Church and state in France and the United States

Translated from the French by Jacques Berlinerblau A sociological approach to political secularism would define it according to its four … Continued

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)

  • DRJJJ

    Secularism has done us no favors, see all social ills data since 1963-it’s all spiked dramatically and will cost us dearly financially!!

    Time Magazine interview with Einstein in his 50s:
    To what extent are you influenced by Christianity? “As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”

    Do you accept the historical existence of Jesus? “Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”

    Do you believe in God? “I’m not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books.”

  • Catken1

    Stop lying about Einstein. Elsewhere, he specifically disclaims belief in a personal God, or in religious dogma.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    Never let intellectual honesty get in the way of Christian proselytizing.

  • larryclyons

    Its called Lying for Jeabus!

  • dcrswm

    “Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies;”

    “I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one.”

    Tell me again how religious Einstein was…….

  • medicman

    You are so correct, what you must have noticed through your bible studies is the bible was written as a story for children. God had the bible written for the childish mind in the hope they would realize there must be more to the story. And there is, one must first realize the “childish” story was created by a loving God to lead His children into a partial state of maturity.

    For a bible student to begin to mature they should realize the words of the earthly written bible to be taken from the original language of God, the Hebrew. Through translation the childish story of Noah and the Ark changes drastically. The Hebrew for the word “ark” translates into “box”; box then translates into a “home” and “home” translates into “tabernacle” and “father” can translate into “parent”.

    Those “popular scientific books” have denied you of a future inheritance to receive a special place in the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, or was it something else? One of the translations of “sin” is “self”.
    And, of course, a parent is to tell his children the truths hidden in the words of the Word of God. Realize what the “Great Transgression” is and then toss those popular books written by another “self”. Self deception is not to your future benefit.

  • HELLO

    Americas can learn from the French people’s history of their dealing with religion. America must always keep all religions out of our American government at all costs.

  • alert4jsw

    Without freedom FROM religion, there is no “freedom of religion.” This is the essence of the concept of the “Wall of Church-State Separation” that our founding fathers gave us, and why religious authoritarians are so desperate to destroy it.

  • Rongoklunk

    We should remember that religion comes to us from the distant past when the folks who invented it lacked knowledge. The idea of skygods came to almost everyone because the sky was one place they could see – but were unable to get to. And of course, in their ignorance were totally superstitious. They felt that invisible spirits hovered everywhere around them. Over the eons and across the planet they must have invented close to 4000 Gods, which to me is evidence that strongly suggests that the Christian God was also invented, along with Allah, Vishnu and Rama. It makes much more sense than believing that Gods actually exist – especially as nobody ever saw one, except a lunatic or two.

  • Rongoklunk

    Re; Einstein. Here he is writing about his difficult childhood;

    “As the first way out there was religion, which is implanted into every child by way of the traditional education machine. Thus I came – though the child of irreligious (Jewish) parents – to a deep religiousness, which, however, reached an abrupt end at the age of twelve.
    Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression.
    Mistrust of every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude toward the convictions that were alive in any social environment – an attitude that has never again left me, though, later on, it has been tempered by a better insight into causal connections. It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the ‘merely personal’, from an existence dominated by wishes, hopes and primitive feelings.
    Out yonder there was this huge world which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking….The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise;
    but it has shown itself reliable, and I have never regretted having chosen it.

  • Rongoklunk

    Apologies. Should have mentioned this was from his Autobiographical Notes. Quoted in The Portable Atheist,
    Ed. Christopher Hitchens.

  • jdpetric

    The following came from those religous and superstitious people who were inspired to write in the Bible about things educated people much later learned to be true.

    “He is stretching out the north over the empty place, hanging the earth upon nothing…” Job 26:7

    “There is One who is dwelling above the circle of the earth …” Isaiah 40:22

    “ For just as the pouring rain descends, and the snow, from the heavens and does not return to that place …” Isaiah 55:10a

    The Mosaic Law commanded the Israelites to dispose of sewage in a covered hole “outside the camp.” (Deuteronomy 23:12, 13) If they touched a dead animal or human, the Israelites had to wash with water. (Leviticus 11:27, 28; Numbers 19:14-16) Lepers back then were quarantined until a physical examination confirmed that they were no longer contagious.—Leviticus 13:1-8.

  • shanti2

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion–’ seems to guarantee that Americans are also free from religion, although it is a hard row to get the religionists to admit it.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    You realize… I mean you must realize that all these rudimentary ideas were present in human societies for literally thousands of years prior. It’s fascinating to me that civilizations like ancient China basically don’t exist in the modern Christian paradigm.

  • Rongoklunk

    The Bible is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals, and a wealth of obscenity – and upwards of a thousand lies.

    Mark Twain in “Letters From The Earth.”

  • Rongoklunk

    I agree with Twain. The Holy Bible is wholly babble.

  • Rongoklunk

    It’s not just secularism, it’s a total rejection of the absurd god-hypothesis.
    Intelligent French people are not indoctrinated as kids – so they grow up with a better understanding of reality. From a realist’s point of view god is no more real than all the thousands of other gods that humans invented over the eons. It’s like we’re addicted to making up gods. After all, nobody ever saw one, EVER! So rational people know that Allah, Vishnu, Rama and the Christian God are inventions of the human mind. America alone continues indoctrinating their children to believe spooky skygod tales, except for Islam and Hinduism which are just as nutty. Europe has more sense after two world wars which as good as proved that there is no god.

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