secular europe rocks (and america doesn’t).

from Roger Cohen at the NYT:

 ST. ANDREWS, Scotland. The cathedral here, on which work began in the 12th century, was once the largest in Scotland, until a mob of reformers bent on eradicating lavish manifestations of “Popery” ransacked the place in 1559, leaving gulls to swoop through the surviving facade.

Europe’s cathedrals are indeed “so inspired, so grand, so empty,” as Mitt Romney, a Mormon, put it last week in charting his vision of a faith-based presidency. Some do not survive at all. The Continent has paid a heavy price in blood for religious fervor and decided some time ago, as a French king put it, that “Paris is well worth a Mass.”

Romney, a Republican presidential candidate, was dismissive of European societies “too busy or too ‘enlightened’ to venture inside and kneel in prayer.” He thereby pointed to what has become the principal transatlantic cultural divide. (thx ed.)

Now Cohen doesn’t actually say much except that he is worried about how politics are mixing into american politics. But perhaps that is all he needs to say. I, of course, have a few more cents to put in.

What should probably be noted, and which does not come out so clearly in the opinion piece, is that european secularism is not equivalent to the separation of church and state. The later does not mean (correct me if im wrong) that you cannot talk about god in politics, but only that you cannot legislate in favour of or against particular gods or religion in general. But arguing that we should ban X because god Y is against it is perfectly alright as long as god Y doesnt show up in the text of the law.

So, to work with habermasian concepts, separation of church and state allows you to talk in religious terms about politics and legislation, but the legislation itself must conform to Habermas’ injunction that it must be translated into purely non-religious, that is secular terminology (no god talk).

So Cohen is perfectly right to chide Bush for invoking god in his war talk (what was he thinking? for that matter, (what) is he ever thinking?) and Romney for his sidelining unbelievers. That is certainly a very dangerous infiltration of religion into politics. But the American habit of fighting religious wars by political proxy, while perhaps rather barbaric by european standards, does not seem to me to be condemnable by constitutional ones.

Now that doesn’t mean that i don’t find america’s political religion deplorable. But i don’t think we can blame it on an imperfect separation between church and state. What we can blame it on is an imperfect understanding of the role of government. As surprising at it might be, it think americans have here a more extensive view of government than europeans do. The latter believe that government should limit itself to legislating those matters which everyone agrees we should legislate (even if they absolutely disagree on how to do so); americans see it rather as an all-out moral battle, where the majority should be able to impose its morality, whether or not everyone else agrees that we should legislate morality at all.

In some (rather perverted sense?) americans are rousseauists, believing in the dictatorship of the majority. Europeans, on the other hand, have basically introduced an informal separation between morals and state.


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