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Religion and Politics Interact Throughout Europe

March 23, 2007 at 4:24 PM EST
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Finally tonight, religion and politics on two continents, and to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: In his book “The Holy Vote,” our colleague Ray Suarez looked at religion and politics in America.

This week, Ray has been exploring that issue in Europe on a trip sponsored by the German Marshall Fund. He has been talking with academics, policy analysts, and others in France, Germany, Turkey, and Belgium.

And he joins us from Brussels.

So, Ray, to what extent is the debate and the conversation about religion and politics in this country replicated in Europe today?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, in each country Jeff, it takes on a personality that has to do with that country’s history.

Now that the European Union stretches all the way from Estonia in the northeast to Portugal in the southwest, they’re trying to figure out whether there is a European approach to the role that religion plays in culture, in society, and in politics.

This was a big debate around the time that the European Union members were trying to figure out whether to put a reference to Judaism and Christianity and the religious heritage of Europe in their own constitution. Eventually, they didn’t, and the constitution did not pass. But that conversation is continuing through to this day.

Curiosity about American politics

JEFFREY BROWN: So, have you found curiosity, questions coming back at you, vis-a-vis the American experience?

RAY SUAREZ: I guess one of the biggest surprises of this week in Europe has been the intensity of the curiosity among people who follow American affairs in Europe about the religious component in American politics.

You know, when the president puts a quote from Scripture in a speech, when he makes a reference to the words of a hymn in an address to the country, that is immediately picked up by the European press, quoted, translated, and then mulled over on this side of the Atlantic.

I think, in general, there is an impression that religion plays a much bigger role in American politics, not only than it does in Europe, but that it does in actual fact. They tend -- there's sometimes an exaggeration of just how much religion influences American politics.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, how common, in fact, is it for politicians there, do you -- do you hear, using religious language themselves, or even talking about it in political campaigns? You were in Paris. They are in the midst of a campaign now.

RAY SUAREZ: There is very little mention.

To use specifically the French example, there is a long political tradition of (SPEAKING FRENCH), laicism, the lay approach to politics. And none of the campaigns have made much reference to this, except when they talk about the problems of the Muslim minority inside France.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is the daughter of a Protestant minister, raised in the church, but never makes any references in her own political addresses to religion and the role religion plays in German life.

The one big contrast on this trip was in Istanbul, where people watch American separation between church and state very closely for cues on how to model their own state, now that there is a traditionally Islamic party in power, and a long tradition of secularism in their own government.

Integrating different traditions

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you just mentioned the question of Islam in France.

If you think about stories that you and I and our colleagues have done on the "NewsHour" over the past years, think of head scarf controversy in France, the pope making comments about Islam in Germany, you have the Danish cartoons a few years ago. There was the killing of Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam -- the connecting issue here, the integration of Islam into Europe.

Do you sense it there as a question of religion, or of integration, or of both somehow?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, it -- it challenges Europe in a way that I think these countries and the policy-makers that I have been talking to all week freely admit they haven't fully come to grips with, how to integrate people, not only from another religious tradition, but from other countries with very different political traditions, who generally come in as poorer citizens, who generally are less educated than the populace at large.

It is integrating a poor part of neighboring communities and neighboring continents into their own European system. And some of the people I have been talking to this week have said, basically, we haven't done a good job of it.

And they're very curious about the state of Islam in the United States and who American Muslims are.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do you get the sense, even if you are -- even if these things are not talked about explicitly so much in political campaigns or in political terms, do you get the sense that it is bubbling under the surface all the time, that with a -- with some sense of urgency?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I was talking to an assistant to Chancellor Merkel the other day in Berlin, and he pointed out that, the more religiously affiliated a German gets, if they go to church more and more often, and become more tied to a congregation, they are likely to start moving left in their politics, while one of the most reliable Republican voting coalitions in the United States has been people who go to church more than once a week.

The more you go to church in the United States, the more likely you are to vote Republican. The more you go to church in Germany, the more likely you are to be left in your politics.

Turkey tries to find a new role

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Ray, you and I talked about this trip before you left. Let me just end by asking, any other surprises that hit you, any other curveballs that sort of made you think anew about these -- about these issues?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, one of the most important stops on the trip for me was Turkey.

This is a country that is struggling to find a role for itself that it is comfortable with and walk on to the European stage as a full member of the European Union, and still remain what it is, a proudly Islamic country. And it is easier to do that, and easier to do it with great self-confidence, if you are not the poor society you used to be.

I was last in Turkey 25 years ago, and the changes in that country in that span have just been breathtaking, what you see on the street, what people tell you in the shops and in the cafes. It's just been a remarkable transformation. It's like not seeing an old friend for a long time, and they have managed to change their appearance a great deal, and you can really see it when you haven't been seeing them regularly.

Turkey is a very different country from the one I last reported from in the early '80s. And they're wrestling with the link between religion and state. How to be a faithful and openly religious country, and be a secular democracy is something that the whole world ought to be watching, because, as the Turks are watching Americans for a model, the rest of the Islamic world might be watching Turkey.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ray Suarez, we will see you back here next week. Have a good trip back. Thanks for talking to us.

RAY SUAREZ: Thanks, Jeff. Bye-bye.