Compared to America, most of Europe finds little place for religion in public life. Yet it is America that has a secular constitution, in contrast to the formally religious constitutions of many European countries.
In an article for Aeon, Ronan McCrea notes that –
- “…not a single European state has institutional arrangements that would satisfy the requirements of the US Constitution, which prohibits symbolic or financial endorsement of religion by the state.”
McCrea has an explanation for this apparent paradox:
- “The populations of most European states have a clear majority of one particular denomination of Christianity. This means that, until recently, to be of a particular nationality usually meant to belong to a particular religion: to be Spanish was to be Catholic; to be Swedish, Lutheran; to be Greek, Greek Orthodox; and so on. The overlap between religious and national identity meant that the symbols and other elements of a country’s predominant religion played a significant part in public life, and in many cases still do.”
However, mass immigration means that this religious homogeneity – however nominal in nature – no longer applies:
- “Migration has pushed religion back to the centre of public debate, but has also placed pressure on the remaining legal and symbolic privileges held by Christianity in European states, pressure that may well have the effect of banning religion from legal and political life altogether.”
A few months ago, the Labour MP and former Anglican minister, Chris Bryant, proposed that the chapel of St Mary Undercroft, in the Palace of Westminster, be turned into a multifaith prayer room so that it could be used for same sex weddings. Leaving aside the SSM issue, let’s just consider the multifaith angle.
Anyone who’s ever visited the chapel will know that every inch of its richly decorated interior is infused with High Anglican iconography. It would be hard for many low church Protestants to worship there, let alone members of non-Christian religions. Unless one were to remove or cover-up the imagery – which would be an act of sacrilege and of cultural vandalism – the chapel doesn't exactly lend itself to a multifaith purpose.
For a certain kind of secularist the answer is not multifaith but no faith. In the case of St Mary Undercroft, that would mean shutting the chapel as a place of worship altogether – perhaps redesignating it as a museum, in the manner of the Bolsheviks.
The chapel is a symbol of a wider debate, which, according to Ronan McCrea, has been sharpened by the challenge of integrating immigrant communities into mainstream society:
- “Olivier Roy, professor at the European University Institute in Italy and a well-known scholar of European Islam, has noted how suspicion and fear has been created in Europe by ‘the emergence of new communities of believers who do not feel bound by the compromises laboriously developed over the past centuries between the religious and the secular’. These fears are driving a process that formalises and restricts the role of religion and its privileges in public life.”
Instead of standing firm against the minority-of-the-minority who genuinely pose a threat to our society, there are those who would have all expressions of religious faith restricted equally. With the best of intentions, Mr McCrea would appear to be among their number:
- “The clarification of limits on the role of religion in law and politics, if fairly applied, could help to alleviate the sense of double standards and unfairness that many migrants and their naturalised descendants feel…
- “Perhaps, as Giuseppe di Lampedusa wrote in his novel The Leopard (1958), ‘everything must change so that everything can remain the same.’”
Except that everything would not be the same. Christian traditions are woven into the very fabric of our national identity. The institution of the monarchy, our constitution, our flag, our national anthem, our public holidays, if you tear the religious symbols out of our national institutions, what would be left of them?