Translated from the French by Jacques Berlinerblau
A sociological approach to political secularism would define it according to its four basic principles. The first two refer to secularism’s main goals :1) liberty of conscience as a public right, 2) non-discrimination against citizens on the basis of their religion. The other two principles are separation of church and state, and the neutrality of the state towards all religions.
These principles can never be applied completely and perfectly. A state can be more or less secular/laïque in its principles. One can say, however, that the United States and France are two countries were adherence to such principles is particularly robust. And still, journalists and intellectuals in these two countries often view American secularism and French laïcité as two completely different political systems
In truth, it is the civil religion that is different in both countries. The sociologist Robert Bellah, who coined this phrase, famously argued that there were two types of civil religion. The first had to do with a type of religion in which a republic worships itself. The second with a God who is believed to sanctify the republic. French laïcité corresponds to Bellah’s former type of civil religion and American secularism corresponds to the latter.
American civil religion invokes a non-denominational God, but one who legitimates a certain messianic role for America. The formula In God We Trust could just as well be God, Trust In Us! French civil religion, for its part, imbues with the quality of sacredness the values of the Republic and if its contents are secular, its form is religious. Thus, in the case of Islam we would appeal to the equality of the sexes as the supreme value of the Republic. Be that as it may, political, economic, and social inequalities continue to exist in France between men and women
In both countries, liberty of conscience is a crucial legal reality, True, the different types of civil religion in both countries shades the interpretation of this principle differently. Americans are mostly concerned about freedom of religion; the French freedom from religion. This divergence can be explained in terms of different episodes in the founding of each country: the Mayflower for the Americans and the Revolution of 1789 for the French.
The American founding narrative is saturated with religious symbols and significance. The French narrative is characterized by an emancipation from religion. What results are distinct differences in the ways the dominant political cultures think about religion. The multiplicity of Protestant sects in America gave birth to the idea that there were so many ways to believe in God that there was no reason to argue about belief itself. The unity and hierarchical aspect of the Catholic Church in France raised a totally different question : how might we free ourselves from Church domination ?
This is why the French and Americans hardly understand one another,. The French criticize the recurring God Talk of American political figures and rue the fact that an avowed atheist would have scarcely a chance of becoming president. The Americans criticize the measures taken by the French against cults and ostentatious religious symbols in public schools. But the two sides have forgotten the similarities that exist between them.
On both shores of the Atlantic there is no established religion, nor state support of clergy. Moreover, millions upon millions of people in both countries practice their religions in complete freedom. This is a fundamental right of citizenship in these countries. It is overlooked by the screaming headlines surrounding secularism/ laïcité and hence people forget what a basic aspect of everyday life it is.
Both countries have to confront a crucial question raised by modernity and globalization: how can people live together in peace who not only have different religious beliefs but who have very different estimations of the value of religion itself? That is what secularism and laïcité are all about.
Dr. Jean Baubérot, one of the world’s leading authorities on laïcité, is the author of works such as Laïcité 1905-2005, entre passion et raison and La laïcité expliquée à Monsieur Sarkozy and Laïcités sans frontières, Paris, Seuil, 2011 (with Micheline Milot)