The role of religion in public life is markedly different on both sides of the Atlantic. In most European countries, ties with Christian churches and the creeds they profess, as well as church attendance, have grown weak. Less than 15% of Germans, for example, go to church every week. The United States, in contrast, is a country of believers and churchgoers. Four out of ten Americans say that they go to a church service every week, while 75% go at least twice a year. A majority of Americans pray every day. Less than 5% never pray.
There are signs, however, that the process of secularization in Europe is beginning to slow down. The proportion of Germans who regard their religious beliefs as very important to themselves has even risen from 22% in 1986 to 27% (in eastern Germany the number has increased from 14% to 23%) since 1993. According to a survey carried out by the Allensbach Institute of Public Opinion Research in 2006, a quarter of parents believe that children should acquire strong ties with a particular religion or denomination at home.
Religion plays an important part in German society, albeit one that differs from the US. God is referred to in the preamble to the Basic Law, Germany’s constitution. The right of religious communities, which are bodies corporate under public law, to levy taxes is enshrined in the Basic Law. These are the Protestant and Catholic churches and the Jewish communities at present but they could include Islamic communities in the future. The state finances the chaplaincy services for the armed forces. Religious communities have a legal right to broadcast programs on state radio and television stations. Relations between the state and religious communities are governed by numerous agreements. All of this would be inconceivable in the US with its strict separation of state and church.
Moreover, in Germany the Protestant and Catholic churches and the Central Council of Jews enjoy a high degree of credibility outside their own congregations when it comes to their views on the ethics of war and peace, development and immigration policy, and social issues. Religious education at public schools (and the voluntary attendance of students) is, in contrast to the US, widespread. Alongside Protestant, Catholic and Jewish classes, several German states are also offering Islamic education in public schools. Unlike a majority of Americans, Germans do not regard this as a violation of the state’s neutrality toward different religions.
To proclaim a gap between a godless Europe and a god-fearing America is thus one-sided. Europeans and Americans have different approaches to religion, which are shaped by their respective historical experiences. Yet they share the same democratic values, which are the basis for mutual understanding. While agreement is not always possible, Europeans and Americans should learn more about each other’s point of view. A more sustained exchange of ideas and a deeper transatlantic dialogue will make for a more solid transatlantic relationship.
Karsten Voigt has been Coordinator for German-American Cooperation in the German Foreign Office since 1999. He has worked in the German Parliament since 1976, most notably as foreign affairs spokesman for the governing SPD party. Mr. Voigt is a member of the Atlantic Initiative Advisory Board.
Read Karsten Voigt’s full speech on the role of religion in Europe here.
Related Materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Ray Suarez on Religion and the American Vote
- William H. Taft and Frances G. Burwell say it is Time For a Transatlantic Consensus on International Law
- Bertelsmann Study Finds Europeans and Americans Want More Transatlantic Cooperation