Saturday, March 5, 2005

PARIS — As he urged closer ties with Europe two weeks ago, President Bush played down the current political disputes. “No power on earth will ever divide us,” he told European leaders on Feb. 21.

That may be true when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program. But his remark ironically hints at a trans-Atlantic chasm over American and European values, and the role each side assigns to a fundamental facet of human life: religious faith.

Two events last year neatly frame the challenge: In the United States, a California man tried to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. Americans cried foul — roughly 90 percent wanted to keep the phrase — and on June 14, the Supreme Court halted the bid on procedural grounds.

Four days later, in Brussels, officials agreed on the final text of the European Union’s new constitution. The charter made no mention of God, despite calls that it recognize Europe’s Christian roots.

Indeed, its secularism has led to jokes that Europe is one big “blue” state. But Europeans aren’t laughing. Buffeted by the crosscurrents of secularism, Christianity and Islam — and mindful of a history of religious violence — they are wrestling with their values and identity as never before.

“The clash between those who believe and those who don’t believe will be a dominant aspect of relations between the U.S. and Europe in the coming years,” says Jacques Delors, a former president of the European Commission. “This question of a values gap is being posed more sharply now than at any time in the history of European-U.S. relations since 1945.”

Religion’s role in public life, and its influence on politics, have been center-stage questions worldwide since September 11.

Muslim minority grows

But the debate in Europe has been complicated by the continent’s difficulty in integrating its fast-growing Muslim immigrant minority.

It has been sharpened by tragedies such as the bombing of a Madrid train station last March, and the brutal murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist last fall.

Secularists are swimming in friendly waters in Europe, where religious convictions and practice have dropped sharply in recent decades, and where mainstream churches — especially the Catholic Church — continue to lose members and influence.

Today, just 21 percent of Europeans say religion is “very important” to them, according to the most recent European Values Study, which tracks attitudes in 32 European countries.

A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that nearly three times as many Americans, 59 percent, called their faith “very important.”

A ‘godless’ religion

Although a Gallup poll found last year that 44 percent of Americans say they attend a place of worship once a week, the average figure in Europe is only 15 percent, although the picture varies widely across the Continent.

For some Europeans, that slump marks a defeat for moral values at the hands of godless secularism.

“The new soft totalitarianism that is advancing on the left wants to have a state religion,” complains Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian politician whose ambition to become the European commissioner for justice was thwarted last year by the European Parliament, which objected to his description of homosexuality as a sin.

“It is an atheist, nihilistic religion — but it is a religion that is obligatory for all,” Mr. Buttiglione adds.

Pope John Paul II lashed out at Madrid recently, accusing authorities of “restricting religious freedom” and “relegating faith to the private sphere and opposing its public expression.”

Differences of history

Other traditional churches have felt the same cold winds. The president of the French Protestant Federation, Jean-Arnold de Clermont, warned Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin last December of a climate of “secularist zeal” that was undermining all faiths.

Such zeal has known peaks and troughs over the centuries, but it is not new to Europe, where political leaders and ordinary citizens experienced religion and felt its weight in ways quite unknown to Americans.

The differences are rooted in the 18th century, when the Enlightenment, the philosophical revolution that laid the foundations of the modern Western world, was interpreted quite differently by Americans and Europeans in one crucial respect.

In Europe, says Grace Davie, an expert on religion at Exeter University in England, “the Enlightenment was seen as freedom from religion, … getting away from dogma, whereas in the [United States] it meant freedom to believe.”

Religion and reform

While religion and democracy have always been intertwined in America, where churches were at the forefront of battles against slavery and in favor of civil rights, this has by no means been the case in Europe. There, established churches in countries such as Spain and France long opposed political reform.

European mistrust of public religion is heightened even further, however, when it is mixed with patriotism in the kind of rhetoric that President Bush often uses.

“God and patriotism are an explosive mixture,” said Nicolas Sartorius, a thinker of the Spanish left who spent many years in jail during Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. The dictator’s guiding ideology, he recalls pointedly, was known as “Catholic nationalism.”

After a tortured, centuries-long history of wars fought over religion, in whose name millions died, Europeans are deeply skeptical today of patriotic exhortations infused with religious meaning, said Karsten Voigt, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s adviser on relations with Washington.

Dominique Moisi, one of France’s most respected political analysts, agrees. Viewed from this side of the Atlantic, “the combination of religion and nationalism in America is frightening,” he said. “We feel betrayed by God and by nationalism, which is why we are building the European Union as a barrier to religious warfare.”

Force as last resort

EU members have gone further than any other group of nations in pooling their national sovereignty in the interests of collective security. It’s a concept completely foreign to the United States, where Mr. Bush has repeatedly insisted that he will do whatever he sees fit to protect Americans. …

The differences were stark over the war in Iraq. They persist with regard to Iran, where Europe’s three largest nations are pursuing diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from enriching uranium — efforts the United States has refused to join.

The values gap is evident in Washington’s wariness of multilateral approaches to world affairs: The United States has rejected the Kyoto treaty, designed to slow global warming, which came into force last month, while the European Union embraced it. And Europe supports the International Criminal Court, which the United States opposes.

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