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Don't Dismiss Europe's Opinion of Us

by Darrell L. Bock on July 7, 2006 in Articles

As an American who spent this election season living in the heart of Europe, it would be an understatement to say that Europeans wanted and expected Sen. John Kerry to win. Pre-election polls here put his support as high as 80 percent. Europeans believe President Bush did not tell the truth about the weapons in Iraq and that the war is a major mistake, inciting rather than quelling terrorism. Living here helps one to understand the visceral reaction.

Europeans have been through two World Wars. Think of 9-11 multiplied over decades all over your country, and you will appreciate why Europeans recoil at the prospect of war and leaders seen as too eager to wage it. They also have a long history of interacting with Islam. That history spans centuries and has generated some experience with the religion. Within a decade, Turkey may become a member of the European Union, and many Turks live in Europe.

More important, Europe is post-Christian, almost completely secular. Fewer than 5 percent of Europeans go to church or synagogue, a great contrast to the 40 percent to 50 percent in the United States. What religious sense that remains is little more than a residue of history.

The British, for example, may call upon God to save the queen, but they no longer call upon God to bless Britain. Today, more Muslims in England attend weekly worship services than do Anglicans. The numbers are similar on the Continent. It is hard to overestimate how little Christianity has to do with public discourse here.

Europeans also have a decisive legacy of religious warfare dating from the Crusades to the horrific Thirty Years War. The bloodshed in wars between Christians provided the seed for the Enlightenment, which took Europe down the path to secularism. The world wars of the last century also discredited in the public's mind the old European order, including the religious establishment.

As a result of all this, Europeans do not understand the religious dimension in American politics and debate. They perceive our values debate as an expression of mere political conservatism or religious fundamentalism, to them a kind of mindless superstition. The greatest difference between Europe and America is likely the issue of religion and its relationship to the broader culture.

In America, religion is more or less expected to play a role in our politics, even if it's only a bland sort of civic religiosity. The opposite is true in Europe. Recently a European Union minister, Rocco Buttiglione, a conservative Italian Catholic, expressed hesitation about gay marriage and the role of women in public life. In turn, the EU blocked him from serving as a cabinet member, causing the prospective EU president to withdraw the entire slate of candidates, and producing a crisis still to be resolved.

And Pope John Paul II, a personal friend of Mr. Buttiglione's, lobbied hard to have Christianity noted as part of Europe's heritage in the EU Constitution, a historical fact that even an uninformed visitor to Europe's museums and urban centers would observe. He failed. In both cases, the Europeans are not attaining their own standards for a tolerant, politically engaged society.

Europe cannot distinguish between political conservatives and moral conservatives. The two are not necessarily the same. Many Democrats who voted for Mr. Bush and past Republican candidates did so because they were cultural conservatives, more concerned about moral values related to nation, home and family than other issues. On Election Day, enough moral conservatives of both parties -- including a surprising number of Hispanics motivated by values concerns -- showed up to elect Mr. Bush. Not only does Europe not get this, neither do most Democrats.

Are Europeans correct? That's beside the point. It is important to understand how our neighbors and historical allies perceive us, and vice versa. Many Americans do not care one whit what Europeans think. This is unwise. Like a spouse, it is important to understand why someone close to you sees things differently, even when one may not agree, especially if a potential partnership may allow both partners to accomplish shared goals. We need to do a better job of explaining to Europeans why these value issues also matter.

Darrell L. Bock is Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and is currently a guest of the German government on a Humboldt scholarship at the University of Tübingen. His e-mail address is DBockDTS@aol.com .

This article originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News on Nov. 7, 2004.

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