mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
A Fiscal Reformation

Nearly 500 years after Martin Luther’s Nighty-Five Theses split Europe in two, the ancient religious fault line between Protestant and Catholic seems to be reemerging in the age of fiscal turmoil.

We are not speaking of religion in the doctrinal sense, but in the cultural one. After all, Europe is growing more secular by the year. Church attendance numbers are down across the board and the religious roots that once provided the bedrock for European society are now a shadow of what they once were. (European creativity is also a mere shadow of what it once was, coincidentally enough. No Jesus, no Verdi?)

Yet while they’re not as devout as they were in the past, Europeans are still products of a culture shaped by conflicting cultures based in different faiths, and it appears that the impact of religion lives on after most faith has disappeared. Now the identities that were forged in the fires of the religious wars are shaping the Euro crisis in the form of frugal Protestant states and the debt-ridden Catholic nations of Latin Europe. The BBC reports:

Following the last European summit in Brussels there was much talk of defeat for Chancellor Merkel by what was described as a “new Latin Alliance” of Italy and Spain backed by France.

And on the Protestant side:

Some in Germany suggest today’s eurozone would be better dividing, with some kind of Latin Union on one side, and on the other a German-led group of like-minded countries including perhaps the (Calvinist) Dutch and the (Lutheran) Finns.

The former head of the German industry association, Hans-Olaf Henkel, has said that “the euro is dividing Europe”.

He wants the Germans, Dutch and Finns to “seize the initiative and leave the euro”, creating a separate northern euro.

There’s an story that once during the Troubles in Belfast, a man was pulled into an alley by two masked gunmen. “Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?” one of the gunman asked.

“I’m an atheist, I’m an atheist!” the man said.

The gunman thought for a minute puzzled. Then one of them turned to the man and said, “Are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?”

Devotion may be in decline, but centuries of religious development left an indelible mark on European society. But instead of feuding over matters such as the transubstantiation of the host or the role of the clergy, today’s Catholic and Protestant atheists are crusading over concepts like the meaning of money and the forgiveness of debt.

With the Orthodox in the Balkans and Russia heirs to get another culture of faith, with yet another outlook on the world and philosophy of history, it may just be that Europeans are too different from one another to get along well in a currency union.

If true, that means that the best way to unite Europe is not to try too hard to force everyone to live by the same rules. A looser union might last longer.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Kenny

    Where’s the pope in all this????

    The Vatican has a lot to say about this and that, but on a matter in its own backyard, it is strangely silent.

  • sattar rind

    let them run a Union.its good for a reference as others also trying to get same in south east Asia or even Asia.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Ein feste Berg ist unser Bank.

  • Michael J Kubat

    Interesting take. I have long suspected that the Catholic-Protestant split in Europe has manifested itself in terms of prosperity due to different perspectives on the place of the individual in the collective (in Catholic lands, the individual is far more subordinate to the collective). And now the euro troubles seem to confirm it.

    By the way, there is another version of the Irish Troubles joke: A man gets held up, is asked about his religion, reasons that if he says RC and the gunmen are Prods, he’ll get killed, and vice versa. So he blurts out: “I’m a Jew!” There is a silence, followed by a happy giggle, and: “Man, you just made me the world’s happiest PLO affiliate of the IRA.”

  • Michael Kurtz

    Max Weber wrote about this century ago. It is still true.

  • Snorri Godhi

    I’s about time that the BBC (and WRM) started to realize that the Netherlands and Finland have even stronger incentives to oppose bailouts than Germany has.

    However, the religious slant is not entirely correct: the linguistic divide is also important. The Dutch-speaking Flemings and the German-speaking Austrians seem to be as “protestant” as anybody. The East-European Catholics seem as fiscally responsible as the West-European Protestants: that might be out of necessity, but I prefer to think that it’s the Austro-Hungarian heritage.

    The Swiss, whether Catholic or Protestant, French- or German- speaking, make the Germans look lazy and irresponsible by comparison. (Swiss Socialists might be an exception.)

    On the Protestant side, some British “conservatives”, eg Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, seem to be more Keynesian than the average Greek Socialist.

  • Corlyss

    “No Jesus, no Verdi?”

    Verdi would find that highly ironic if not insulting.

    Better analogy would be “No Jesus, no Michaelangelo?”

  • Atanu Maulik

    It’s amazing to see how deep the roots of religion go.

  • Corlyss

    “it may just be that Europeans are too different from one another to get along well in a currency union.”

    Obviously, but you’ll never get the European elites who occupy all those opinion-setting positions, not to mention all those Brusselscrats, to admit even the possibility of the reality.

  • Kris

    Atanu@8: “It’s amazing to see how deep the roots of religion go.”

    Perhaps. But then one could ask whether Man made God in his own image. Is Protestantism the cause of the Work Ethic (as a shorthand), or was said ethic part of a certain culture which was open to Protestantism and shaped it accordingly. Or both?

  • Luke Lea

    Speaking of which, how come there is not a single Protestant sitting on our Supreme Court?

  • Kris

    Luke@11: “how come there is not a single Protestant sitting on our Supreme Court?”

    Because of that famed work ethic, my dear Luke. Protestants are out there working, they don’t sit around all day. 🙂

  • Wifman

    I do not think your analysis is correct.

    1. Germany is not a protestant country. It is split neatly in half and half: The Lutheran north and the Catholic south.

    2. Three out of the four richest states in Germany are Catholic: Bavaria, North-Rhine-Westphalia, Hessia. The only rich Lutheran state is the city of Hamburg.

    I think it is more likely to look for the rich/poor divide along the lines of liberal (in the traditional, not the American sense)/left divide.

    I am friends with a lot of Spaniards and I notice that they are always looking to the state to fix things. The state has to feed them, the state has to sponsor them, only the state can help. They themselves are not powerful enough.

    Germans have a totally different attitude: Work, do it well, and you get paid, you can do something for yourself, the state should provide only for the poor. That this is not ideal either can be seen in the large number of morally bankrupt “Lumpenproletariat”, as Marx put it.

    But primarily the important thing is a can-do attitude is the dividing line between the successful and the unsuccessful, not religion.

  • Jim.

    Europe is too materialist to create great art anymore.

    Christianity does push back against that, getting people to think “big picture” rather than simply wait for their next government check.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service