return to index


Roger Cohen

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 such lavish manifestations of "Popery" ransacked the place in 1559, leaving gulls to swoop through the surviving fašade.

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 once put it, that "Paris is well worth a Mass."

Romney, a Republican candidate for the presidency and former Massachusetts governor, was dismissive of European societies "too busy or too 'enlightened' to venture inside and kneel in prayer." In so doing, he pointed to what has become the principal trans-Atlantic cultural divide.

Europeans still take their Enlightenment seriously enough not to put it in quote marks. They have long found one of its most inspiring reflections in the first 16 words of the American Bill of Rights of 1791: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Thomas Jefferson famously saw those words as "building a wall of separation between church and state." So, much later, did John F. Kennedy, who in a speech predating Romney's by 47 years, declared: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."

The absolute has proved porous. The U.S. culture wars of recent years have produced what David Campbell, a political scientist at Notre Dame University, called "the injection of religion into politics in a very overt way."

European sources of alarm at George W. Bush's presidency have been manifold, but unease at his allusions to divine guidance - "the hand of a just and faithful God" in shaping events or his trust in "the ways of Providence" - has been particularly acute.

Such beliefs seem to remove decision-making from the realm of the rational at the very moment when the West's enemy acts in the name of a fanatical theocracy. At worst, they produce references to a "crusade" against those jihadist enemies. God-given knowledge does not take kindly to oversight.

But Bush is no transient phenomenon; he is the expression of a new American religiosity rather than the creator of it. Romney's speech and the rapid emergence of the anti-Darwin Baptist minister Mike Huckabee as a rival Republican candidate suggest how distant the American zeitgeist is from the European.

At a time when growing numbers of Americans identify themselves as "born again" evangelicals, and creationism is no joke, Romney's speech essentially pitted the faithful against the faithless while attempting to merge Mormonism into mainstream Christianity.

Where Kennedy said he believed in a "president whose religious views are his own private affair," Romney pledged not to "separate us from our religious heritage."

"Religiosity now seems at least as important for public office as leadership qualities," said Karl Kaiser, a German political scientist. "The entrance condition for the American presidential race is being religious. If you're not, you have no chance, which troubles Europeans."

Of course, the religious heritage of which Romney spoke is profound. The Puritans' vision of "a city upon a hill" in America serving as a beacon to humanity was based on a "covenant" with God. As the Bill of Rights was formulated, George Washington issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation alluding to "that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be."

But if religion informed America's formation, its distancing from the political sphere was decisive to the republic's resilience. Indeed, the devastating European experience of religious war and intolerance played an important role in the founders' thinking. Seen against this backdrop, Romney's speech and the society it reflects is far more troubling than Europe's empty cathedrals.

Romney allows no place in the United States for atheists, who do not merit a mention. He opines that "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom," yet secular Sweden is free while religious Iran is not.

He shows a Wikipedia-level appreciation of other religions - admiring "the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims" and "the ancient traditions of the Jews" - that suggests his innermost conviction of what America's true religion is. In all, masked beneath professions of tolerance, a faith-first Christian vision emerges.

Romney rejected the "religion of secularism," of which Europe is on the whole proud. But he should consider that Washington is well worth a Mass. The fires of the Reformation that destroyed St. Andrews Cathedral are fires of faith that endure in different forms. Jefferson's "wall of separation" must be restored if those who would destroy the West's Enlightenment values are to be defeated.