Is religion to blame for the Eurozone crisis?
The BBC’s Chris Bowlby has written a cunning piece looking at “The Eurozone’s religious faultline.”
“Here I stand, still.” Martin Luther dominates Europe even now, as a German artist showed in 2010 in Wittenberg. (Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch)
We may think of Western Europe today as a secular outpost in a world dominated by religion. But Bowlby argues that, in effect, Europe is only secular on the surface. What drives its behavior stems from centuries of religious belief.
In fact, he argues, today’s Eurozone crisis is best understood looking at the deep-seated cultural tendencies evidenced in responses to the Protestant reformation, where France, Italy and Spain resisted reforms, remaining largely Catholic, while Britain, the Netherlands and Prussia went Protestant. These countries, along with America, spawned the idea of the Protestant work ethic and its love of thrift.
The Protestant work ethic remains hotly debated more than 100 years after it was proposed by Max Weber, a brilliant German sociologist. But German debt aversion has become a stereotype as the crisis plays out, and rich Germany is called upon to help out debt-ridden, overindulgent Spain, Italy and Portugal (Greece, worst of them all, is Eastern Orthodox, thus also not Protestant).
As Bowlby puts it:
Churchgoing has been in decline in Germany as elsewhere as secularisation has spread, but religious ideas still shape the way Germans talk and think about money. The German word for debt – schuld – is the same as the word for “guilt” or “sin”.
He also notes that Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, is the daughter of a Protestant pastor, and that new German President Joachim Gauck was a Lutheran minister.
This, Bowlby says, explains why they are staunchly holding onto the idea of austerity, echoing Martin Luther himself: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Never mind that Luther also exhorted people to “let your sins be strong” (sometimes translated as “sin boldly.”) Or that about half of Germans are still Catholic.
Bowlby cleverly uses Germany’s large Catholic population as proof for his thesis. West Germany is heavily Catholic, and it was its pre-unification Catholic chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, who led West Germany into the European Economic Community. Then, Helmut Kohl, another Catholic chancellor, led a unified Germany into political and monetary union in the 1990s.
Bowlby even provides a graph showing that, historically, Protestant European countries get charged lower interest for their bonds than Catholic ones and reminds us of how the devil in Faust ruins the Holy Roman Empire by getting the Emperor to adopt paper currency.
He tells us that there are some Germans calling for a “northern Euro,” consisting of the Germans, Dutch, Finns and perhaps some Catholic countries like Poland and Austria, close enough to Germany to behave like proper ‘fiscal Protestants.”
The analogy would hold up better if Great Britain and the United States, dominated by Protestants, weren’t so debt-ridden.
Of course, religion has an impact on culture. But one could also look at this piece as a secular British journalist finding a way to blame religion for today’s problems. In the end, he misses the obvious answer to the Eurozone crisis: prayer.
Or, perhaps, a rousing ecumenical chorus of Luther’s great hymn, “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice.”