AUTHORDanielle Lee Born and raised in East Brunswick, New Jersey, Danielle Lee is a Junior in the College studying History with a double minor in English and Classics. For the next two academic terms, she is pursuing her infatuation with British History, her love of...
October 31, 2011
March 30, 2012
The Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN) connects Georgetown students studying abroad in a variety of cultures. Students share reflections on religion, culture, politics, and society in their host countries, commenting on topics ranging from religious freedom and interfaith dialogue to secularization, globalization, democracy, and economics.
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Christianity Across the Pond
October 31, 2011 | 5 COMMENTS
Now, I don’t want to make it sound as if churches in London have nothing in common with churches in the States. Certainly not! For the most part, I would say that the church I attended yesterday afternoon is almost identical to the church I attend at home when it comes to format, teachings and even the songs the worship team sang. But for a few weeks now, I’ve felt like the princess who found her bed most uncomfortable due to a tiny, little pea. (No, I have not convinced myself that living on the same island as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have made me a sort of royalty) I must admit, however, that there was something different that I am still not sure I’ve completely put a finger on.
For the past few weeks I’ve tried to piece together an idea of what Christianity is like and how it is viewed this side of the Atlantic. Some have told me that as long as you’re confident in what you say, people just accept you for who you are no matter where you spend your Sunday afternoons. This was especially encouraging to hear, especially in the university environment—university being a particularly precious time for a student to be open and exposed to new ideas and beliefs.
However, the majority of the people with whom I’ve conversed (and I do not limit this group to students) have shared about the subtle ostracism and estrangement that occurs when they are open about their faith. They even looked to the States as a sort of safe haven for out and proud Christians, and I can’t say I blame them after what I’ve heard.
Admittedly I cannot say that being open about my faith at home has only met with kindness and understanding. Indeed, I have more than once been patronized and inadvertently belittled for holding onto the faith of my childhood. However, I have seen this little parcel of difference between British and American cultures largely magnified in the performance of faith (or lack thereof) in politics.
Disclaimer: I do not think myself some expert political analyst though I do try to stay as informed as possible. Here is what I have observed:
In Britain, politicians shy away from being expressly religious. They do not deny having a religious background if that is indeed the case, but it seems that they want to make sure people know that they make decisions by reason and logic not faith. On the other hand, one need only recall Governor Rick Perry’s prayer rally this past August to get a contrasting image of faith and politics in the States. Though Governor Perry received much criticism for the rally, it is duly noted that the political atmosphere in the States still had space for such faith-led actions.
What I found most interesting about the whole issue (and where I initially began the thought process for this letter) is the historical aspect of the issue –and not just because I’m a History-major. Since the reign of King Alfred the Great (the first acknowledged king of the English peoples), the Church and the throne have been closely tied as faith played a large part in Alfred’s policies and actions.
The link between faith and monarchy was solidified in the 16th century when the famed King Henry VIII made himself the head of the Church of England—a tradition that has continued to this day. In contrast, the Founding Fathers of the United States determinedly constructed the nation’s framework so that Church and State would be separate and protected from each other.
Why, then, have faith and government turned out as such? The Church is legally bound to the government at least by the Queen’s titular status as the head of the Anglican Church. And yet, those who serve the throne and nation seem determined to ignore or forget that inescapable fact. On the other hand, in a nation where Church was intended to remain separate from the political arena (a debatable fact, admittedly), the fact of separation of Church and State does not deter our statesmen from boldly exercising faith in public or private.
More importantly, how affected or effective has this cultural phenomena in London society been? Are my Christian friends experiencing the aftermath of the timid faiths of their political leaders? Or something else entirely? Unfortunately, I haven’t the slightest idea of how to answer my own questions and can only end with this half-chewed though. Hopefully, I will at least have succeeded in sharing and processing a number of observations I have made thus far in London.
COMMENT FROM SAM KAREFF NOVEMBER 20, 2011
Interesting post, Danielle. I have found a similar tension between general European culture and religion demonstrated in public while abroad as well. I recently revealed to one of my Dutch friends that I am practicing Catholic in that same “confident” tone you mentioned in your post. I was surprised that, even though she had complained to me about the religious background of one of our universities here in Buenos Aires just the week before, she accepted this fact with an extremely respectful air. Despite this friendly exchange, we have not returned to the topic and she has since critiqued the idea of religion in general. I suppose this is one of the greatest differences between our and foreign visions regarding the concept.
RESPONSE TO DANIELLE LEE FROM MADELINE WISEMAN March 9, 2012
Danielle, I found your piece very interesting, especially where you cite the histories of the U.S. and England.
Before reading your letter, I had not thought about the fact that despite the fact that our founding fathers designed our country based on a separation of Church and state, religion – and so far, that religion has been Christianity – is very closely tied with the election of our leaders. Especially now while the Republican Party is in the process of selecting a Presidential candidate, religious beliefs and the ways in which they inform political platforms (and more general leadership) inform the choice that many Americans will make in terms of a future leader. As you write, the British government has no such separation and instead has a direct tie between the monarchy and the Anglican Church.
So what gives? I cannot answer your questions either, but thanks for making me think
RESPONSE TO DANIELLE LEE FROM EMILY OEHLSEN March 20, 2012
Danielle, thank you for your letter on Christianity in the United Kingdom. Several of my American friends at the University of Oxford, who attend mass regularly, have echoed, on more than one occasion, your feelings of “subtle ostracism and estrangement.” In many ways, your post connects deeply to Shea Houlihan’s post, “Is God Relevant? Exploring Faith in Higher Education”, in which he reflects, “Arguably, it is not that religion is discouraged [in the United Kingdom]—rather, religion at a personal level is rarely discussed.”
There is a fine line between disinterest in and contempt for personal religion and religiosity. My personal experiences have been more similar to those described by Shea. I have not experienced ostracism and estrangement, though I know some who have. Instead, I have run up against contempt for religion only when students have tried to use religious doctrine to constrain the actions of their colleagues.
I’ll give two examples from Pembroke College Junior Common Room (JCR) meetings, the equivalent of student government at Georgetown. Religion doctrine was cited in counterarguments against provision of “the morning-after pill” for female students and against raising a rainbow flag on the Pembroke College flagpole in support of LGBTQ community members. On both occasions, religion was met with hostility, a reaction that would have been very different in the United States.
Religion is viewed quite differently in the United Kingdom compared to the United States, and I think your post does a great job of shedding light on some of the tensions.
COMMENT FROM PROF. PETER DUNKLEY March 29, 2012
John Henry (Cardinal) Newman and the Oxford Tractarians were very much alive to the disadvantages imposed on their Church by its historic connection with the State. When the State refused to accord it independence from the ebb and flow of politics, he left the Anglican communion and eventually converted to Catholicism. Politics is inherently an arena of conflicting views and interests. Too close an association of faith with any one side in the political debate, particularly if it is organized and programmatic, can over time call into question faith’s claims to transcendent legitimacy while sapping its appeal for those who are offended by its political posture. The strongly secular political culture of today in Britain and parts of Europe has many strands, but in general its development can be viewed as a lesson in the dangers for faith in becoming politicized and actively involved in divisive partisanship. Many Britons and Europeans view with horror, and not a little contempt, the projection of faith (“religious zealotry”) into American politics. Some will tell you that they’ve had quite enough of that kind of thing in their own history, from the wars of religion in the sixteenth century to the religious sanctification of futile state violence in the First World War. Regardless of whether that is a fair reading of the past, for those of this perception organized religion has a lot to answer for, at least in the European context. From such an angle one might be moved to conclude that the vibrancy and variety of American faith is in no small measure attributable to the wisdom of our Founding Fathers in separating Church and State, not despite the fact they did so.
RESPONSE TO DANIELLE LEE FROM JOOHEE KIM June 28, 2012
Excellent comparative piece! It really puts things into perspective and highlights the irony of my own situation. For the past two decades, I have felt so uncomfortable sharing my faith due to the judgment I would receive. To read that there's judgment, or like you've said, ostracism, more severe than that in the States, is quite startling. It's also just so ironic to draw parallels between countries with the freedom of religion and countries without. I often find (based on personal encounters, news articles, other resources) that those in countries where Christianity is oppressed (i.e. North Korea, China, Pakistan, etc), Christians are much more gungho about their faith, continuing to worship despite persecution. If they are quiet about it, it's due to government regulations, restrictions, and threats. Whereas in the States and Great Britain, where freedom of religion is uninhibited, the ultimate deterrent of a public proclamation is society itself.