Paul Vallely: Religion and politics in the modern world

Stalin's mocking question 'How many divisions has the Pope?' still has resonance here
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It was interesting to see how yesterday's visit by the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to Rome was billed. You might have expected to see coverage concentrate on his meeting with the Italian Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, with a rider that afterwards Mr Powell saw the Pope. Instead it was the other way round.

"Powell comes to Rome for first top-level US talks with Pope since war," an American news agency filed from the city. It was the Italian government - which during the war was forced by public opinion into refusing the Americans permission to launch direct attacks on Iraq from Italian bases - that was the afterthought.

So what was it all about? A continuing search for moral legitimacy by the Bush/Blair axis of weasels? Or was it to brief the Pontiff on post-war reconstruction in Iraq and the Israeli/Palestinian "road-map" to peace? Either way, Washington thought it important enough to interrupt Mr Powell's journey from St Petersburg to the Middle East summit in Aqaba.

In Britain we are largely mystified by all this. Stalin's mocking question, "How many divisions has the Pope?", is one which still has resonance here. We take for granted the post-Enlightenment European assumption that as the world modernises it will necessarily secularise. Religion will be removed from the public sphere and relegated to the private one where it properly belongs. After all, that's what happened in Europe, and it will surely happen everywhere else tomorrow.

Confident in that belief, we can safely ignore ceremonies like the one in Westminster Abbey yesterday to mark the 50th anniversary of the Queen's coronation, dismissing it - with its renewal of the monarch's sacred oaths of faith, service, responsibility and respect - as a quaint residuum of the imperial past. We can wonder at the anachronism, in an age of democracy, of those Poles who say they will take seriously the Pope's recommendation that his fellow countrymen should vote to join the EU in their referendum on Sunday.

Most satisfyingly, we can look with the scornful superiority of the Athenian in ancient Rome at the antics of our American cousins, so modern in their technology, advanced in their economy and yet so obscurantist in their adherence to the outmoded tenets of religious belief. How bizarre that so much of President George Bush's much-vaunted new money to fight Aids in the Third World should be earmarked for campaigns to promote sexual abstinence - at the behest of Christian conservatives who object to condoms and/or extra-marital sex. How weird that so much of the pressure for Washington to back Israel should come from Bible-Belt fundamentalists who see Jewish control of Jerusalem as the precursor of the Apocalypse. How backward that citizens should cast themselves primarily as Jews, or Catholics, when they come to vote.

But then came 11 September, Osama bin Laden, the war on terror and all that. The idea of categorising people primarily by their religion suddenly offered an attractive short-hand. After all, wasn't that how they viewed themselves? Despite all the protestations of the West, a sizeable proportion of the Muslim world sees America and Britain as engaged in a war against Islam. What is certainly true is that the secularist notion of privatising religion makes little sense in the face of the social theology of the international Muslim community. A privatised Islam is an oxymoron. And Europe's Muslim communities, as they grow in size and confidence, seem set to make increasing claims on public space in European societies, to the discomfort of their host societies.

But in truth the problem lies at the other end of our telescope. The religious sociologist Grace Davie recently published a study called Europe: The Exceptional Case in which she argues persuasively that the great secularisation thesis only really holds good in Western Europe. Elsewhere - in the US, Africa, Korea, the Philippines and Latin America - the evidence is that modernisation has been accompanied by increased rather than diminished religious commitment and practice.

She considers the marked decline in institutional religion in northern Europe, and shows how it has been paralleled by a decline in other membership-based institutions such as trade unions, political parties and a wide range of leisure activities which require "gathering" on a regular basis. Europeans, she says, are nowadays less inclined to "belong" to anything.

Davie posits the idea of "vicarious religion" in which only an active minority practice but do so somehow on behalf of a much larger number. Those who do not go to church still expect it to be there in moments of national trauma such as the death of Diana, Soham or 11 September, or their less publicly dramatic equivalents in the life-cycles of ordinary people.

It is not necessary to agree with her on that hypothesis to take her general point. If secularised Europe is the exception rather than the trendsetter then that has profound implications for how world events are likely to unfold in the United States, Israel, Iraq, Palestine, and throughout the Muslim world. Unless contemporary thinkers in Britain, and in Europe, come to understand that, then our mutual incomprehension seems destined not to diminish but to grow.