That’s part of the reason why you don’t have as rich a set of religious institutions and faith life in Europe. Part of that has to do with the fact that, traditionally, it was an extension of the state. ~Barack Obama

As I said last month, most European churches had been disestablished by the 1920s, and many had been disestablished long before then, and there are numerous other, far more significant factors that explain the secularisation of Europe.  These were my main points then:

Here is a list, by no means exhaustive, of some of what were significant causes of the process of secularisation in Europe: scientific advances, materialist philosophies, the uprooting and deracinating effects of industrialisation and urbanisation, the introduction of ideological politics and mass political mobilisation, the material and moral ravages of the two wars, followed by the effects of two essentially materialist worldviews that claimed to “deliver the goods” more effectively or justly than the other.  Where the experience of Europe clearly differs from our own, and one of the reasons why Europe has gone further in its secularisation, is in their experience of the wars.  I have to wonder whether Americans would have been church-going and believing in the numbers that we are today if we had experienced the full horror of these conflicts and had endured the same losses.  There is a basic problem with the thesis that “faith thrives in a free market,” which is that there are now “free markets” all across Europe where there are no established churches or, where there are technically established churches they have no real authority over all citizens of that country who are not members, and yet faith isn’t exactly thriving and has been largely going into decline in the free, western European part since the war.  There has been some religious revival since the Cold War, but it is sporadic.  If “faith thrives in a free market,” Spain should not have undergone the rapid secularisation that it has experienced since the end of the Franco regime.  Italy disestablished the Catholic Church in 1984, which must be why religions of all kinds have been flourishing in Italy.  The Republic of Ireland hasn’t ever had an established church, yet it is experiencing the same secularisation that overtook Spain before it.  It has been the last twenty years of economic and social changes that have sapped the strength of religion in Ireland.  Clearly there is something much more complicated going on that cannot be explained with easy reference to establishment/disestablishment of religion.   

What strikes me about Obama’s comments is that they are perfectly conventional and could have come from the most anti-European neoconservative.  If Obama casts this in terms of the separation of church and state rather than describing religious pluralism in terms of “market forces,” he is nonetheless coming to the same liberal consensus answer that most Americans maddeningly endorse without thinking about whether there is any truth to it.  If our civilisation were devastated in two gigantic conflagrations and much of our territory subjected to the depredations of totalitarian governments for decades on end, we might find our religious life rather less “rich” as well.