Off the deep end

Dutch Europarliamentarian Sophie in ‘t Veld – who appeared in this blog before, displaying her ignorance about the separation of church and state – now goes off the deep end in British newspaper The Guardian. In her article, she attacks any religious influence on public life, and makes  the claim that the European Union and her parliament are the only arbiters of right and wrong.

Let’s analyse:

Europe is generally regarded as the most secularised continent in the world. But in few EU member states is there a complete separation between church and state. The old interweaving of religious and worldly authority still makes itself felt in many countries today.

In England, the head of state is also titular governor of the church and bishops are members of the House of Lords. Finland and Denmark still have an official state religion (a formality, jut like the English royals must be Anglican and the Dutch ones must be Dutch reformed), and in Greece up until recently, the Orthodox church was in charge of the public civil status register. Everywhere, churches maintain a firm grasp on education, the care and medical sectors (the Catholic Church still is responsible for much of the care for sufferers of AIDS in the Third World, for example. Hardly a bad thing), and the media. Churches have formal and informal positions of exception by law, which are sometimes used to refuse public services such as abortion or same-sex marriage, or to evade secular authority in cases of child abuse (Can you tell where this is going?).

Europeans may take a sceptical view of political leaders who are too quick to express religious faith in public (while in the US an atheist president is virtually inconceivable), yet churches have a greater influence on politics than many people realise. The Vatican has a special position due to the highly centralised organisation and its status as a state.

Worryingly (?), religion is also increasingly making its presence felt in the corridors of the European Union – even though the EU was designed as a strictly secular project (by whom? Not the populace of Europe). The treaty of Lisbon includes article 17 on the dialogue of the EU institutions with churches and non-confessional organisations. This forms the basis for an annual summit of religious leaders with the leaders of the EU institutions. Secular organisations are largely ignored (Yet the EU consists of secular organisations. You can say that it speaks for them, while religious groups are dialogue partners outside it).

José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, and Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, have special high-level cabinet officials whose job it is to maintain relations with churches. The EU has official diplomatic relations with the Vatican (of course, as Vatican City is a state). The Conference of Catholic Bishops is one of the most powerful lobby groups in Brussels (Good to hear).

Other religions also have representatives in Brussels, but they are less influential than the Roman Catholic church (This is not about religion or faith in public, is it? it’s about the Catholic Church and Catholics in politics). Their collective influence is not to be underestimated, however. In addition, religions have influence from the pulpit, if necessary by threatening excommunication if politicians adopt standpoints that are at odds with official doctrine (Sure. Same goes for political parties and any other institition. if you don’t abide by the rules, there must be consequences).

We are witnessing the emergence of the European equivalent to the “religious right” in the US (Just the religious presence, more like). Areas affected by this rise include women’s rights, gay rights and sexual and reproductive health rights as well as healthcare (such as contraception, abortion, condoms and IVF) (Yawn. Hello, 1960s). Freedom of expression is also affected, generally in the form of laws against blasphemy (Blasphemy and insult is now freedom?). Freedom of religion is often conceived as a collective right of religion to exempt itself from the law, particularly the EU fundamental rights (No. It is a right to live one’s faith without fear of persecution or repression, which Ms. In ‘t Veld seems to be advocating).

Religious lobbies are, for example, highly active against the broad European anti-discrimination directive that is in the works. Under intense pressure from religious lobbies, the European commission was initially reluctant to table a directive by which discrimination against gay people could be combated (Discrimination is bad, but its opposite is not mindless acceptance of any actions one can think of).

Invoking religious freedom, the lobbies are negotiating exceptions to the ban on discrimination, including discrimination against gay people, or for the right of confessional schools to discriminate (Again, not discrimination, but defense of values and teaching, of freedom of religion). In this way, discriminatory practices are effectively being written in stone, while the principle of equality is one of the explicit pillars of European unification Again, equality is not the same as mindless acceptance of every possible thing).

The European commission scarcely dares to take action when member states invoke religious freedom to disregard EU-fundamental rights. For example, in the case of Lithuania, when a law was passed that bans the “promotion of homosexuality”, effectively rendering gay people invisible (Who passes that law? Churches? I think not).

The controversial Hungarian media law also includes a paragraph of this type, which states that the media must show respect for marriage and the institution of family, whereby the government aims to constitutionally enshrine the definition of marriage as being between a man and woman (Which it is. A matter of natural law). The new Hungarian media supervisor has already qualified public expressions of homosexuality as in conflict with these standards (naturally), and therefore potentially punishable under the new law. Discrimination of this type is clearly in conflict with the ban on discrimination in the EU treaties (People are not being discriminated against. Weird redefinitions of marriage are).

In the asylum and immigration legislation, religious lobbies are advocating for a conservative definition of “family” for purposes of “family reunification”, or against the recognition of homosexuality as grounds for seeking asylum (Well, politicians in Europe have hardly a right to speak up for immigrants… And homosexuality by itself is no ground for seeking asylum. Persecution is.).

The fight against HIV/Aids and the reduction of maternal mortality also form targets for the religious lobbies, which are attempting to impose their own sexual morals such as a ban on condoms (more than morals, scientifically defendable theories).

This is abuse of freedom of religion (wrong), which was intended to protect the individual against oppression and coercion on the part of the regime (which is exactly what happens if the tenets of a faith are compromised upon the insistence of regimes). Religious organisations do not determine where the boundaries of fundamental rights should be set (Yes, they do). The EU fundamental rights are currently in the process of finding increasing expression in legislation. It is unacceptable for this legislation to be biased according to a strict religious morality (Instead, it must be based on the whims of politicians and the electorate?). It is high time for the secular nature of the European project to be re-emphasised. Europe doesn’t do God (tell that to the millions of Christians in your treasured EU, ms. In ‘t Veld. You are curtailing their freedom).

Perhaps it is time to replace “freedom of religion” by freedom of beliefs or conscience, an individual right that can be claimed by 500 million Europeans in all of their diversity (Ah, in the end, here is the core of modern society: individualism above all else. Well, in that case. I choose to make up my own mind. Ms. In ‘t Veld doesn’t need to do that for me).

Wikipedia tells us that Europe is home to more than 280 million Catholics. Something to keep in mind when denying rights in the name of liberalism.

4 thoughts on “Off the deep end”

  1. I think the one label that could be placed on our era is “confused.” There are many other labels that would fit, but it seems that politically and socially, we (our governments/leadership/people/whatever are in a prolonged adolescent stage of development where we want everything, and everything is not only impossible, but by its nature contradictory. Funny, that “doing God” returns the sanity and dare I say it, discipline necessary for maturing — whether it is personally or as a nation. Blech.

    1. That’s exactly what I think. Our society is immature and needs to grow up. Many voices in the public debate are those of adolescent children ( I can tell, I teach a few of those ;)).

  2. Well done! One detail: contrary to popular belief, the Dutch Constitution doesn’t state that the King should be a Protestant, at least not since the 1983 revision. In the UK a discriminatory law barring Catholics from the throne has still not been scrapped, nor is it likely to be repealed any time soon.

    1. True, but it is a long-held tradition that the Dutch royal family is Reformed.The exact constitutional nature of that tradition is secondary in this case. What matters is that there are religious traditions intertwined with politics, and have been for ages.

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