Last summer the newly elected German Chancellor Angela Merkel, returning from a visit to the Pope, announced that a new constitutional treaty was needed for the European Union. “I think it should be connected to Christianity and God,” she added, “since Christianity has forged Europe in a decisive way.”

Central to her project is the “Berlin Declaration”, which would be drafted not by MEPs but by government representatives. This tactic has so alarmed European secularists that under the leadership of IHEU (the International Humanist and Ethical Union) a new Secular Vision for Europe has been drafted. Its centrepiece is the “Brussels Declaration”, a one-page restatement of common values, stressing equal respect for Europeans of all backgrounds, cultures and traditions.

Martin Rowson's "Europe" cartoon from New Humanist March/April 2007This counter-declaration echoes the sentiments of the Treaty of Rome, whose fiftieth anniversary is celebrated this year. The Treaty was the achievement of three leaders: Konrad Adenauer (Germany), Maurice Schumann (France) and Alcide De Gasperi (Italy). Although all three were Christian Democrats, they were careful to avoid any mention of religion in any of the Treaty’s 248 articles. They recognised that it would have been a barrier to the goal of uniting an amalgam of nation-states, many of which had been built against religious resistance.

So to insert a reference to religion in a new European Constitution now would go against the original secular spirit of the Union. Moreover, giving it a specifically Christian emphasis would look like a deliberate attempt to alienate Europe’s Muslims, who now make up over 4.3 per cent of the total population.

No one would deny that Europe has a Christian basis. But that basis is one not of unity but of conflict: conflicts among religions, among groups using religion, and then between religion and nations. Eventually, nation-building triumphed. Unlike those parts of the world dominated by strict Islamic dictat, or the United States where powerful fundamentalist groups exercise a disproportionate hold on politicians, Europe can rightly claim that religion has been relegated to the sphere of private life where it belongs. The nation-state, and with it democracy and human rights, has won. It defends religious rights, for these are human rights too, but it does not allow religion to impose its view of the world on all the citizens. Religious morality may have influenced public morality, but it has little purchase on public policy. And the right of individuals to pursue the religion of their choice is defended in Article 9 of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (“freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the freedom to change religion or belief, the freedom of worship and observance”).

This victory of the state over religion came out of centuries of struggle between the two which was essentially political. In the 19th century the main obstacle to nation-building was the Roman Catholic Church: hence the anti-clericalism of liberal nationalists in Spain, France and Italy. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s illustrious predecessor, Bismarck, launched a Kulturkampf (a cultural struggle) against the Roman Catholic Church in the 1870s because it was seen as an obstacle to the unity of the country. In France the 1905 anti-clerical laws drastically secularised the educational system partly in retaliation against the Church’s reactionary anti-Semitic stance during the Dreyfus Affair.

In Ireland and Poland, however, nationalism went hand in hand with allegiance to Catholicism against dominant powers (Anglican England, Protestant Prussia and Orthodox Russia). Similarly, the strength of Orthodoxy in Bulgaria and Romania partly reflected the desire to protect ethnic and national identity against the Ottoman Turks. Post-Westphalia Europe gave considerable powers to dominant religions, for these either were already part of the political establishment or became part of it.

So religious allegiances were often connected to other political and social questions. This is evident in the case of Italy where Pope Pius IX was not only the arch-enemy of Italian unification but also of modernity and democracy. He had asserted in the Syllabus of Errors (1864) that the Church was a true and perfect society, free to exercise its authority without the permission of the civil government, that civil law could not prevail over Church teaching, and that there should be no acceptance of “progress, liberalism and modern civilisation”.

In some instances the clash between nation-builders and religion took violent, even revolutionary forms. In France the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the revolutionary manifesto adopted on August 26, 1789, by the National Assembly, gave equal rights of citizenship to Jews and Protestants. But in Britain, where the change was more gradual, it wasn’t until 1829 that Catholics gained the right to hold political office. Jews had to wait until 1858, when Lionel Rothschild, elected several times to the House of Commons but unable to take his seat because he refused to swear allegiance “as a Christian”, was finally allowed to serve as an MP.

The democratic principle of equality was unacceptable to 19th-century religion because Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Lutheranism had a common prejudice: those who resisted inclusion in the church and submission to its teaching should be subjected to numerous indignities and forms of exclusions. Each religion, of course, accepted the principle of the equality of all before God, as long as it was the “right” God. The history of the clash between religion and secularism thus took the form of a political clash between a civic form of equality and a religious one. Since the principle of civic equality was rejected by the dominant classes, there was a real political and material basis for an alliance between dominant religion and dominant classes.

It is only relatively recently that the various Christian churches have accepted the idea of liberal democracy and human rights, realising that this guarantees them religious freedom, though everywhere they still insist on special treatment. The original Treaty of Rome and its successive amendments could accommodate fifty years of immigrations from North Africa, Turkey and the rest of Muslim Asia precisely because it did not entrench a religious clause which would, at least symbolically, disbar the new Europeans.

This is the Europe we have now. It is a Europe which makes it possible for all its citizens to be good Europeans without feeling that their religious identity is at stake. And this Europe is due to the efforts of secularists.

To base a new European Constitution on the idea that, somehow, modern liberal Europe is the outcome of Christianity is a travesty of history. It would be more accurate to propose inserting a clause stating that “the principles enshrined in this Constitution are based on the European heritage of secularism and the Enlightenment.”

The underlying reason that both the Pope and Chancellor Angela Merkel are so keen to emphasise the Christian roots of Europe is their alarm at the decline of Christian religious practice, and religious values, in Europe (see right). In Italy, for instance, the Pope has to put up with shrinking congregations in a country which 50 years ago was, at least formally, 99 per cent Catholic. Now there are 920,000 Muslims, 565,000 Orthodox and 400,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are many other indications that religion is waning. For example, the rate of birth in “Catholic” Italy is now down to 1.3 – below reproduction level, which must be a result of the widespread use of contraceptives.

Even so, the separation between Church and State is far from being accomplished in Europe, and particularly in the UK, which still has bishops in the legislature and the monarch “supreme governor” of the Anglican Church.

In Germany the Basic Law of 1949, while stating that “there is no state church”, protects Sundays and religious holidays, prescribes religious education as a regular subject in state schools and collects a church tax from all members in the Catholic and Protestant churches and in Jewish synagogues.

In France, where secularism is, more than elsewhere, a defining feature of the Republican state, the long-term accommodation with religion means that it is perfectly possible to be a practising Catholic and a good citizen since all the state-approved national holidays happen to coincide with Catholic holy days. Minority religions, such as Judaism and Islam, have greater obstacles. Some states, such as the Republic of Ireland, claim to be abiding to the principle of the separation of Church and State but the Irish Constitution invokes “the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions of both men and States must be referred”.

In Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, Portugal and even in France, the government provides subsidies to religious schools.

Examining the formal arrangements between church and state, however, is not always a very good index of separation. Four countries in Western Europe with established national churches (Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway) have the most liberal abortion regime. Secular France and the Netherlands – among others – have a more restrictive legislation. In Germany, the opposition to a liberalisation of abortion by the main churches was more vociferous than in either Italy or Britain.

So today’s Europe is an even more complex amalgam of cultures and religions than was the case 50 years ago and with very different approaches to secularisation. Interestingly, the separation of Church and State is stricter in Turkey, where the vast majority of the population is Muslim, even than in France. If Turkey were to enter Europe, the Union would acquire a country with a strongly secular constitution and yet one with an overwhelmingly Muslim population.

This would be an opportunity to unite Europe through its humanist roots, rather than using religion to divide it. The insertion of a Christian clause in the Constitution would be seen as another attempt by old Europe to keep Turkey out, and would only serve to alienate the Muslim population. It would also tell the young generation of Muslims, born and bred in Europe, that Europe is not for them – and that could well be exactly what Merkel and the Pope and their supporters really intend. ■

Donald Sassoon is Professor of Comparative European History at Queen Mary College, London.