Is Europe’s ‘Godless constitution’ good for religion?

Sunday, June 27, 2004

“Under God” was at issue on both sides of the Atlantic in the last few weeks — with two very different results.

U.S. Supreme Court justices decided on June 14 to leave God in the Pledge of Allegiance (after plaintiff Michael Newdow was denied standing). European leaders soon followed with their own decision — leaving God out of the proposed new European Union Constitution.

Supporters of “under God” language advanced similar arguments in both debates: America (Europe) is defined by its Christian heritage (sometimes expanded to be “Judeo-Christian”), and that heritage must be acknowledged as the foundation of law and morality.

Opponents of including “under God” (or affirmations of Christianity) hold a wide range of views. But most would agree that state affirmations of God violate liberty of conscience, confuse church and state, and exclude nonbelievers.

While the pledge decision is viewed as a victory for religion by some American Christians, adoption of the still-to-be-ratified European constitution is seen as a defeat for religion by many European Christians, especially Catholics. “The Holy See cannot but express its distress,” said a Vatican spokesman, “over the opposition of some governments to the explicit recognition of the Christian roots of Europe.”

Once the smoke clears, neither decision will change things very much.

American school kids will continue to recite the pledge as is — at least until a parent with standing takes the issue back to the Supreme Court. By deciding not to decide, the Court ducked the First Amendment question of whether the phrase “under God” is government imposition of religion, or merely an acknowledgement of America’s origins and history.

And in Europe, nations such as France will continue to enforce a strict separation between church and state — while nations such as Germany will continue to collect taxes for the benefit of state-favored churches. That’s because Article 51 of the proposed constitution protects the status quo of church-state relations in member states.

Both “under God” fights may be largely symbolic, but history proves that symbols matter. More is at stake than whether or not to mention God or Christianity — no matter how many political and religious leaders insist that it’s only about “history and tradition.” What’s really at issue is the question of identity. What kind of nation is the United States of America — and what kind of union will be the United States of Europe?

Despite the emotion roused by the pledge debate, the vast majority of Americans don’t seek to define our country as an officially “Christian America.” The absence of any reference to God or Christianity in the U.S. Constitution was (and still is) a stunning rejection of the European model of church-state entanglement — a vision of “Christendom” at the root of holy wars for centuries.

For Europeans, however, the question of identity is still hotly disputed. If member states ratify this “Godless Constitution,” Europe will follow America in breaking with the precedents of history to form a union with no established church or preferred faith.

Just as the U.S. decision for “no establishment” on the federal level in 1791 left open the possibility of state establishments of religion, so too the European constitution in 2004 leaves in place established churches in some member nations. But the principles of religious liberty found in the U.S. Constitution (no religious test for office, no state religion, full freedom of religion for all) eventually prevailed in every state. That’s likely to happen throughout Europe as well.

Although the American Founders were attacked for leaving God out of the Constitution, they intended no hostility to religion by doing so. On the contrary, the delegates who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 understood the importance of religious faith in the new nation. But they were also well aware — from bitter experience in Europe — that religious freedom depends upon preventing the confusion of religion and government.

No doubt some European leaders have mixed motives for keeping references to God and Christianity out of the new constitution. Anti-clericalism, growing secularism and related factors are surely at work.

But whatever the motives, the refusal of the European Union to proclaim a “Christian Europe” may ultimately prove to be very good news for European Christians. It has been state support, not state antagonism, that has sapped the vitality from Europe’s churches.

Government appropriations of God, whether in pledges or constitutions, are no favor to religious faith. In the hands of the state, phrases like “under God” are soon drained of any religious meaning, becoming little more than historical artifacts in the eyes of the law.

But here’s the greater danger: When God is invoked by the state, it’s all too easy for the state to become God.