In their paper Does Religion Matter?: Christianity and Public Support for the European Union, Nelsen et. al explore the effect of religious denomination, and the strength of that religious conviction on support for European integration, using Eurobarometer data.

Although they restrict their analysis to the 'EC Ten' (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the UK, and Northern Ireland), they note that their conclusions hold up well in exploratory studies they have conducted using the full membership of the EU at the time of publication.

Despite controlling for a variety of alternative explanations, they found that:

Roman Catholics are warmest toward the Union, while Protestants tend to be slightly less supportive than secular citizens are, although their position may depend on national circumstances. Sectarian Protestants are the least fond of the European Union, although examination of their attitudes is limited by the Eurobarometer's inadequate identification of religious groups. And, although religious tradition is a powerful influence on attitudes, religious commitment also plays a solid role. Among Catholics (and perhaps among some Protestants), high commitment 'internationalizes', making attendees more sympathetic to integration projects. But among sectarian Protestants the opposite effect appears, with observing members least pro-Union.

How can the inconsistencies between the opinions of Catholics and Protestants on further European integration that the paper describes be explained?

  • 5
    The statistical analysis is confused to the point of being useless. In particular they fail to properly account for the multilevel nature of the data (you are sampling individuals within countries, which happen to have a very different religious memberships). At times, the discussion touches upon this (e.g. the discussion of Poland and Cyprus on p. 14) but without drawing the right conclusion (i.e. that the analysis is widely inadequate).
    – Relaxed
    Apr 7, 2020 at 16:37
  • @Relaxed very interesting that both your comment and the first answer both question the validity of the paper's conclusions - I've edited the final sentence of the question to allow a little more for responses which take this approach.
    – CDJB
    Apr 7, 2020 at 16:43
  • 1
    Given that that is a 2001 paper, it would have been a good question on Skeptics SE as well, i.e. there's probably enough subsequent research to answer it. The paper has about 180 citations in GS, so there might be something factually useful in there. +1 for a very good question though. Apr 7, 2020 at 19:42
  • @Fizz the prominence of the paper is why I'm surprised and interested that the responses so far challenge the conclusions of the paper rather than explaining them, which was my original expectation! Certainly an intriguing topic, I hadn't come across this idea before today.
    – CDJB
    Apr 7, 2020 at 19:49

2 Answers 2


I'm not convinced that Catholics did "even at the end of the 20th century" (to use Nelsen, Guth and Fraser's own words in their 2001 paper linked in the question and referring to studies in 1994 and 1998).

Copy as .pdf available here.

Their conclusion advances a plausible explanation :

" ... religious affiliation does influence attitudes in ways consistent with our characterization of religious traditions from the mostinternationalist or universalistic to the most nationalist or particularistic."

but later in the conclusion Nelsen Guth and Fraser don't seem entirely convinced themselves :

"Of course, religion works in concert with other influences. Where strongChristian Democratic parties existed after World War II, these educated theiradherents into a pro-integration perspective, or at least channeled the senti-ments fostered by religious influences. Socialist parties often participated inthe task of building the Union and producing a supportive public, influenc-ing many outside the Catholic Church and countering a universal suspicionamong working-class Europeans and left ideologues that the EU would harmtheir interests. Indeed, as we have seen, social class and education are almostinvariably powerful indicators: the better-off and better-educated are friend-lier to the European enterprise."

Which ends with echoes of comparisons drawn far more recently and without attribution to any religious denomination or inclination.

A quick Wikipedia search of Nelsen and Guth suggests strong inclinations to consider religion - and in particular Christianity - of importance in all things. While I'm reluctant to attribute their conclusions entirely to their backgrounds, I think the paper linked in the question is a good illustration of what correlation isn't.

  • They (N&G) in fact have a 2015 book on roughly the same thing. I guess one can look at book reviews for this book too for (others') takes on their hypotheses/research. Apr 7, 2020 at 19:47

The first two authors of that paper (N&G) in fact have a 2015 book on roughly the same thing. One can look at book reviews for this book too for (others') takes on N&G's hypotheses/research. For example, one review says:

The authors are at their persuasive best when they are explaining the origins of the divergent confessional cultures in the Reformation and their significance in the postwar integration process. The argument becomes harder to sustain in light of European secularization and the diminishment of the institutional barriers that historically divided Protestants and Catholics. While they acknowledge the importance of these trends, the authors are left having to explain some developments that seem counterintuitive to their claim about confessional cultures, such as the fact that leaders of the historically dominant Protestant churches now largely embrace political integration (p. 296), committed Protestants are more likely to identify with the E.U. flag (p. 339), and prominent Catholic movements in Poland and Ireland have mobilized against European integration (pp. 312–13). In short, confessional culture might not be as monolithic or predictive as it once was.

(Emphasis in original. Review by J. Christopher Soper, Pepperdine University.)

A more lengthy review of this book is also fairly skeptical on the level of importance one should attach to the observed confessional differences. This latter review, despite its length, mainly flags the issues with the claimed differences within the Protestant "culture", unlike the previous review which also flagged the inconsistencies within the Catholic community nowadays. However, this latter review is also useful in that in spells out that the confessional-divide approach to EU's problems is not common among researchers.

The background assumption of the volume is that the origins and course of “the struggle for European Union” can only be properly understood if the religious factor (to use Gerhard Lenski’s question-begging term) is examined across time and at some breadth and depth. Although this starting point is not widely shared among students of European integration whose focus has most frequently been on the role of ramified economic, political, and administrative complications of the process, its relevance has previously been forcefully argued by some sociologists of religion such as Jose Casanova and historians such as Wolfram Kaiser. By combining the insights of a wide range of relevant sources, the argument is developed with considerable acuity and force. The central thesis is, firstly, that the European integration project was in its origins a distinctive collective product of the Christian Democratic leaders of largely Catholic population groups in the six original EEC countries that carried into practical politics principles and commitments deriving from a long history of Catholic social and political thinking. Secondly and more controversially, the corollary proposition is argued that many of the difficulties into which the project of European integration has run, as it developed and expanded from the Coal and Steel Community of the 1950s into the (now 28-member) European Union, have arisen crucially out of cultural contexts – especially Protestant “confessional cultures” – which have perennially failed to nurture the vision of the original Catholic-inspired project. The complex history of the emergent content of Catholic and Protestant cultural biases, including divergent commitments to the sovereignty of the Westphalian nation-state as well as some of the underlying theological and ecclesiological issues, is not underplayed. Given these central theses, it is understandable that the authors concentrate on the dyadic Protestant-Catholic differences rather than the admittedly secondary role played by Eastern Orthodox and Islamic traditions and confessional cultures. Though these religions have complicated the picture in the most recent decades, to have dealt with them with anything like the same level of attention would have overloaded the volume.

The overall argument does not rely on some proposition that the whole enterprise was (let alone is [emphasis in original]) some Catholic plot set on foot by the Vatican or high church officials, as the more extreme Protestant objectors aver; rather, it documents the case that the key promoters of European integration in the decade after 1945 (the politicians Schuman, Adenauer, and de Gasperi in particular) were not just Catholic by background, but also inspired by commitments particular to Catholic confessional culture and supported by parties whose electoral strength during the early critical period relied in large part on the Catholic vote. Furthermore, despite the rapid secularization that has taken place over subsequent decades in most of Western Europe in particular, the legacy of division arising from the Reformation continues to resonate: while nativist anti-Catholicism has declined particularly with twentieth-century ecumenism among the middle classes, “class and culture divide the citizens of Protestant countries into two groups: the mildly Euroskeptical, and the rabidly Euroskeptical” (p. 341). This is admittedly something of an exaggeration, but the argument is pressed, using recent research on questions of political identity, right up to the book’s penultimate sentence: “the persistent cultural differences across the Continent make it impossible to achieve full political union of all the European states” (p. 344).

(Bold emphasis mine. Review by: John T. S. Madeley, London School of Economics and Political Science.)

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