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Europe’s Realization of the Importance of Religion

8 January, 2010

There was a very interesting article last week from Tom Heneghan, a religion editor for Reuters, about shifting political trends regarding the ‘relevance’ of religion in contemporary European society:

Europe, the most secularized region on Earth, has decided to launch a regular dialogue with the organized religions that many on the continent once thought would wither away.

In a little-noticed article of its Lisbon Treaty, which went into effect on December 1, the European Union agreed to hold an “open, transparent and regular dialogue” with churches, religious associations and secular groups.

What this dialogue will look like is not yet clear, but the fact the European Union has agreed to it reflects the evolving role of religion in a region where it is often overlooked.

Heneghan traces the change to a growing realization of the importance of religious belief and convictions after 9/11:

The change stems from a specific date — Sept 11, 2001 — but it took a while before Europe grasped that those attacks in New York and Washington shattered a widespread belief that faith was a private matter due to wither away in modern societies.

His article is very interesting, I think, for two reasons.

First, it does a pretty good job of showing how secularism (in the sense of ‘a widespread belief that faith is a private matter due to wither away in modern societies’) is arguably a lot closer to withering away than religion is. For a long time there has been an element of modern, progressive Western culture that says it’s the primitive and backward parts of the world that cling to the kinds of beliefs, convictions, and religious practices that actually matter in personal, family, and communal life. “Those people will evolve out of that superstitious nonsense like we have, eventually,” we say with smug condescension. Sure, we’ve never had a problem with ‘faith,’ if what we mean is believing in something greater than ourselves, but that ultimately comes from within ourselves and stays within ourselves. Not only has the West realized that other places take religious beliefs and practices very seriously, however, we’ve realized that we do too. Western secularists have realized that ‘those religious people’ live right next door. (Maybe someday secularists will realize that they themselves are motivated by and acting upon religious convictions as well?)

Second, it’s very interesting to me that the response among Christian groups to Europe’s new-found interest in the significance of religious matters has mostly been one of attempting to leverage greater political and cultural influence:

In this new atmosphere, the Lisbon Treaty’s Article 17 creating the EU’s dialogue with faith leaders aroused little interest beyond groups like Britain’s National Secularist Society, which said it gave the Vatican “arm-twisting status.”

But religious groups noticed it and opened or boosted their representations in Brussels. Catholic bishops across Europe cited it to support ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.

Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians have been discussing how to coordinate their lobbying efforts.

This both interests and concerns me, as it’s far too common — whether in Europe or America — for Christian groups to appeal to the ‘Christian roots’ of the countries or the cultures they’re trying to influence in order to get something like ‘arm-twisting status.’ In other words, what tends to happen is that we get upset with the secular version of the separation of church and state, so that if the state shows any interest in ‘religion’ as such, we forget about the Christian version of the separation of church and state. It becomes very attractive to try to get a seat at the table, even if we end up coming across as the Morality Branch of the government (and with just as little real power in such cases as the actual government!).

It’s true that the strict privatization of religious belief and practice is a poor  reflection of what’s actually the case in real life in most of the world. Europe’s beginning to realize that not everyone holds such an ideal of separation (which in the end makes religion irrelevant, at least organized religion). But what about Christians? What do we do when Europe (like America has) opens its eyes to the bald fact of the importance of religion for so much of its population?

Well, I’m not sure exactly what we should do, since that may well be different in each case. But what we shouldn’t do is anything that might obstruct or compromise the announcement of the gospel of God’s grace toward sinners through trusting in Jesus Christ alone. In this very real sense, the Church isn’t just another ‘religious’ group. We’re the very opposite: we call everyone to repent from dead works and trust in God (Heb 6:1). We proclaim Christ crucified and resurrected, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Cor 1:22-23). And what we also do is love our neighbor, chiefly by being salt and light through the gospel, and no less so working for the good and prosperity of the societies in which we live. We know these societies themselves are not the Kingdom of God, nor ever will be. The Kingdom has broken in to these societies, not with the sword but with the promise of mercy for all who believe.

Others can say all this much better than me: Check out these previous C or C posts, all discussing the Christian’s and the Church’s relationship to the state, from David VanDrunen:

Should Individual Christians Be Involved in the Coercive State?, 16 Dec 2009

David VanDrunen’s inaugural lecture at WSC: The Gospel and the Kingdom of God, 21 Feb 2008

A Law Inherent to Human Nature: “A Must-Read for Every Politically Concerned Christian”, 4 Oct 2007

(p)review: A Biblical Case for Natural Law, 2 Oct 2007

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