c. 2004 Religion News Service
PARIS _ George Bush got the mandate he wanted from the American people. What Europeans fear is that he will interpret it as a message from God.
“He’s convinced he’s right, and he’s almost got this feeling he has a quasi-divine mission to fill as the president of the United States,” said the Rev. Michel Kubler, executive religion editor for La Croix, a respected Roman Catholic newspaper in France.
“His re-election will only reinforce these convictions, and he’ll feel infallible,” adds Kubler, reflecting the views of a number of European analysts. “Which of course will only increase European disquiet.”
A transatlantic divide has existed for years between increasingly secular Europe and religious America, shaping perceptions on issues ranging from abortion and stem-cell research, to the death penalty, same-sex marriage, and even conflicts in the Middle East. As the results of the United States election sinks in, the early consensus among European religious and political thinkers is that the religion gap is likely to widen.
While 11 states in the United States passed constitutional amendments outlawing same-sex weddings _ much of Europe is already heading in the opposite direction. In the four years since Bush took office, the Netherlands and Belgium legalized homosexual marriages. Spain is expected to follow suit next year. Other countries like Finland, Germany and Denmark have passed laws granting far-reaching rights to gay couples that stop short of marriage.
Stem-cell research, restricted in the United States by the Bush administration, is blossoming in British and Swedish laboratories, although the European Union is split on the matter.
Abortion rights and death penalty bans, hotly contested in the United States, are undisputed facts of life in much of Western Europe.
Underlying the policy differences are starkly different views on what role faith and morality should play in public life. In an increasingly secular Europe, where church attendance is plummeting, the short answer is: Little or none.
“We Europeans live in a very secularized society, especially in France,” said Andre Kaspi, a U.S. history professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris. “Europeans don’t understand just how deep an influence religion has in American public life.”
Just how little organized religion factors into public life here is underscored by the failure of the Vatican and other advocates to get any mention of religion or faith inserted into Europe’s new constitution. Or by France’s new and controversial ban against students wearing head scarves and other religious symbols in public schools.
Nor do European religious groups carry anywhere near the political clout of America’s Christian Right, which emerged as a powerful force in Bush’s re-election campaign, and in shaping the Republican agenda.
Once mighty Christian political parties are now in the opposition in Spain, Belgium and Germany. And few European politicians publicly discuss their religious or moral convictions.
Those who do, speak at their peril. Antifeminist and homophobic remarks sparked outrage in Europe last week, costing Italy’s Roman Catholic candidate, Rocco Buttiglioni, a spot on the European Commission.
“The Buttiglioni furor, and the very negative reaction he got, is clear evidence of the move toward secular politics in Europe,” said Daniel Keohane, senior analyst at the Center for European Reform, a London-based think tank. “It’s not that most Europeans have a problem with religion per se. It’s more whether they suspect religion affects a politician’s choice on policy.”
Bush’s victory is another reminder that the United States has a far more faith-based electorate.
“Religion is not pushed to the margins of public life in America, the way it’s been in Europe,” said Joseph Loconte, William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
“In the American system, faith and freedom are seen as inextricably linked. That’s been true since the founding. Bush is in a sense the political embodiment of that American blending of religion and democratic government.”
A number of voter surveys taken during the U.S. presidential race showed many Americans gave Bush high marks for his religious and moral convictions. A CNN exit poll Tuesday found some 8 percent of voters, almost all Bush supporters, placed religious faith as the most important quality in a president. Nearly a quarter of American voters considered moral values the most important issue affecting their vote.
The response to religious candidates is radically different in Europe, said Pierre Hassner, an expert on transatlantic relations at the Center for International Studies and Research, in Paris. Europeans massively preferred Democratic challenger John Kerry, an old-world-style Roman Catholic, to America’s born-again president. In Europe, Kerry’s “flip-flopping” is called pragmatism, he said.
“Bush looks like a preacher to many Europeans, and Kerry like a lawyer _ somebody able to adapt to a situation, not be stubborn,” Hassner said. “The majority of Europeans prefer the lawyer.”
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Religion’s prominent role in U.S. politics has been closely and often critically covered by the European media, particularly during the presidential race.
“God is at the ballot box,” wrote France’s weekly Le Journal du Dimanche in an editorial published Sunday. “George W. Bush claims openly he is HIS representative at the White House.”
Like those in the United States, European critics decry Bush’s Christian beliefs for shaping a simplistic `good-and-evil’ approach to foreign policy, captured not only by his famous “axis-of-evil” remarks, but also in the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
“Some people point out what appears to be a contradiction: That is, if the Bush administration is so Christian, how can it pursue such warlike policies?” said Ojars Kalnins, director of the Latvian Institute, a public policy center in Riga.
“I’d like to think that after Bush’s re-election, he would like to patch up some of the problems in Europe,” Kalnins added. “I can’t see things getting worse.”
Bush is also widely disliked by the estimated 10 million to 20 million Muslims in Europe _ not only because of the Iraq war, but also because of his perceived pro-Israel bias, said Azzam Tamimi, spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain. That the U.S. president backs Muslim Turkey’s campaign to join the European Union has not softened those sentiments, he said.
“One thing I’ve heard many Muslims say is that they wanted Bush to be re-elected,” Tamimi said. “Not because they like him. But because they want him to fail (in Iraq). They want to punish America.”
While widespread, European criticism of Bush’s political values is hardly universal. His strong support for Israel, for example, has struck a chord among many European Jews, said Shimon Samuels, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s European office, based in Paris.
“The Bush administration has been good as far as Jewish issues are concerned,” said Samuels, explaining why many European Jews preferred Bush to Kerry. “A second Bush administration may not follow the same politics as the first. But the attitude here is: If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
Whether Bush’s second term will differ radically from his first is anybody’s guess. But analysts like Hassner believe Bush’s decisive victory Tuesday _ compared to his razor-thin win four years ago _ will only serve to widen the transatlantic values divide.
“Until now, there was this European feeling there were two Americas,” said Hassner, the French analyst. “One represented by Bush. The other by the people who are against him.”
Now, he said, “we must accept the fact that Bush and his group are more representative of America.”
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(Itir Yakar contributed to this report from Washington.)