Church and State—Spain vs the US

I was talking to some visiting US friends recently and the subject of religion here in Spain came up. I was struck by how different our two countries are in this area.

Unlike the US, whose constitution established the separation of Church and State from the very beginning, Spain has been a Catholic country for most of its history. The “Catholic Monarchs,” King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, unified the country religiously by expelling the Jews in 1492 and later monarchs expelled the Moors in 1609. In many ways the two countries have pursued opposite courses during their history. The US has maintained a more or less strict separation of Church and State until the late 20th century, when Christian fundamentalists entered politics in large numbers with the intent of giving their values the weight of US law. The path in Spain has been very different.

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By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga Commons)(Lmbuga Galipedia) Publicada por/Publish by: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Even during Spain’s long (1936-1975) experiment with Fascism under Francisco Franco, Roman Catholicism was the official state religion. The Spanish state maintained the right to appoint bishops and priests of the Church and provided state support to the Church and all its related institutions. Roman Catholicism was taught in all the schools as a matter of public policy. Weddings had to be conducted by the Church to be recognized and children had to be christened with Christian names. It was only after Franco’s death in 1975 that King Juan Carlos renounced the right to appoint bishops and priests and returned that right to the Vatican. Governmental support for the Church has been a hotly contested battle in the ensuing years, as has mandatory (i.e. Catholic) religious education in the schools.

Lest you think that the people of Spain are more religious than the US, I can report that it is the opposite. While nearly 70% of Spaniards report that they are nominally Catholic, church attendance is extremely low and the Church mainly functions in official capacities such as marriage, christening of children, and funerals. Priests also participate prominently in local parades and festivals, but their role is purely ceremonial. In the US, 74% say they believe in God and 39% attend church regularly. In contrast, nearly a quarter of the population of Spain report that they are either agnostic or atheist and only 21% attend church regularly. The Protestant religions that dominate US culture account for only 2 to 4% of the population in Spain. Protestant Christians are lumped in with Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, Taoists, Jews, and Bahá’ís and are called “cults.” I’m sure that my Methodist and Baptist friends in the US would be shocked to be told that they are members of a cult. It‘s not just politics that makes for “strange bedfellows.”

Spain and the US are somewhat similar when you compare political with religious affiliation. Most practicing Catholics in Spain vote for the conservative Partido Popular (the Popular Party, or PP), which has been the dominant force in recent politics in Spain. In the US, fundamentalist Christians mostly consider the Republican Party—or the Tea Party—to be their home. So there are ways that politics and religion come together in both countries. This is more overt in Spain, since the PP has consistently supported state funding of the Church, whereas most other parties are against it and are not supportive of Church dogma. It is more covert in the US, with fundamentalist-dominated school boards mandating the teaching of creationism in local schools.

One practical result of all the Catholicism in Spain’s history is the numerous state and local holidays which all Spaniards love! I am often struck by how my Spanish friends simply don’t understand religion and politics in the US, and it is equally true of my North American friends’ understanding of Spain.

Beautiful fireworks over the Magic Fountain in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

Beautiful fireworks over the Magic Fountain in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

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