'Secular canopy' is keeping European politicians quiet on faith

Published 11 April 2014  |  
AP

The European Union has often been characterised as something of a 'Christian club' of nations, but does that mean that the people who run it are actually Christians?

That is the question behind the research of Francois Foret, a professor of religion and politics at the Université libre de Bruxelles, who presented the findings from his "Religion at the European Parliament" study yesterday.

Addressing the Churches' European Relations Network at London's Metropolitian University, Professor Foret said religion was "back on the European agenda".

"We have to take into account this resurgence in religion," he said.

Attempting to explain why this is happening, Professor Foret pointed to specific events like the September 11 attacks and the Danish Mohammad cartoon row 2006.

However, secularisation is a big part of it and not necessarily in the way people imagine.

"Secularisation is not the disappearance of religion, but rather the mutation of religion. Religion is weaker today, but it is also far more visible," he said.

While these trends can be seen across many developed countries, Professor Foret did note that for the EU religion mattered in a different way than for most.

"There is a quest for a new kind of legitimacy for the EU, a more substantial legitimacy. Religion is part of the quest for identity."

For the EU, this comes up in the question of whether Turkey, a larger, mostly Muslim state, should be able to join, and whether the Constitution should contain a reference to God.

However, the Turkey question is not just about religious identity. It is also about how seriously religion is taken. As Professor Foret put it: "What is the problem with Turkey? Is it Islam, or is it the level of secularisation, or rather the lack of it?"

Speaking about his research specifically, Professor Foret said he was looking to find out how religion affected the Parliament by getting answers to two different questions, firstly, what members of the European Parliament believe, and secondly what that belief makes them do.

Out of the current 766 MEPs, Professor Foret and his team were able to get questionnaire responses about religion from 170.

One of the most notable trends he observed was that religion tends to be a conservative force in the Parliament, reinforcing both political and national divides.

"Religion acts as a cohesive factor, not a transformative force," said Professor Foret.

"Religion is a positive factor for the unity of political groups, this is particularly true for the European People's Party on the centre right."

Despite the Parliament containing people from the same religion from all across the continent, Professor Foret noted that people are still more divided by nationality than they are united by religion: "You are not a Catholic the same way if you are a Polish Catholic or a Spanish Catholic."

The main way religion acts as a dividing force in the European Parliament is not so much between different religions, but rather between those who are religious in any way, and those that are not, but because of the limited kinds of laws the EU can pass, this division does not emerge very often.

Professor Foret showed an example of this in the issue of stem cell research, which came up for debate in the European Parliament in 2006 and 2013. On both occasions, the Parliament chose to leave any decisions to the member states.

"There is little opportunity for the cleavage [between believers and non-believers] to make itself known."

When asked about how religion affects their day to day work as members of the European Parliament, professor Foret said there were three main responses.

Most MEPs said religion was "a social reality", a group within society whose existence had to be considered when new legislation was being drawn up.

A much smaller number of MEPs said that religion was a "source of motivation for political action", although this was a small minority.

Almost all MEPs said they had encountered religious groups as a lobby, attempting to make their voices heard and to influence governance at the EU level. Most lobbying was either done by churches or religious federations, or else by NGOs such as charities with a particular religious dimension.

When asked about what they actually believed themselves, the professor found that MEPs were much cagier, and very reluctant to engage in that part of the research.

Some were very enthusiastic, eager to state their convictions in what Professor Foret described as a kind of "soldier of God" mentality. He found it fascinating that these MEPs and those who regard themselves as secularists used the same kind of rhetoric to approach their beliefs.

Both groups attempt to paint themselves as a victimised minority and appeal to the need of protections because of their fundamental rights, and both will claim that they are defending what they perceive as the heritage of Europe.

French MEPs were almost totally unwilling to speak about religious concerns, possibly because of the revolutionary spirit of Laïcité - the strict separation of church and state. Spanish MEPs are less quiet, but still very reserved, while Italian MEPs are the most enthusiastic.

In general, MEPs do not want to talk about their religious beliefs because of what professor Foret called the "secular canopy".

"In the European political community, secularism plays the same role as religion does in the United States," professor Foret argued.

He suggested that the European Parliamentary community is less concerned with whether an MEP is religious or not, and is more worried about how MEPs frame their policy and rhetoric with religious language and imagery.

Much in the same way that American politicians will often frame their arguments in relation to faith, belief, and other virtues linked to religion, Christianity in particular, so European Parliamentarians need to be able to appeal to secularist values if they want policy favoured by religious people to be passed.

"You don't need to be a secularist to be an MEP, but you do need to speak the secularist language," Professor Foret said.

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