Thursday, April 21, 2005

Why Europeans and Americans Differ on Religion

Anne Applebaum, one of my favorite columnists, had an interesting piece yesterday I meant to blog on but didn't get around to it. The headline is poorly chosen (especially online where the Washington Post's print-driven elipses headlines make absolutely no sense), but the writing is quite good. She argues most of the differences between the US and Europe are religious rather than political and attributes much of this to the idea that Europeans (or at least their elites) believe the extermination of Jewish people in WWII was a product of Christianity.

There's truth in that, but I think the main reason our attitudes differ so much from theirs stems from the fact that while America and USSR dominated Europe politically after the war ended, it was France that shaped the European cultural and intellectual environment more than the decaying British Empire or the disunited and war-torn Germany. (All the countries were either too small physically or economically to make a real cultural impact.) Simply by its virtue of being on the winning side, France resumed its prior role, one it had not played in decades, as the intellectual eminence of Europe.

To a large degree, I believe this French intellectual dominance set the tone for Europe in the area of religion. France has been the most secular country in Europe since its first revolution or even before that. It's only natural that since many other European states had similar corrupt religiopolitical regimes that this resentment would spread. Thanks to our constitutional structure, we've never had such problems, and by extension, such resentments.

Not coming from our democratic tradition, Europeans interpret common presidential utterances like "God bless America" through a metafilter of Richlieu and Henry VIII. Will this change? That's hard to say. Applebaum, who covered Europe for years for the Post, thinks it might through a combination of a Western European pope and an influx of Muslim immigrants into the region. I'm doubtful, however. Decades of cultural history are harder to reverse than political history.