Secular Europe’s Merits

Roger Cohen has an op-ed in the New York Times responding to Mitt Romney’s recent speech on religion. Following is a portion of the article, which also serves as a response to the overall trend towards ignoring our heritage of separation of church and state which the founding fathers wisely supported in the writing of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Europeans still take the Enlightenment seriously enough not to put it inside quote marks. They have long found an inspiring reflection of it 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 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 have produced what David Campbell of Notre Dame University called: “the injection of religion into politics in a very overt way.”

Much too overt for Europeans, whose alarm at George W. Bush’s presidency has been fed by his allusions to divine guidance — “the hand of a just and faithful God” in shaping events, or his trust in “the ways of Providence.”

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 fanatical theocracy. At worst, they produce references to a “crusade” against those jihadist enemies. God-given knowledge is scarcely amenable to oversight.

But Bush is no transient phenomenon; he is the expression of a new American religiosity. Romney’s speech and the rapid emergence of the anti-Darwin Baptist minister Mike Huckabee as a rival suggest how estranged 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 essentially pitted the faithful against the faithless while attempting to merge Mormonism in 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 real. The Puritans’ vision of America as “a city upon a hill” was based on a covenant with God. As the Bill of Rights was formulated, George Washington alluded in his Thanksgiving Proclamation to “that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”

Religion informed America’s birth. But its distancing from politics was decisive to the republic’s success. Indeed, the devastating European experience of religious war influenced the founders’ thinking. That is why I find Romney’s speech and the society it reflects far more troubling than Europe’s vacant cathedrals.

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  1. 1
    Sarah says:

    I am deeply alarmed at the ignorant views many Americans hold on the First Amendment and its merits for democracy. I went to Roger Cohen’s blog, and he was basically being assaulted in the comments for insisting on separation of church and state. Too many people wrongly believe that the First Amendment was only meant to protect religion from the government, and not the other way around. And I am getting tired of having to explain these concepts over and over again.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:


    It really is alarming. The right wing has been working to eliminate the protections the founding fathers provided under the First Amendment by redefining what it means, including spreading a revisionist history regarding the intent of the founding fathers.

    Explaining these concepts won’t help because their goal is to strip us of our Constitutional rights by spreading these bogus arguments. They have no interest in an explanation of these concepts.

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