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The Connection of Church and State in Modern Europe

Updated on February 11, 2014

For thousands of years Europe has asserted itself as a conglomeration of deeply rooted religious countries. The strong presence of the Catholic Church in most European countries overlapped and interacted strongly with political affairs. Since medieval times, the power of the Catholic Church has emanated strongly from Rome. This power eventually spread westward and encompassed nearly all of Europe. As secular kingdoms began to form, a power struggle between the churches and the rulers developed. These struggles have ultimately helped shape every aspect of the European world. However, the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe presented new challenges to the strong ties that previously held Church and State so closely together. Conflicting religious groups began to challenge how strongly the church should influence political life and sought a clean separation between the secular and the spiritual. A huge rise in immigration into European countries gave ways to many new or formerly minute religions that now demanded equality in the previously Christian-dominated continent. Since the eruption of multiple religious denominations, Europe has been experiencing significant struggles in placating the religious needs of its people.

While there has been a strong push for the separation of Church and State in Europe, there has not necessarily been much advancement in this regard. An article titled "Church and State in Europe" offers important insight into this fact:

Unlike the situation in the United states, religion is taught in the public schools in most countries of Western Europe, with the exception of France. In Austria the churches have their own tax bureau that can call on the government for assistance. Belgium pays salaries to all clerics (and this includes rabbis), as does Luxembourg. In other words, there are established churches, state-supported churches, state-related churches, and so forth.1

Catholicism is taught to children even in public schools. In America, religion is only taught to children in private schools. In Europe, however, it is clear there is still a strong Christian presence in state operations and state-funded organizations such as schools. Even though many religious groups are pushing for religious freedom and religious equality and to break away from the church and state connections, this has not yet been accomplished.


Two European countries in particular have made more progress than most in this respect:

...There are two countries where Church and State were and still are separated: Portugal and France. In Portugal, this was even true under the pious Antonio Salazar. Religion was taught only in church buildings (though in the Portuguese colonies it crept into the public schools). In France, the public schools offer no religious instruction, but religion is taught in the lycee--high school--by chaplains authorized by the local bishop. Even non-Catholics can receive religious instruction from the chaplains, religion being considered part and parcel of higher general education. Without such knowledge, the Reformation, large sections of history, or even the essential nature of the great cathedrals is incomprehensible. France is the most progressive European country in terms of religious tolerance, as they have state-supported ecoles libres--free schools--90 per cent of which are Catholic, but there also are Calvinist, Lutheran, and Jewish ecoles libres. The Mitterrand government wanted to nationalize all these schools, but this provoked vast denominations that have forced the government to reconsider.2

France is able to teach students in public schools about many different religions, not just Catholicism. This country is profoundly dedicated to maintaining a separation of religion and politics. This is a huge step for other European countries as France is acting as a leader in progressive religious thinking.


Percentage of Europeans in 2005 in each state who believe in a God.
Percentage of Europeans in 2005 in each state who believe in a God. | Source

Because of the rich history of the Christian religion engrained in Europe, many countries find themselves buried and overwhelmed by the presence of these organized religious groups. They find it difficult to break the strong religious tradition which has so heavily influenced their country's culture and heritage. At an organized Christian religions conference called "Network for Interfaith Concerns" in Europe in 2006, one participant recounts her experience by explaining:

In many parts of Europe a specific Christian tradition has an apparently privileged position, either as an official 'state church' or through a demographic weight that has given it access to national corridors of power and a sense of quasi-establishment. We learned what this meant in the different countries represented amongst us. The reality ranged from nations where churches and clergy were funded from national taxes, through the situation in England in which the Church of England may have political influence but in reality receives very little finance from the public purse, to the situation in France where the official doctrine of laicite is necessarily modified to take account of the continuing influence of the Roman Catholic Church.3

This inside view reveals real-life concerns regarding Church and State issues in Europe. While it could be said that Christian establishments in the United States have similar privileges over other religions, it is not as significant as the experiences of the Christian churches in Europe.

Another issue presented is the growing number of Muslim citizens in European countries. While their numbers stated out small, they have been growing steadily in the past few decades. Many countries are unsure how to appropriately integrate this growing culture into European society. The same woman to recount her experiences at the Christian conference asks of the growing Muslim population:

What models of relationship are appropriate and fruitful to enable Muslims to engage with the State? Should the dominant position of a Christian church vis-a-vis the State be adapted to take account of the increasing religious diversity and pluralism in European countries? Should Christians and Muslims be working together to combat a secularist agenda? How do religious rights relate to human rights?4

These questions are imperative to solving the issue of immigration and the handling of new religions into the tightly interwoven spiritual fabric that spreads across the European continent. European commerce and trade relies heavily on immigrants to provide resources, and therefore newcomers to European society should not be shunned.

The strong role of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe will most likely not fade quickly in the future. It has been an integral part of life for many European countries, and like other foreign countries deeply entwined in their religious history, the various nations of Europe will not be able to immediately shed their ties with the Church. However, with continually progressive concepts emerging into European society regarding the increase in popularity of religious freedoms and surge in the number of immigrants from different religious backgrounds, Europe is slowly on its way to achieving a clearer distinction between religious and political practices.

Sources

1,2. "Church and State in Europe." BNET. 13 Apr 2009. <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m/is_v37/ai_3650992>.

3, 4. "Religion and State in Europe." Anglican News Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2013. <http://www.anglicannews.org/news/2006/06/religion-and-state-in-europe.aspx>.

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    • Denmarkguy profile image

      Peter Messerschmidt 

      4 years ago from Port Townsend

      I was born and raised in Denmark, and even though most people there are "officially" Lutheran, I can't remember ANYone from my family (in childhood-- I left the country when I was 20) being "religiously involved." As for the separation of church and state... I don't remember it ever being a discussion, since nobody really cared. And I vaguely remember there being a "church tax" (at the federal level) because churches (the buildings) would simply fall into disrepair if they didn't get a government subsidy. But I don't remember people being upset about that...

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      4 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Great Hub, Rebekah. The Church should play a strong role in societies but I believe should be totally out of government. There is a major debate in the U.S. about its role in politics and government. I thought that argument had been settled long ago. It seems Europe is trending one way and America another.

    • GreenPrince profile image

      Prince Edike 

      4 years ago from Philippines

      Good job Rebekah. Well, i hold still my believe and conviction that the church, like the rest religious sects have a strong role to play in the affairs of the society today as they have always been in the past. This very sector in our society has the potential of changing people's world view and the way people respond to life's realities. therefore, any government that deny the role of religion in her system will crumble along the "walls of ignorance and confusion" as the wind of God's kingdom will sweep across the globe soon.

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