Another, second aspect of what I am calling The Great Divergence between the US and Europe has to do with religion … or I should say, religiosity. Since 1980, Europeans have been moving steadily away from religion, whilst the USA seems to be moving steadily towards a more religious public society.
Latest figures show that 91% of Americans believe in God, which puts the US on par with Turkey. The belief figure for most European countries is less than 50%, with some countries like France having almost as many avowed atheists as true believers (33% versus 34%). But before you dump on France, realise that the UK is not far behind, with only 38% of Brits believing in God, and a proportion of atheists ranging from 20% to 33%, depending on which study you read.
The rise of Evangelical Christianity, the Moral Majority and other right-wing conservative religious movements had been a source of bemusement to Europeans. At first, during the 80’s, they were seen as a fringe constituency that helped propel Reagan to power, but one which Reagan and Bush I quietly ignored once in power (Roe v. Wade still in place).
Matters such as the banning of stem cell research, or teaching Creationism in schools, make Europeans scratch their heads, but they often see these things in the context of overall US history, and thus part of the uniquely varied American landscape – and after all, if the US wants to cede whole areas of technological innovation, then so much the better for them. More recently, however, the influence of religion on public policy has become perplexing and, in a way quite scary for Europeans.
For a continent that saw a long and bloody history of religious conflict (30 Years War, 100 Years War, Crusades), the idea of politicians wrapping themselves not only in flags but in scripture is a dangerous thing. They have been there and done that. The many “misquotes” from Bush and his generals, which put a religious spin on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are seen as counterproductive, and feeding into the Jihadists diatribes.
Religious politicians in the US have always leaned heavily against conservation and the environment, believing that God gave the land to Americans to use as they see fit. Now we have leaders in Congress who do not believe in global climate change because of God’s promise to Noah after the Great Flood. For a European, to ignore all the data and simply believe that God will not let the Earth be destroyed is, quite simply, incomprehensible. Even European religious leaders embrace the ideas of stewardship and husbandry of the Earth and its resources.
Social policy is another area that Europeans prefer not to leave in God’s hands. G.W. Bush’s “Compassionate Conservatism”, which relied on religiously funded private organisations to provide a wide range social services, is something that would be a non-starter in most European societies. Indeed, in Europe it seems that the greater and more successful the social welfare state, the lower the rate of belief in God. Sweden, Denmark, Norway and France, who have arguably the strongest and most successful socialised systems in the world, all have populations in which two-thirds of the people do not believe in God.
On the other hand, the countries currently giving the EU the most trouble – Portugal, Ireland, Spain, Greece and Italy – are all on the other side of the coin, with over 70% of their people believing in God.
Those countries should realise that nowhere on any Euro note does it say, “In God We Trust.”