Robert Bennett: Bennett: Religion and politics in Europe vs. America

Published: Monday, Oct. 29 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

This is being written in Paris, where I have been attending an academic conference dedicated to an analysis of the 2012 presidential election. If they could vote, Europeans would solidly support President Obama, with France leading the way. Some polls show that Obama would draw more than 90 percent of the vote here; across the entire continent, he runs above 70 percent.

Those attending the conference told me that this is not because Europeans particularly dislike Mitt Romney. They simply don't know anything about him, with one exception — they know he is a Mormon.

But most don't know what that means. One European panelist, who spoke just after I did, spent his entire time talking about Mormons, portraying them as crazed zealots who comprise a truly sinister force in American life. In addition to the specifics of Mormonism that he considered ludicrous, he also made it clear that anyone who believed in Jesus as a divine being was laughably deluded. It was such a stunning diatribe that the moderator of the panel, an American, interrupted the pattern of the presentations to give me time to respond. I was pleased that my statement received a very respectful hearing from the audience, who thought the other speaker had gone too far. (He later apologized to me, saying, "I didn't know you were a Mormon.")

But the question of Romney's Mormonism did not go away. It came up often, albeit without the venom displayed by the panelist, as one questioner after another suggested that a candidate who was a Mormon would be at a disadvantage. After the presentations ended, an American journalist living in Europe told me this was typical. "It comes up all the time," he said. "Europeans just can't accept the idea that Romney's religion is not a political issue."

Some months ago, I wrote that the Mormon issue has gone away in America. I could have said "the religion issue." A strong religious commitment to a faith that is not considered "mainstream" is no longer a handicap for an American candidate. The two presidential tickets this year contain an African-American Protestant, a Mormon and two devout Roman Catholics. Such a line up would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

The reason the religion issue has not gone away in Europe is that all religions are now considered suspect here. The European conviction that Romney's beliefs must be an issue stems as much from the fact that he holds them as from their specifics. No European politician can afford to be seen as devout; the panelist's statements suggested that religious devotion in a candidate demonstrates that he is not a serious person. That is one of the reasons why Europeans were as dubious as they were about George W. Bush.

My own idea as to why there is such a different view of religion between America and Europe turns on the question of separation of church and state. Historically, European countries have had state Churches: the Roman Catholic Church in Italy, the Church of England in Great Britain, the Lutheran Church in Germany and so on. Supported both financially and structurally by their governments, these churches held dominant positions in their countries for centuries. As they lost their privileged positions after the Second World War, religion itself lost its hold on people's loyalties.

In America, the concept of a state church, alive in some of the colonies, died out fairly soon after the nation was formed. Churches in America have had to compete with each other for adherents, which has made our religious discussions much livelier and more robust than in Europe.

Europeans can't vote, so a discussion of their views on religion in politics is academic, but it helps us understand why they view American politics differently than we do. I suspect that American presidents will continue to embrace religion and Europeans will continue to be amazed by that.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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