and the French-speaking side of Belgium, every European parliamentary system has at least one party with overt links to a religion while also proclaiming that religious teachings form the basis of that party’s ideology. (The French UMP party, the British Conservatives and the Francophone Belgian CDH do not have overt or stated links to the predominant religions of their countries but are affiliated to the European People’s Party, which has such a stance.)

Research into the positions of political parties in 18 European countries conducted by the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development reveals that it is specifically these center-right parties that have the most diverse range of views on sexual and reproductive health issues. The Dutch Christian Democrats’ position on abortion, namely that it should be made available on request when medically required but preferably avoided, has more in common with the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s position than with that of fellow Christian Democrats from Portugal or Bavaria. In every parliamentary system in which the Christian Democratic party is a major party (that is, where it is the main center-right party), its positions on moral issues have softened away
from strict church teaching and tend to resemble the consensus view of its electorate. In those countries where the Christian Democrats are a small party and the mainstream center-right position in politics is occupied by another party, the Christian Democrat party tends to have a more restrictive view on abortion and follow church positions more closely. Thus, with European churches increasingly empty on Sunday, religiously inspired political parties have tended to ensure their party platforms are acceptable to mainstream voters. Championing the teachings or positions inspired by religion does not win many votes in most European countries.

Europe’s New Diversity

The third and final premise which no longer holds true in Europe is the assumption that a European nation’s ethnic and religious composition is relatively homogenous, a condition which is necessary for a true separation of church and state. The church must be able to claim that it speaks on behalf of a significant proportion of a population, preferably the majority, in order to stake a claim to political influence.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the prevailing view was that of “self-determination”— that is, there exist identifiable ethnic groups in Europe and each group should be able to govern itself. In the period ending in 1945, this led to the creation or recognition of a host of new countries—including Finland, Ireland, Norway, Hungary and most of the countries in the Balkan and Baltic regions—and the unification of Italy and of Germany. Ideally, each country should have one dominant ethnic group, one major language, a common history and a common religion. That minorities exist is inevitable; however, these can be accommodated using the North American approach to the separation of church and state, namely ensuring that these minorities are able to practice their religion (or speak their language) by providing appropriate legal safeguards.

Europe in the early 21st century is no longer a patchwork of many small territorial entities, each relatively homogenous within its borders. The European Union is now the No. 1 destination for immigrants, far surpassing the US in terms of numbers. In most European countries, the existence of an identifiable and non-European ethnic minority (which speaks a different language and holds a different religion from the traditional prevailing religion of the country) is a completely new situation. The guest workers who were invited to France, Belgium, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK by the hundreds of thousands in the 1960s and 1970s when work was abundant have by and large stayed, built a life for themselves and established families. Even though three generations have passed, the descendants of these guest workers often are not fully integrated into European societies and tensions have emerged surrounding racism, social inequality, representation in politics and religion.

Some numbers help illustrate the scale of the issue. In Western Europe, between 5 and 10 percent of the population is of immigrant origin. In Belgium, a country of 10.5 million people, nearly 900,000 are non-Belgian. In Germany, more than 7 million are non-German out of a country of 82 million; in France, 4.9 million out of 61 million are immigrants; and in the United Kingdom, 4.9 million out of 60 million are immigrants. In many of these Western European countries, nationality laws facilitating the acquisition of the host country’s nationality have been enacted only in the past decade, meaning that many more people of immigrant origin now hold European passports and are not included in these figures. The majority of these new arrivals come from settings that are very different culturally and, with few exceptions, from places that are predominantly Muslim, including in North Africa, Turkey, Francophone West Africa, the Indian subcontinent and the former Soviet Union. Notable exceptions include those who emigrate from Christian, Spanish- and Portuguese- speaking South America to Spain and Portugal, and from Christian Eastern Europe to Western Europe.

Thus, for the first time in Europe’s modern history, a sizeable number of people of non-Judeo-Christian faiths are settled in Western Europe on a permanent basis, and more are expected in the near-to-medium term. European states’ establishment of equilibrium with Islam—the religion of the newest and most numerous arrivals, with which most European states have little experience or history—is a process that is taking place now and which will consume the majority of time and effort in relation to separation of church and state in the near future.

At stake in Europe’s search for a secular balance with Islam are three pivotal issues: 1) freedom of expression as practiced in a pluralist secular democracy, which is absent in most predominantly Muslim countries; 2) the status of women in Islam, and, equally important, the West’s perception of the way women are treated in Islam; and 3) the prevailing European views regarding sexual rights, identity and orientation and those expressed by spokespersons of Muslim communities in Europe.

On each issue, there is already an indication of the direction the discussions will take. Regarding freedom of expression, many Europeans were as shocked by the reaction in the Muslim world to the publication of offensive cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper as Muslims were over the publication of the cartoons itself. For Europeans, the reaction in the Muslim world was out of proportion to the offense, while for many Muslims, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back, adding insult to a core principle of the Islamic faith to the injurious manner in which the West has treated many Muslim peoples and countries both historically and recently.

The focal point for concern about women in Islam centers on the veil. Is the veil simply an outward expression of one’s faith or a beacon for the oppression of women? Both points of view have a basis of truth. The strict dress code enforced by the Iranian morality police and the burqa demanded by the Taliban are very real examples of oppression and hardly an example of Muslim women choosing freely to express their faith. However, for many European Muslims, including Turkey’s first lady, choosing to wear the veil is a matter of personal freedom and an important outward symbol of their faith and, in some case, ethnic provenance. The question of the veil has been discussed most decisively in France, where the French National Assembly overwhelmingly voted to ban the wearing of the veil in the public sphere (meaning that employees of the state or wards of the state, such as students in public schools, may not wear the veil during work or school). Similar discussions have
surfaced in the UK, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. It should be noted that banning the veil from the public sphere is not a French invention; such bans have existed for decades in Turkey and Tunisia, where generally they are seen as significant advances in women’s rights and secularism.

Regarding sexual rights, many representatives of Muslim communities in Europe have made public statements regarding the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community that place them at odds with the prevailing views in Europe. When the law on gay marriage in Belgium was amended to allow for child adoption, the only groups demonstrating in downtown Brussels against the changes were extreme ultra-conservative Catholics, assorted antichoice groups and representatives of mainstream Muslim communities. The amended legislation passed without difficulty and has since received very little attention. Across the border in the Netherlands, Pim Fortuyn, the founder and former leader of a populist, arguably far-right party, Lijst Pim Fortuyn, was at the same time openly gay, anti-immigrant and anti- Muslim. Fortuyn justified his xenophobic and Islamophobic views on the grounds that as most Muslims are intolerant of gays, so should Dutch people be intolerant of immigrants, specifically Muslims who do not accept the liberal views of the Dutch. This demonstrates that in Europe, where, according to the European Values Survey, more than 60 percent of the population supports the legal recognition of same-sex couples, and where all mainstream political parties explicitly support nondiscrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, the hostile views conveyed by many in the Muslim community regarding LGBT rights are bound to generate clashes.

Emerging Issues

When considering the three main factors in developing new ground rules for discussions on the separation of religion and politics in Europe, namely the declining religiosity of Europeans, the transition to pan-European and multilocal decision-making processes, and the arrival of a significant and new religion on the continent, we are able to discern a number of the trends and flashpoints likely to affect European politics in the near future and also consider who may benefit from these trends.

First, the debate regarding Europe’s relationship with Islam is still in its infancy and will continue so for many years. Essentially, European nations and peoples will have to come to terms with the fact that being European is no longer linked to an ethnicity or to a religion and will have to find a way of accommodating and welcoming the millions of Muslims now
permanently living in Europe. This issue will surface in discussions regarding immigration and asylum policies, both of which are linked to Europe’s declining native demography and to Europe’s engagement with the developing world and its role in promoting human rights. In this respect, Bert Koenders, the new Dutch minister for international development, already has asked Dutch embassies around the world to document the legislative status of same-sex relationships. In striking a balance between accommodating the practice of a new religion and maintaining a secular state, debate will continue on which aspects of Islam need to be protected and which aspects must conform to European democracy. As European policymakers and courts attempt to strike the right balance with Islam, Islam may find itself supported by powerful allies, including the Vatican and other established churches in Europe. Indeed, in legal cases involving the right of religious people to express their faith, Catholics and some Protestants have argued that the right to wear the veil is similar to a UK teenager’s right to wear a chastity ring at school and a British Airways employee’s right to wear a crucifix in the workplace.

Second, the decline of religion in Europe will bring about attempts to carve out a symbolic niche for religion. Formerly influential religious institutions increasingly will seek legal protection which in the past was considered essential to minorities, such as attempting to equate wearing a chastity ring or crucifix with the wearing of a yarmulke for Jews or a turban for Sikhs. While most European courts and parliaments have rejected such claims, they may offer an opening for a collaboration between European groups and their allies in the US that have experience and some success in winning these symbolic victories. Areas where this may happen include pushing for recognition of intelligent design as an acceptable alternative to evolution. However, when the stakes are high, Europe’s secularism usually wins, as Pope John Paul II learned when he called on European heads of state to make explicit reference to God and Europe’s Christian heritage in the EU constitution and was rebuffed.
At the same time, European courts increasingly will have to rule on the applicability of rights gained in one country and not recognized in another, and, given the general trend of courts to extend the principles of nondiscrimination, this is likely to result in broader sexual rights on the European continent. This process will provide opportunities for advocates of sexual and reproductive health and rights to support court rulings with strong legal evidence of the human rights basis for sexual rights, while antichoice groups will have little influence with their faith-based arguments. When one ponders the intentions of the new pope and his vision of a church that remains true to its teachings, even if it risks losing many believers, the answer in Europe already is clear: The Catholic church is a minority religion and is increasingly behaving as such and seeking to protect itself.

The third and final element in understanding the future of the separation of religion and politics is democracy building in Europe, both at the country level in Europe’s new democracies and at the European level as the EU moves toward closer integration. At the country level, it should be remembered that until 15 years ago, the three Baltic countries were a part of the Soviet Union and other new member states were Soviet satellite regimes. When these countries transitioned out of the Soviet system, the collapse of communism left a huge power vacuum. And, unlike other European countries such as Spain, Portugal or Greece that emerged from years of totalitarianism with a sense of national identity, the former Soviet countries must not only establish democracy from the ground up but also must establish or rediscover a national identity. While this process is quite advanced, it is not yet complete and many of these new democracies are struggling to find the right balance between national identity and the prevailing religion of their people, which had been suppressed for so long. The struggle to regain a national identity and to determine to what degree religion is a component of that identity explains the strange path Polish politics took for the past two years with the election of the Kaczynsky brothers. This also explains how a Lithuanian bishop felt he was within his rights to attempt to limit the freedom to travel of a Lithuanian member of parliament when the MP tried to travel with Catholics for Choice and the European Parliamentary Forum, and why Slovakia, free from Soviet oppression and independent from Czechoslovakia, should go so far down a path where it would consider handing over a significant portion of its newly won authority to the Vatican.

It is this incomplete process of democratization that offers openings to conservative groups to make significant advances, both those within each country and others from abroad. It is not surprising that Croatia should adopt a US-inspired abstinence-only sexual education curriculum when one considers that Europe’s new democracies are more open to US influence than Western European influence. Abstinence-only education in Croatia, an excessive concordat between Slovakia and the Holy See and an overzealous bishop in Lithuania will not be the last occasions when sexual and reproductive health and rights are threatened. Thankfully, all these countries now are part of an emerging pan-European legal, and in some cases constitutional, system that can compensate for the momentary failings of new democratic institutions. However, this pan-European system is itself being created and Europe’s religious institutions are seeking to influence what is being created. While the Vatican failed
in getting a reference to God and Europe’s Christian heritage in the EU constitution, it did succeed in ensuring that one article will guarantee a permanent and transparent dialogue between EU institutions and religious organizations. These small victories need not add up to much before they mark a shift in power relations as the Vatican and other churches seek to manage their decline in political and social influence.


Neil Datta is the secretary of the Brussels-based European Parliamentary Forumon Population and Development (www.iepfpd.org), a network that serves as a platformfor cooperation and coordination for the 25 all-party groups in parliaments throughout Europe that focus on improving sexual and reproductive health and rights at home and abroad through national and regional health and foreign aid budgets.

back to top