The relationship between the church and the state has been a source of discussion and conflict for millenia. I am certainly not going to summarize the intricacies of the separation or non separation of the two - for that, you can start at Wikipedia here. What I would like to address is the fairly common notion that many European countries have become secularized, with the church being relegated to minor status. This perception has been declared tragic by some and victory by others. Folks like Bill O'Reilly claim that the "Secular Progressives" want to model the US after Western Europe where all religion is removed from public life and thought. On the other side of the coin are folks like Jerry Coyne who often remarks that secularization of Europe is nearly complete.
Austin Cline accurately sums up O'Reilly & Company's perspective thus:
Most Americans are at least dimly aware that many European nations are highly secular and less religious than America. What they don't realize is that these same nations retain official state churches and deep church/state entanglements that would be illegal in America. Truly dim commentators and politicians ignore this and act like American secularism could lead to European socialism.
I believe that Coyne and others who tout the European model over-simplify the relationship between the church and state in Europe, especially in Germany. It is no doubt true that public religious showmanship of politicians is absent - no God-talk from candidates or office holders, no taking oaths on Bibles, no prayer breakfasts at the Rathaus. Even in private conversations among Germans, a discussion of religion and church seldom comes up. And when it does enter the conversation, it is only after it is clearly established that there is a mutual interest in discussing the matter. Unlike many Americans, the Germans, regardless of belief or non-belief, simply regard secular spaces and activities as secular, and religious spaces and activities as religious, and cannot imagine admixing the two.
Thus, the outward appearance of secularization is why most casual observers believe that secularization is pervasive. Having lived in Heidelberg for a number of months, I have learned a few things that counter the perception of a secular Germany.
First - education. Interestingly, it is illegal to home school children in Germany, and thus all children attend public schools. [Check out the continuing saga of a German couple seeking asylum in the US because of this ban]. And, in public schools, all students participate in religious education curriculum, choosing between Catholic and Protestant courses, or a much less used alternative that is ethics based. These curricula are intended to be solely educational and not proselytizing, but they are usually taught by members of the clergy. Interestingly, virtually all of the pre-schools and kindergartens are operated by the church with state funding.
Second - taxation. In Germany, you must make a choice on your tax form of Catholic, Protestant or other, and about 60% choose a church tax, almost equally between Catholic and Protestant. Thus, the state collects about 10% from the populous to be given back to the churches that are on the "approved" list of denominations. If you check a church box, you can direct your taxes toward a specific approved denomination. The current big question is what to do with Muslims.
Third - church attendance and activities. Interestingly, virtually all shops that are not cafes or restaurants are closed on Sunday. Church bells are predominant on Sunday morning, but also send out calls throughout the week, so much so that there are municipal limits on bell-ringing! As opposed to many congregations in the US where the silver-blue-gray heads predominate, many church attendees are college-age and young families. Traditional services, contemporary services and special events such at Taizé all seem to be fairly well-attended. My impression is that many US folks say that they go to church and generally don't, whereas Heidelbergers don't talk about it, but many do.
It is really quite interesting - the US often claims the strict separation of the church and the state, but in reality that line is both ill-defined and often crossed, in both directions. In Germany, the church and state are deeply intertwined, but in most ways remain separate magisteria. Go figure.