Western European Religion Research Paper

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1.    Church And State

The study of Western Europe  has been until modern times the study of Christendom, and the evolution  of fundamental western institutions such as the state and civil society cannot be adequately understood without an  analysis  of the  Church  and  its institutions. Historical  studies  of  European  institutions have  been necessarily preoccupied with the development of relationships between the state and the church. During the  Roman   Empire,  the  Christian   community   had been   a   cult   whose   millenarian    doctrine   sharply separated the  religious  community  from  the  secular world. Eschatological  expectations  about  the Second Coming meant that Christian leaders had little interest in shaping this world. The conversion of Constantine, the foundation of Constantinople as a Christian  city and   the  acceptance   of  Christianity  as  the  official religion  of  the  empire  brought  about   the  end  of Christian    chiliasm.   In   the   late   fourth   and   fifth centuries, the papacy emerged as a governmental institution that exercised this-worldly rulership.

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The collapse of the Roman  Empire and the advance of barbarian kingdoms  in the fifth and sixth centuries created the foundations of feudalism. As Christianity came to  adjust  to  the  existence of the  secular  institutions of this world, such as kingship, it was forced to reconsider the relationship between the church and the state.  Medieval  Christian   theology   provided   basic models  of  power,  legitimacy,  corporation, and  immunity that have been, and remain an influence in western  political  institutions. Throughout the  medieval period,  Christian   theologians  struggled  to  reconcile  two  problematic principles:  the  state  was an institution of violence, but it was necessary for social order, and the Church, whose foundation was a divine act, depended upon the state to secure its soteriological purpose.  What  was common  to medieval belief and what  came  to  shape  the  growth   of  constitutional theory  was the  assumption that  power  should  exist within a normative  framework  (Canning  1996).

The medieval Church inherited the impulse of primitive Christianity to disengage from political life, but this impulse could not be comprehensively applied since the Church  was ultimately  dependent  on state institutions ( Wolin 1961). The Protestant Reformation created  a new vision of independent, self-governing communities  in which the sanctified individual would be liberated  from the tyranny  of secular powers and the corruption of ecclesiastical institutions. It was a vision of the transformation of power  to godly rule that  inspired the American  Revolution. Lutheranism embraced   a  nostalgic   vision  of  the  purity   of  the primitive Church with which to challenge Catholic institutions, but  it  came  to  recognise  that  the  congregations of the ‘visible Church’ would need discipline in order to prepare for the ‘invisible Church.’ The sins of this world were the pretext for a theory of the state as  a  moral  authority, but  Luther   went  further   to recognise  that   the  state   was  necessary  to  release Christian  souls from the tyranny of the Church in the world. The fundamental instability of this relationship between  the  sovereignty  of the  state  and  the  divine mission  of the Church  produced  an endless cycle of reformation and counter  reformation that  structured political life in Europe  for centuries.

Sociologists have studied the pastoral counsel of Reformation Protestantism as an important cultural foundation for the growth of capitalism ( Weber 1930). Although the ‘Protestant Ethic thesis’ is controversial, there  is evidence that  Protestant divines contributed both to the ethos of entrepreneurial capitalism and the social conditions that promoted the rise of democracy. Catholicism  has therefore been seen as a conservative tradition whose opposition to Protestant rationalism gave rise to the Counter  Reformation and to Baroque culture and institutions. The stark interiors  of northern Protestantism were clearly demarcated from  the exuberant and luxurious interiors of southern Catholic Europe.

The authority of the Church  universal  was further compromised by the growth  of nationalism and  the nation-state. The  Peace  of  Westphalia   (1648)  produced a political system of nation states and forced the churches  to operate  within national  boundaries. The French   Revolution  created   the  modern   notion   of national  citizenship and a secular republican tradition that  profoundly challenged  European  Catholicism. Modernization has  been  necessarily  associated  with secularism and the growth of scientific criticism of revelation   as  the   foundation  of  Christian   belief. Radicals like Marx and Engels regarded socialism as a necessary   condition   for   the   effective  criticism   of religion as part of the ideology of a dominant class. In addition, the  growth  of secularism  had  paradoxical consequences  for European Judaism  by offering Jews the possibility of assimilation, when the French National Assembly  granted   civil rights  to  Jews  in 1791. Marx  had  argued  that  ‘the  Jewish  Question’ could not be solved merely by the political emancipation of Jewry but only by a social transformation of society. The spectre of assimilation broke the Jewish community   into   reform   and   counter-reform traditions, but European anti-Semitism  continued  to exclude Jews from public life and laid the foundations for  the  Holocaust. Mass  emigration  of Jews to  the USA has profoundly changed the religious demography of Europe.

The dramatic  decline of institutional religion in the twentieth century gave rise to the secularization thesis in the 1960s ( Wilson 1966). The contrast  between the USA where religion appeared to flourish and the secularity  of most European societies was a topic  of considerable  interest. In America, the consequence of post-war  migration  was to convert  religious identity into a sign of American  membership  (Herberg  1955), whereas in Europe religious affiliation was more persistently associated with class membership (Thompson 1963). Contemporary research  on  religious institutions in Europe  has been less triumphal in its assessment of secularization in recognising the continuing  importance of religion  for  what  sociologists  have  called  ‘collective  representations’ (Durkheim 1954).

Whereas post-war studies of religion were preoccupied with the study of church–state relations,  the Protestant–Catholic divide, and the survival of religion under  communism,  contemporary research  has been interested in the impact of globalization, the growth of non-Christian religions and  the rise of new religious movements.  While the Christian  churches  have institutionally declined, religious cultures continue  to flourish in European society.

2.    Secularization Thesis

It  has  been  a basic  assumption of the  sociology  of religion that  the Christian  churches  in Europe  have, from  the  nineteenth  century,  been subject  to  a profound and ineluctable process of secularization. While there  is clear evidence of secularization in the sense that  membership  of, and  participation in, Christian churches have declined, religious identity continues to play a generic role in national  identity and consciousness. In The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, Troeltsch (1931) argued that the oscillation between  church  and  sect that  had  shaped  much  of European history  had  come to an end with the final erosion  of the universal  church.  Religious life would become  a matter  of private  belief and  practice.  The growth of an urban industrial society had undermined the  social,  cultural,  and  intellectual  conditions  that made religious attachment and belief possible (MacIntyre 1969). While  sects continue  to  flourish, there is incontrovertible evidence of the institutional decline of mainstream Christianity (Wilson 1976). Within   this  general   pattern  of  decline,  there   are however discernible differences between the predominantly Catholic and Protestant regions and states  (Martin 1978). Catholicism  has remained a dominant cultural  force in Italy,  France,  Spain,  Portugal, and Poland.  In France  an estimated  ninety percent of the population is Roman   Catholic  and  two  percent  is Protestant. In Ireland,  92 percent are Catholic and 80 percent attend  church weekly.

Catholicism, prior  to political  liberalization in the late twentieth century, was central to the expression of nationalism in  continental Europe  and  remained  a major  counter  force to communism.  Recognition of the importance of Catholicism for moral leadership of the working class produced  a notion  of ‘hegemony’ in the study  of European politics  (Gramsci  1971). The social and cultural  influence of Catholicism  has been closely associated  with its control  over education.  In Ireland,  for example, while the state provides over 85 percent of funding, Catholic boards of managers generally   control   schools.   The  dominance   of  the Catholic  Church  on  the  European right  guaranteed that  regional,  party,  and  class divisions  were  often drawn along religious lines.

After  the  Second  World  War,  Catholicism   also played  an  important cultural   and  political  role  in relation  to atheist communism.  The Polish Solidarity movement  decisively  demonstrated the  capacity  of Catholicism  to  survive  communism  and  to  act  as a conduit of social protest and change, because it is embedded in national  identity. Irish national  identity and republicanism  have also been thoroughly merged within a Catholic  tradition. Despite the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829), the Protestant–Catholic divide in Northern Ireland has remained an obstinate fact of political life. Owing to the political alienation of the  population to  the  pre-1922  British  state,  the majority equate being Catholic with being Irish. With the end of the Cold War and the fall of communism, Catholicism may play a diminished role in the articulation of  nationalism and  national   identity.  In Spain, General Franco rose to power in 1936 following his  attack   on   the   socialist   government.  Franco’s regime  was  decidedly  Catholic   and  supported traditional  values against  godless atheism,  but  the collapse of the Franco regime following his death in 1975 has resulted in the diminution of the public authority of the Catholic Church. Economic prosperity and growing  multiculturalism in  Eire  has  also  brought about  the beginning of a partial divorce between state and church.

In  Protestant societies,  the  relationship with  the state  has been more  remote,  and  hence the political influence of the churches has been obscured. While the Catholic  Church  has largely resisted Protestant  infiltration in France  and  Italy,  the Protestant countries have been religiously more  diverse and  the churches have enjoyed a privileged rather  than  a monopolistic position.  In the Lutheran traditions of Scandinavia, the  churches  have  been incorporated into  the  state, where religious functionaries became a component of the  state  bureaucracy. In  Norway,  Article  2 of  the constitution proclaims  both the existence of religious freedom and recognises the Evangelical Lutheran religion as the official religion of the state. In practice, the  separation  of  church   and  state  is  recognised, despite  the  fact  that   the  cabinet  has  the  right  to appoint  bishops.  In the UK,  the Church  of England functioned  as a national  church with the monarch  as head, but religious tolerance and pluralism have been accepted principles of Lockean  liberalism. In the UK there has been no real equivalent to Bismarck’s Kulturkampf to secure cultural homogeneity. The political  transition from  a  confessional  state  to  religious pluralism  has been typical of English political gradualism  in which discriminatory laws against Catholics  and  Jews  were  pragmatically abandoned rather   than   explicitly  rejected  by  an  assertion   of religious equality.  While the devolution  of powers to regional parliaments in Scotland  and Wales has weakened  the political  significance of the Church  of England,  Anglicanism  will no  doubt  remain  an  important ingredient of Englishness. The UK has been a society of ‘tolerant discrimination’ rather than a fully-fledged melting pot in the American  tradition (Boyle and Sheen 1997).

Prior to the unification of Germany in 1990, religion played an important part in defining the cultural differences between East  and  West Germany. In the united Germany, the constitutional right of return  to Germany  by ethnic Germans  (Aussiedler) has insured cultural   homogeneity   and  implicitly  reinforced  the role  of  religion  as  an  essential  element  of  being German. Around eight percent of the population are foreigners who are not permitted citizenship, and their children  may  have  difficulty  in  obtaining naturalisation. The Weimar Republic rejected a state church, but  Hitler  destroyed  the liberal  constitution in 1933 and established National Socialism on the basis of one people,  one  state,  and  one leader.  In  the  1949 constitution, the separation of church and state was recognised,  but  religious  education  in state  schools was a constitutional obligation. In contemporary Germany, approximately 45 percent of the population are members of the Evangelical Church and around 37 percent  are  Catholic.   Because  Christian   traditions play an important part  in national  identity,  there  is some tension  between Catholics  and Protestants (for example over Christian  symbols in state schools).

3.    Migration And Multiculturalism

The  history  of religion  in western  Europe  has  been dominated by two  issues, namely  church–state relations and secondly the cultural divisions between Protestantism and Catholicism. This historic  pattern has been shaken by two inter-related processes, namely the secularization of society and the globalization of the European economy. Post-war European economic prosperity  has combined with a greying population to produce  a multicultural society that  satisfies its labor market needs by migrant labor. The working-age population of Europe is declining rapidly and by 2030 it is estimated  that  the ratio  of working taxpayers  to nonworking pensioners  in  Germany   and  Italy  will drop  to 1: 1. Young  migrants,  whose fertility  rate  is typically  higher  than  the host  population, are filling the gap between workers and non-workers. This structural dependency  on foreign labor  has drawn  in significant numbers of non-Christian migrants,  whose presence is permanently changing the cultural  map of Europe.  In many European countries,  the foreign migrant  community  is 10 percent  of the host  population.  The most  significant  group,  both  in numbers and  influence, is Muslim.  There are 10 to 13 million Muslims  in Europe,  and  in Germany  the  foreigners will make  up 30 percent  of the population by 2030, most of whom will find employment  in cities such as Munich  and Frankfurt.

Global  aging and labor  shortages  in the developed world will insure that immigration and religion remain on   the   political   agenda    of   European   societies. Migrants  from Pakistan to the UK,  from Turkey  to Germany, from the Middle East and North Africa to France,  and from Indonesia  to the Netherlands have produced   a  diasporic  politics  that  has  raised  fears about   the   impact   of  Islamic   fundamentalism on democratic institutions in Europe. In Germany, Turks and Kurds  entered the labor market  in the 1960s and 1970s, and these ‘guest workers’ are now a consistent more or less permanent second generation, amounting to approximately two million people. While many of these migrants  are secular, Islamic organisations play an  important part  in  their  social  and  political  organisation. In  France,  there  is a  strong  nationalist feeling  that   North  African   Muslims   (maghrebins) cannot  assimilate  to French  republican  culture.  The hijab case  (l’affaire des  foulards)  in  1989  caused  a divisive public debate about  the desire of Muslim girls to   wear   the   hijab  in  state   schools.   The   French intellectual  Left regard  secular schools as important for personal  liberation  from religious ideology, while the Right  interpret  the hijab as an attack  on French national  custom. In English culture, there has been an established  tradition of  distrust  towards  Islam  that can  be illustrated  for  example  by hostility  to  translations of the Qur’an  in the sixteenth century (Matar 1998). In recent legislation, there has been some accommodation to the beliefs and  practices  of other religions, such as the acceptance of customs relating to the wearing turbans  by Sikhs, animal  slaughter,  and solemnization  of marriages.  However,  the  ‘Rushdie Affair’ involving the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1989 by the novelist Salman Rushdie and the fetwa placed  on him polarized  British  public opinion,  and reinforced the public perception of Muslims as fanatics whose culture is fundamentally incompatible with parliamentary democracy and liberal values. The Rushdie   Affair  confirmed  the  view  of  many  intellectuals that European culture is fundamentally racist and that  its world-view is deeply Orientalist  in which the  Muslim  has  become  ‘the Other’  (Said  1978). In France,  a  poll  by  Le  Monde  in  1989 revealed  that about  70 percent  of the French  population associate Islam with fanaticism. Attempts by Muslim intellectuals living in Europe  to counteract these negative stereotypes have had little impact on the general population (Ahmed 1992). The difficulties of finding a peaceful  solution  to  the  Middle  East  crisis and  the apparent failure of the Oslo agreement  as illustrated by  the  Palestinian   Intifada  will  continue   to   fuel hostility towards  Islam (Turner  1994).

4.    Conclusion: Religion And Civic Culture

Latin  Christianity had  created  a  common  religious and political culture in medieval Europe. The Reformation and the division of Europe  broke this dominant culture  into competing  states with distinctive national  religious traditions. The growth of nationalism in Europe  had very diverse consequences for  the  churches,  but  religious  symbols,  often  combined with epic literature  and folk culture,  have been indispensable  for the creation of nations  as ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson  1983). This vitality of religious  symbols  in  nation  formation has  been  constructed  on the basis of conservative hostility to both secularism and communism.  The dominant transformations of religion in the twentieth  century  have been brought about  by the secularization of Europe and the decline of communism  as a significant atheist alternative to theological belief systems. In the twenty-first century, the religious map of Europe  is changing once more  as globalization has  created  cultural  hybridisation. The  new component of this  ideological cartography is Islam, but there are other changes that have come to the attention of social scientists, namely the emergence of new religious movements and alternative expressions of religious consciousness involving syncretism   (Hamilton  1995).  Europe   governments have frequently attempted to curb the development of such sects by legislative means. There is considerable public  anxiety  about  New  Age groups,  Scientology and  Jehovah’s  Witnesses.  In  1995 the  British  home secretary refused entry to the Rev Sun Myung Moon who had planned  to enter the UK to hold services for the Unification Church.  In Germany, the federal government  has identified 25 sects that are seen to be a threat  to ‘democratic values.’ These religious problems of a multicultural society are now a generic aspect of European politics, and are indicative that the traditional  Protestant–Catholic–Jewish divisions  of European politics  have been further  complicated  by global  hybridity  (Robertson 1992). Changes  in  the nature  of the study  of religion  as a European institution are thus reflections of the growth of global religious cultures.


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