Saturday, June 21, 2008

Reason is on the rise in Europe

...Or so it would seem according to the complaints here.

Last november I spent a week in Germany courtesy of the Konrad Adenauer Institute, a foundation named after the first chancellor of West Germany. Adenauer had the unenviable job of restoring government to a demoralized land in which every large city had been bombed to rubble. He founded the Christian Democratic Union political party and, with the help of U.S. largesse in the Marshall Plan, led Germany into a new era.

Oh well. No one's perfect.

This party's very name shows a major difference in European and American approaches to religion and politics.

Clearly! The US wisely stays clear of religious entanglements in government by keeping them separate.

Whereas the U.S. insists on a strict separation of church and state, the monarch of Britain holds the title "Supreme Governor of the Church of England," Polish priests openly campaign for like-minded politicians, and many European governments subsidize church activities, including the teaching of religion in public schools.

Yep. The US saw the effects of these horribly misguided ideas and chose a better path to follow. Good job, USA!

On the day Nicolae Ceausescu was executed in Romania, ending 45 years of Communist rule, the state television station led with the pronouncement, "Today the Antichrist died and Jesus Christ was reborn in Romania!" To European eyes, our controversies over Christmas crèches and the Ten Commandments in public places seem strange indeed.

Too bad for them. Not having the government dictate our religious beliefs is a really good idea.

Yet in the last 50 years, almost all European countries have seen a precipitous decline in church attendance and religious belief. When Harris pollsters asked, "Do you believe in any form of God or supreme being?" only 27 percent of French and 35 percent of British respondents said yes; the others counted themselves atheist, agnostic, or unsure.

Yay! Reason is on the rise in Europe!

Germany offers an interesting case study. Although only 41 percent of adults claim to believe in God, a majority of Germans still formally belong to a church, though few attend. Church affiliation in Germany matters, if for no other reason than it adds an extra 8 percent or so to your income tax bill. In other words, if you declare yourself an unbeliever, you save significant money. The government distributes the "church tax," more than $10 billion annually, to approved denominations for their work in schools, hospitals, and general church upkeep.

So what are you arguing for exactly, again? That the US government should ask its citizens what religion they adhere to and then charge them money for answering it? That sounds like an Abbott and Costello skit:

Abbott: So what religion are you, Lou?
Costello: Um...Christian?
Abbott: That'll cost you $3000.
Costello: $3000?!?
Abbott: Yep
Costello: How much to become a Mormon?
Abbott: Oh that'll be $4000
Costello: Rats. Protestant?
Abbott: Special this week. $2500
Costello: Buddhist?
Abbott: We're still meditating on that price
Costello: Muslim?
Abbott: You can't afford it
Costello: Doh!

Now churches are seeing an alarming decline in their income stream.

Which should concern them...not in the slightest. They're in the business of saving all those souls, right?

Every year some 300,000 Germans remove their names from church rolls, with the number of Protestants declining by half since World War II. In one meeting I attended, the bishop of Saxony—the region where Martin Luther posted his 95 theses and Bach wrote his cantatas—calmly reported that of 4.5 million citizens, only 850,000 had affiliated with a church. He expected that number to decline to 350,000 by 2015 and perhaps dip as low as 30,000 by 2030. After four decades under Communist rule, citizens of the East feel no civic pressure to keep traditional ties with a church.

That those citizens feel no civic pressure to do something they don't want to do is a good thing! That they feel no pressure whatsoever to keep ties to a church says lots and lots about what the church is actually offering them.

The bishop faces a discouraging task: cutting pastors' salaries, eliminating hospital chaplains, and shuttering churches and schools.

It is a nasty job of getting rid of services that people are freely choosing not to support, isn’t it?

In the same meeting, a lively pastor showed a far more upbeat spirit. First he recounted personal stories of the difficulties that Christians faced under Communist rule. His children had limited educational opportunities, and he had to work as a plumber to supplement his meager pastor's salary. Everything changed "after the wall came down" (a phrase I often heard).

I’m confused. Was there a point we were getting to here?

Although less than 20 percent of Saxony's citizens may belong to a church, he estimated that 70 percent of those in Parliament are active, practicing Christians.

Having 20% of the people occupying 70% of Parliament is a really, really bad thing to anyone who believes in a representative government.

Having lived under Communism, Christians quickly volunteered to step into a cultural vacuum of meaning and help the newly free society lay a foundation for moral and legal structure. They realized all too personally what can happen when Christians are excluded from the public square.

I’m sure all the Atheists, Protestants, Muslims, and Jews are grateful to them for it.

In my writing, I sometimes caution Christians in the U.S. against confusing our mission with political causes; the close association of evangelicals with particular political causes can easily derail our mission.

Good plan. Lets keep religion and government separate. Sounds like we’re on the same page here!

The East Germans have a different perspective, for understandable reasons. They believe that Christians have an important role to play in society. As one of the German politicians expressed it, "A liberal democratic state requires conditions that it cannot create."

Oh. Nevermind.

In this election year, Americans are once again vigorously debating the precarious balance between religion and politics. Europe offers a cautionary tale in both directions. In many places, the historic coziness between church and state has soiled the church's reputation. The church in Spain, for example, is still trying to recover from the damage done by its close ties with the dictator Francisco Franco. Yet as the Saxon pastor pointed out, Christians remove themselves from the public square only at their peril. Finding the proper balance has profound implications for both church and state.

Yep. The cautionary tale is that if you force people to have a particular religion that they don’t want, it’s a bad thing. And if you force people not to have religion when they want one, it’s a bad thing.

The only reasonable idea, therefore, is to not have the government interfere at all and remain neutral. Doesn’t that make perfect sense? Of course it does. That’s what you’re getting at, I’m sure.

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