March 3, 2008
French President Nicholas Sarkozy is an unlikely scourge of European secularism: He is on his third marriage and has been called the "playboy president" by his critics.
But it is what Sarkozy has just said about the role of religion in French life that has really got his critics up-in-arms.
For more than a century, what the French call laicite has been the defining characteristic of French politics and public life. The word, which has no English equivalent, goes beyond the separation of church and state. It is a kind of secularism that tends to see "any strong religious views as a direct threat to freedom and way of life . . ."
Thus, discretion about one's religious views, especially among leaders, is regarded as "a necessary part of being French."
Sarkozy disagrees. In a book he wrote before becoming president, Sarkozy declared, "I am of Catholic culture, Catholic tradition, Catholic belief, even if my religious practice is episodic."
He continued this theme after becoming president. He has criticized removing references to "Europe's Christian roots" from the European constitution. In a speech in Rome last December, he emphasized France's Christian roots. He invoked France's ancient title of the "Eldest Daughter of the Church."
He proposed a new version of laicite, one that "does not consider religions a danger, but an asset." That is because, according to Sarkozy, when it comes to teaching right and wrong, "the schoolteacher will never be able to replace the priest or the pastor." Well said.
Sarkozy has also stood up for France's often-beleaguered Jewish community. He recently announced that, starting next fall, French fifth-graders will have to learn the story of at least one of the 11,000 French children killed in the Holocaust.
He defended his plan by blaming the wars of the twentieth century on the "absence of God." He further shocked French sensibilities by adding that Nazi racism was "radically incompatible with Judeo-Christian monotheism." This latter point is not hypothetical for the French president, whose maternal grandfather was Jewish.
Critics are appalled by Sarkozy's invocations of religion. As one socialist leader put it, "a speech citing God not only on every page, but on every line, creates a fundamental problem for the republic." Others chide him for disregarding the separation of church and state.
And, of course, they do not hesitate to point out the gap between his rhetoric and his lifestyle.
I wish that Sarkozy's "religious practice" was less "episodic." Nevertheless, I am gratified that he is taking on what has been called a "major taboo" in French public life. This may be the first time since the French revolution that a French leader has spoken seriously to the people about God.
A French-born writer, Hilaire Belloc, put it this way, "the faith is Europe" Without Christianity, Europe would not exist. European secularism and the denial of its Christian roots have cut it off from its own heritage, leaving it vulnerable to the challenge of Islam.
After all, you can not fight something with nothing, which is what a "post-Christian" Europe is left with. That is why I welcome Sarkozy's message-however unlikely the messenger.
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