Joelle Thomas on Religion and Society: How the French View Religion in America
April 20, 2009
When I was learning French in high school, I remember remarking how much I was learning about my own language through studying a foreign one. Five years later, as I sit in this classroom at a French university, this thought occurs to me again, though slightly modified: how is it that in living and learning French culture, I am becoming to identify and understand American culture?
In the time that I've spent outside the United States, I've had the opportunity to observe American society almost as an outsider, or more specifically, from the French critical eye. Because of France's famous inclination towards laïcité or secularism, this statement rings most true in regards to religion in America.
Since the beginning of my semester abroad, I've often found myself in awe about how many times the United States emerges in lectures and discussions in the classroom, in classes ranging from basic "International Relations" to classes on biases in journalism. My greatest shock came about when I walked into my "Religion and Society" lecture one Friday morning and found a large American flag on the screen. Today, we were to talk about the institutionalization of religion in America. I admit that I was dumbfounded, for we had not even discussed religion in France to this extent. Yet this was to be my first of many discussions about the presence of power and religion in America with French people, for the French seem to never tire of this topic.
The interest of the French in American religious culture is rooted in the differences in history and mentalities manifested in the two countries. Well-grounded in its secular ways, the French struggle to grasp how a country that is not only prosperous, but the world superpower, can arrive at this level of advancement and still be tied to its religious roots. Since 1905, France has followed a steady trajectory leading away from religious entanglements in state matters. The Law on Separation of Church and State, passed in 1905, established the neutrality of the French government and the freedom of religious exercise while eliminating the public powers formally held by the Church. This law, intending to end religious biases and discrimination, is at the root of French laïcité, which has spiraled to the point where religious symbols, such as the Muslim hijab, can no longer be worn in public institutions.
Perhaps the French remove faith from politics and society as a reaction to Europe's long history of struggles fueled by religion. They associate religious institutionalization with the power of the Vatican in European relations, Crusades, the power of the clergy over states' officials, etc. Indeed, the French government has long courted the Church, instituting Roman Catholicism as the state religion before the Revolution and again by Napoleon via concordat in 1801. Yet since this time, religious integration has been steadily contested, first during the French Revolution with the affirmation of religion freedom, then through the establishment of secular education by the Jules Ferry laws in 1881, and finally by the breaking of diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1904.
It is with this background that the French attempt to understand the American phenomenon in which church and state do not necessarily clash, but coexist, and how this coexistence is largely accepted by the American public. In my lecture class, the professor traced the roots of American civil religion to its origin, the founding of a nation with a particular mission, to not only be a refuge of religious liberty, but also, to be a "city on a hill," and a manifestation of civil liberties and democratic ideals. He then applied this mission to the American mentality, demonstrating how it has since influenced American culture and politics. He discussed the influence of religion on the American dream—the importance of the individual and the self-made man—made possible by a nation blessed by God in which one's full potential can be reached. He made reference to the many times in American history where America's special relationship with God has been evoked, beginning with manifest destiny and highlighting the importance of God's support of America during the Cold War. As an American, the most interesting part for me was when he spoke about religious jargon in American politics, such as the call to establish infinite justice in Afghanistan and the end of evil through the War on Terror. Of course, he ended by highlighting the influence of evangelical churches and evangelists like Billy Graham on the American public.
As I sat in class listening to the lecture, I almost felt as if the professor was talking about a part of America that I had never visited. Neither in my home community nor at Georgetown do I listen to Billy Graham or gospel music, nor do I see communities of mainline churches and born-again Christians. It almost seems that through citing our differences, the French have overlooked the fact that there are parts of America that are remarkably similar to French civil culture, such as the value of civil liberties and perhaps notably, the firm belief in the equality of all people. In my French class, I feel that the professor failed to see that in America, there is a bit of everything: religious and non-religious, or neo-conservatives and borderline communists. However, I do believe that he had a point: the American religious culture has in part contributed to our success as a nation.
I admit that while I lived in the United States, I never gave these issues much thought. Before coming to France, I found that the manifestation of laïcité in France a bit extreme, and judged the French for not letting Muslim girls wear veils in schools. Yet after my time here, I really have begun to see that my judgment is deeply rooted in my American religious culture. I have also become aware of the lack of religious people in France, in addition to the lack of religious expressions such as "God bless you" in my everyday French vocabulary. Furthermore, I also never realized that my value for religion was in part attributed to the civil culture in which I grew up, and that this quality somewhat separates me from the French amongst whom I live. It is funny—almost ironic—that my time in France has led me to further develop my identity as an American.