Why some of Europe’s least religious countries are shaped by politicians’ Christian faith

LONDON — Not much has united Britain, France and Germany in recent months. There is one striking attribute, however, that they share: the influence of religious beliefs on the politics of these nations.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has acknowledged that her Christian faith informs many of her political decisions. She also has a clear message for her fellow Christians: Don't be afraid to speak out about your faith.

Across the English Channel, champion of Catholic values and former French prime minister François Fillon recently won a primary contest to be the conservative nominee in the country's presidential election, scheduled for next year.

In neighboring Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has led the country for 11 years and hopes to get reelected next year. Merkel's Protestant Christian values were credited for her decision to let almost 1 million refugees into the country last year.

All three countries either have or could have observant Christians as political leaders next year. But all three countries are also among the world's least religious. The phenomenon is another unexpected result of the political upheaval of 2016, which included Britain's decision to leave the European Union, the presidential victory of Donald Trump in the United States, and the rise of far-right movements in France and Germany.

A survey of 65 countries conducted by Gallup International and the Worldwide Independent Network of Market Research last year found that 66 percent of British citizens identified as not religious or as atheist. In Germany, 59 percent of the population identified that way. In France, the number was 53 percent. The survey is based on 63,898 interviews.

No European country is generally considered to be more secular than France, at least officially. Collecting information about ethnicity or religious beliefs, for instance, is generally prohibited in France. The law — which was passed in 1978 — was a response to historical injustices. Particularly in the decades after Jews were ordered to sew yellow stars on their clothes during World War II, questions about citizens' ethnic or religious identities had bitter connotations. France's secular state model also means that religious displays are generally prohibited in public spaces.

Yet, as The Washington Post's James McAuley recently observed, Fillon could shift the meaning of secularism in France: “He is viewed as a crusader in the throes of a holy war. . . . In short, what he promises is a return to his nation’s roots. And in his eyes, those roots are fundamentally Catholic.”

The far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, a likely top contender in France's presidential election, also has used Christian values to justify some of her policy proposals. An increasing number of moderate Catholics blame what they deem a loss of values for the devastating attacks over the past two years in France and for a divided society.

In Germany, Merkel has attempted a balancing act. Christian believers have always been an influential voting bloc in the country, and she has disappointed many of them, shifting away from traditional conservative positions over the years.

Fearing defeat in the upcoming election, Merkel has recently defended some of her less popular decisions as influenced by her Christian values. This came as the anti-immigration movement Pegida, for instance, carried Christian crosses at many of the group's marches.

To the members of that group, Merkel's decision to open the borders to hundreds of thousands of predominantly Muslim refugees was a threat to the country's Christian roots. Some Catholic politicians from Merkel's own party voiced similar concerns, calling her pro-refugee policies “not Christian.”

Amid such criticism from her core voter base and political allies, Merkel has repeatedly tried to frame her policies in a Christian context. With more than half of Germans identifying themselves as atheists, her attempts to explain her more liberal policies with religious arguments reflect her struggles to appeal to those nonreligious voters as well as her increasingly disgruntled core supporters.

Like Merkel, Britain's May is the daughter of a pastor.

“It [the Christian faith] is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” she was quoted as saying in a 2014 interview. It is "there and it obviously helps to frame my thinking and my approach.”

Whereas Merkel and Fillon have been accused of using Christian values to defend controversial policy positions, May's frequent references to her religious beliefs have not been interpreted as an attempt to use religion to justify policies. With nearly two-thirds of the British population identifying as not religious or as atheist, such an approach would hardly help May win over the public's support.