Unlike the US, with its "In God We Trust" engravings on coins and in courtrooms, its Washington prayer breakfasts and various other religious ceremonies in public life, most countries in Europe pretty much keep religious rituals outside the rituals of government.
This seems consistent with recent survey findings that show Europeans less religiously observant than Americans and uneasy about a US foreign policy that they see as driven by a sort of messianic zeal that is dangerous precisely because its inspiration is a matter of faith.
It may come as something of a surprise, then, that added to all the other divisions bedeviling what is called the European project are disputes over whether God and Christianity ought to be inserted into the draft of the European constitution, from which both are now excluded.
The difference of view has to do with the constitution that will eventually be adopted to govern the EU after it expands from its current 15 members to 25 members next spring. For more than a year, a 105-member committee, under the direction of the former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, worked on a draft to be adopted, or not adopted, by the member nations.
In truth, the lengthy draft, which was completed and presented to members early last month, is a verbose document devoted mostly to determining new bureaucratic arrangements, like the number of commissioners on the governing body and their nationalities.
The document's preamble, which is not a masterpiece of European literature, is intended to enumerate the values adhered to by all the component parts of the EU, and it is over those first few paragraphs of the constitution that the debate on God and religion has centered.
As it now reads, the key sentence of the preamble is the one that defines Europe as a "civilization" whose inhabitants "have gradually developed the values underlying humanism: equality of persons, freedom, respect for reason." The only mention of religion at all in the preamble comes in the next sentence, which mentions the "cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe," an inheritance that has led to "the central role of the human person and his or her inviolable and inalienable rights."
Even that ever-so-brief recognition of the religious heritage of Europe was a last minute addition inserted by the drafters after they decided to delete an earlier specific reference to Christianity. That was part of a larger compromise in which the drafters also dropped mentions of Greco-Roman civilization and the Enlightenment as aspects of the common European heritage, phrases that suggest the secular philosophical foundations of European civilization. But the attempt to leave out both the Enlightenment and Christianity left many members of the various national delegations unsatisfied.
"It wasn't a problem-solving approach," Leszek Jesien, a Polish expert on the EU said. "It was an approach that put a certain fog on the issues.
"Personally, I'm not convinced that the religious tradition need be put into the preamble, but I don't see, if a large number of people want it, why it shouldn't be there. It's a matter of finding a bridge between the two sides."
What are the two sides? In one camp are the mostly Catholic countries, Ireland, Spain, Italy and Poland, which, urged on by the Vatican, have been most active in demanding a more emphatic recognition of Europe's religious roots.
They are joined by other countries, including Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Malta and Lithuania, all due to enter the EU next May, which support a Christian or a Judeo-Christian reference in the preamble.
"Either Europe is Christian or it is not Europe," was the bold formulation in a headline in the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, a few weeks ago.
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