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The Return of Religion?

BUDAPEST – It’s a well-worn contrast: the United States is religious, Europe is secular. Yet, in some respects, this clichéd opposition has actually been reversed recently: religion played virtually no role during the last American presidential elections, while in a range of different European countries major controversies about religion have flared up, suggesting that questions of faith are back at the center of European politics.

Consider French President Nicolas Sarkozy. On numerous occasions, he has argued that his country needs to rethink its traditional strict separation of state and religion, called laïcité . In particular, according to the twice-divorced self-confessed “cultural Catholic,” France should develop a “positive secularism.” In contrast to negative laïcité , which according to Sarkozy “excludes and denounces,” laïcité positive invites “dialogue” and recognizes the social benefits of religion.

In a much criticized speech in Rome at the end of 2007, Sarkozy acknowledged the Christian roots of France, “the eldest daughter of the Church”; he also praised Islam during a visit to Saudi Arabia. Now he wants state subsidies for faith-based organizations – a policy proposal that upsets his many secularist critics.

This new appeal to religion – after a long period when it was taken for granted that secularization would make religion less and less politically relevant – is not an exclusively French phenomenon. The Spanish People’s Party tried hard to mobilize Catholics during the election campaign in March 2008. The church supported the PP against a prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, whose advocacy of gay marriage, more relaxed divorce laws, and the removal of compulsory religion classes from the national curriculum upset many religious conservatives. Zapatero eventually felt it necessary to tell a Vatican envoy that Spanish bishops should stop meddling in the elections (which he won).