Unless you have been living in a very remote Appalachian cave, you will know that the European economy is in deep trouble. The basic problem is that countries with widely divergent economies have formed a common currency zone, and that the resulting strains are threatening to destroy the euro, possibly taking the global banking economy along with it. Very roughly, the more successful countries such as Germany and Finland are Northern European, while the laggards are mainly on the Mediterranean. The worst offenders are the PIIGS – Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain.
So much is well known, but recent commentators have raised the subversive suggestion that the underlying difference might be religious as much as economic. At the Globalist, the magazine’s founder Stephan Richter wrote a piece provocatively titled “Martin Luther and the Eurozone: Theology as an Economic Destiny?” Richter argues that the Eurozone’s core problem is that the region contains countries that do not understand the thrift needed to belong to a club that demands tight limits on deficits and public borrowing. In fact, he says, there is a simple rule. If a country adopted Protestantism in the sixteenth century, then it would properly qualify for the Eurozone today. “If it had stayed predominantly Catholic, or even Greek Orthodox, then not. With few exceptions, that simple rule would have saved hundreds of millions of people around the world a lot of despair, along with much of the animosity and frustration that now prevails – never mind trillions of euros in asset value…. Too much Catholicism, it seems, is detrimental to a nation’s fiscal health, even in the 21st century. Indulgences then – and an inability to properly manage public finances now.”
Now there are obvious exceptions to this principle, Catholic countries or regions that appear to be flourishing. Richter resolves the dilemma thus – perhaps not too convincingly: “Even though Luther failed to take hold in these places, even core Catholic areas like France, Slovakia, Austria and northern Italy have gradually adapted the economic values, work ethic and integrity of Dr. Luther and John Calvin.”
Chris Bowlby has a related piece on the BBC’s News Magazine. Among other things, he notes how “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.’ Talk of thrift and responsible budgeting comes instinctively to Angela Merkel, daughter of a Protestant pastor.” Thinking ahead to the five hundredth anniversary of the 95 Theses, Bowlby asks, “And where will the Eurozone be in 2017? Still intact? Or coming to terms with a new historic divide between the Latins and the preachers of Protestant thrift?”
My basic problem with this argument is that it simply contains too many exceptions to be worth much – thrifty Catholic Northern Italians, hard working Catholic South Germans, and so on. At some point, the amount of special pleading (“Well, they’re just an odd exception because…”) becomes overwhelming. France, especially, is a screaming exception.
Having said that, it is intriguing to see commentators even in highly secular Europe returning to these religious explanations. Religion still constitutes a major portion of cultural and national self-definition, even in countries where churches have long been languishing.