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Monday, July 16, 2012

The French/American Divide on Religion

There are few subjects over which Americans and French are more divided than religion.  Some of it has to do with their two very different religious traditions:  France is still very Roman Catholic while the United States is predominantly Protestant. But the mutual incomprehension goes far beyond the rivalry between Christian sects and has more to do with the fundamental question about the role religion should play in each country's political and social life.  To summarize the arguments of my French friends, they see religion playing too great a role in public life in the U.S. and they feel there should be more separation between the two.  It is not appropriate, in their view, that American presidents should call upon their deity to bless the activities of the government or that political parties should publicly use their faith to justify their support/rejection of public policy.  As for the role of religion in France, Americans seems to have this vision of the Hexagon as a secular paradise (or a godless Socialist hell).

Neither of these visions is entirely true.  On Easter Sunday my French bishop is more than happy to advise his flock on how they should vote and the Catholic church in France is doing well and is still very powerful in a discreet way. And while Americans are accustomed to their presidents and political leaders using biblical references and asking that "God bless America" in their speeches, not everyone is happy about that.  How well this rhetoric translates into votes depends greatly on the region.

Both countries see religion through very different lenses and came to the separation of church and state by very different paths.  In France it was about curbing the power of one establishment religion, Catholicism, and allowing for "la liberté de conscience."  It was a 1905 law that got the French government out of the religion business and the church out of the government while guaranteeing freedom of conscience.  It was a subject of enormous debate at the time and Pope Pius X was firmly against it.  It is still being debated.  This article from Le Monde argues that  this law is being used today to limit the religious freedom of some (mostly immigrants and their descendants) by attempting to entirely eliminate the visibility of religion in the public sphere - something the author of the piece says it was never intended to do.  He also points out (and I did not know this) that there is one region in France where the national law concerning the separation of church and state does not apply.  Alsace-Moselle is exempt from both the 1905 and the Jules Ferry law.  The region has four official approved sects, their pastors/priests/rabbis are paid by the local government, and the public schools include religion in their curriculum.  This is an exception but an important one.

That is not the only issue.  As France enters the 21st century, it is becoming more and more religiously diverse:  not only more Moslems but also the missionary activities of other sects like the Jehovah's Witnesses.  Some French may be uncomfortable with Islam but they are even more so with sects that are disturbing to them because they are so very far from the mainstream:  Mormons or  Pentacostals.  But I would argue that these debates do not demonstrate that the French are against religion.  On the contrary, it is alive and well here and the churches I've been to are very well attended.  But religion is not part of the language of politics.  Even the most conservative political parties like the Front National support the principle of "laïcité."

From the founding of the United States the situation was entirely different - it was about accommodating many sects and the founders didn't have much choice in the matter.  In the Colonial era (pre-independence) alone there was already a lot of variety:  Puritans, Quakers, Catholics, Anglicans, Deists and so on.  Many of the colonies were, in fact, founded by religious people whose goals were not in any way shape or form to create secular societies.  As Andrew Preston says in his superb book, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith, about religion in America and its influence on foreign policy, "Crucially, colonial America was established as a Reformation society, founded by Protestant radicals who took refuge from the religious wars and economic crises of Europe." Today the religious realm is even more chaotic, a "deregulated marketplace of faith." This site lists the top 25 denominations in the U.S. and Canada (out of 217) and says that in addition to that, in 2010 there were at least 35,000 independent (non-denominational) churches serving more than 12 million people.  And while the focus is all too often on the religious political and social conservatives, one could argue that there are just as many churches and parishioners that swing to the Left of the political spectrum.

Preston points out that whatever the opinion of the elites in the U.S. (from the founding of the nation to the present day) they cannot ignore the fact that so many Americans do believe and find it perfectly normal that their views, informed by their faith, are included in national debates.  They in turn expect their political leaders to answer back using terms and references that respect those beliefs.  It is a top-down, bottom-up dialogue that is very disconcerting to many outside the U.S. (and to some Americans as well). I think it is fair to say that the majority of Americans simply do not believe that separation of church and state means that faith has no place in the public sphere.  Religion in the U.S. is a part of the language of politics.

Is this a good or a bad thing?  I find that I don't much care for the question. Context is everything.  Traditions and histories differ.  What makes sense in one world makes no sense at all in another.  I find there is some merit to the purging of religion from public discourse in worlds that have known incredibly strife because of it.  If we can't agree (and are willing at times to kill each other over it) perhaps it's best that we not discuss it at all.  On the other hand, where would the U.S. be today without the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr?  Or for that matter does anyone really think that France would be a better place today if l'abbé Pierre had been told to take his person and his beliefs back to the monastery?  I cannot speak for anyone but myself but I personally would not like to have been deprived of the pleasure of reading these words addressed to the American public by the president in 1865:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Abraham Lincoln


Berliniquais said...

Of course it's very different on both sides of the pond. Although I'm a (more or less) practising Catholic, I'm quite proud of this French law of laïcité of 1905. As far as our national history is concerned, it's quite obvious that religion belongs to the private sphere. Sectarianism was a disaster and brought only suffering in France since the Reformation: with the 40-odd years of "Guerres de Religion" in the 16th century, the persecution of Huguenots at the hand of our fanatically Catholic "Roi Soleil" Louis XIV which drove many of them to go on exile (notably in Berlin), all the strife in the 19th century... Actually the suffering started much before the Reformation (think "Albigeois Crusade" in the 13th century, and the infamous "tuez-les tous, Dieu reconnaîtra les siens" - "kill them all, God shall recognise his own" at the siege of Béziers). So really, enough bloodshed "thanks" to religion as a political tool.

In the French context, it's a sensible compromise to keep religion private, although I don't agree with those people who "worship" this century-old compromise and contend it should not be amended in any possible way. Pragmaticism should always prevail over ideology.

I admire the way the US managed to avoid open religious conflicts the way we had them in Europe.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi JM, The U.S. has not always been an oasis of religious tolerance. During the colonial era the wars of religion in Europe were brought over with the colonists. There was one area where the protestants burned down all the Catholic churches. Since then there's been anti-Catholic and anti-semitic discrimination but never all out war between faiths. I predict Islam will be integrated in exactly the same way as the Catholics and Jews were - just give it time.

What I do wish (and I think the French are much more realistic than the Americans in this respect) is for Americans to be a little more careful about using religion in the public sphere. It is not always benign or a positive force and the fact that it hasn't erupted into sectarian warfare in the past does not mean that it would not be a problem in the future. I'd also like to see a bit more tolerance of those who are atheists/agnostics. Liberty of conscience means having the right not to choose any faith at all and to be left alone. In France you can be an atheist and no one will hassle you. In the U.S. not so much outside of the big cities.

the fly in the web said...

The position in Alsace being a relic of the period 1870 to 1918....I can remember another relic - the train platforms being high, not low, but have no idea if that is still the case.
And as for the Abbe Pierre, it was the church that sent him back to a monastery if I recall...

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Fly, Good point about Abbe Pierre. The Church has not always loved some of the politically active members of the clergy. When I was in Seattle many year ago our Archbishop was Raymond Hunthausen who was actually relieved of his duties for a time because of his radical anti-nuclear weapon activities. It was reversed which was great for me because he was then available for our confirmation mass. I'm rather proud to have had him confirm me since he was someone I greatly admired as did the sisters and monks at my school. For fun here is the report on Hunthausen written by Ratzinger (the present pope) in 1985 at the close of the investigation enumerating his errors:

Just Me said...

If you want to understand America, then you have to understand the role of religion in America's history. I recommend you watch the excellent Frontline/This American Experience collaboration called "God in America". I am not religious, but I was totally fascinated with this presentation. It explained at lot to me about my up bringing that I had not understood before, like why did we go to Camp meetings and Revivals?
Here is the link..

and then, if you want to really understand Mormonism, Frontline had a excellent program on that too.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Just Me, great links. Thanks for posting them. Yes, I think it's fair to say that it's not possible to understand the US without talking about religion but I'd argue that exactly the same thing is true of France. Right now I'm looking for good titles that we held me to understand both better. It's not an easy topic and I find that I have to fight my own prejudices and preferences when I research it. I am, for example, rather fond of the Mormons - my aunt is one and I met a number of her co-religionists at her house and found them to be interesting and thoughtful people.