[Paleopsych] Policy Review: Man and God in France by Timothy Lehmann

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Man and God in France by Timothy Lehmann - Policy Review, No. 130

    By [3]Timothy Lehmann

    Timothy Lehmann is Assistant Director of the Project for the New
    American Century.
    Nicolas Sarkozy. La République, les religions, l'espérance. Editions
    du Cerf. 172 pages. EUR17.

    In this last American election cycle, political observers noted a
    significant gap between the ways in which George W. Bush and John
    Kerry approached the delicate matter of politics and religion. Bush
    was comfortable proclaiming his faith as an integral, if not the most
    essential, aspect of his life. Kerry, on the other hand, was
    considerably more reticent. Much of his rhetoric seemed to suggest
    that American politics is simply a secular affair, in which all
    political claims derived from religious teaching are prima facie
    illegitimate, because values cannot or should not be imposed on others
    who do not share them. These two Americans are poles apart regarding
    the manner in which they discuss religion and politics, and their
    disparity highlights the increasing differences with which American
    conservatives and American liberals and most Europeans view the role
    of religion in public life.

    On the other side of the Atlantic, Nicolas Sarkozy, formerly France's
    interior minister and minister of finance, who was recently
    overwhelmingly elected as leader of France's major center-right
    political party, is causing a stir with his singular understanding of
    this question. His new book, La République, les religions, l'espérance
    (The Republic, religions, and hope), is being touted as a
    quasi-revolutionary document that seeks to redefine relations between
    religion and politics in France. In it he unveils his "personal
    sentiments," the result of his experience in political life, condensed
    and revealed in a series of interviews. Most Americans, plagued either
    by a Francophilia that wants to enlist France's muscular military
    forces and diplomatic finesse in the war against terrorism, or a
    Francophobia that condemns France, its history, and all it has ever
    produced as a spineless and subversive menace beyond any hope of
    rapprochement, don't seem to be noticing. Few Americans even attempt
    to steer a via media toward a more measured (one hesitates to say
    "nuanced") understanding of the proper relationship between America
    and France, or to appreciate potential friends among the allegedly
    homogeneously oppositional French.

    A protégé of Jacques Chirac in the 1970s, Nicolas Sarkozy is an
    unabashedly ambitious politician who is currently Chirac's most feared
    rival, and is positioning himself to capture the French presidency in
    2007. A deal was struck in early September 2004 between Chirac and
    Sarkozy that would allow Sarkozy to run for head of the Union for a
    Popular Movement (ump), Chirac's moderate conservative party, if he
    promised to resign as minister of finance in November. Now Sarkozy is
    head of the ump, a potential springboard to the presidency.

    t might seem strange that a former finance minister who managed the
    important though relatively prosaic job of trying to spur France's
    perennially flagging economy would now be in the national spotlight
    for raising the question of religion and politics in France. But as
    minister of the interior, Sarkozy has increased police presence in
    Muslim neighborhoods and worked energetically and optimistically with
    the recently formed French Council on the Muslim Religion (cfcm) and
    its Union of Islamic Organizations of France (uoif) in the hope of
    dissuading Muslim leaders from embracing extremist politics and
    integrating them into democratic processes. By appealing to, and
    indeed clearly appreciating, religious believers in national life,
    "Sarko" seems to be breathing new life into demons long thought dead
    and fanning the flames of spirits that haven't yet been killed.
    France's elites are not taking kindly to his ideas: In an interview in
    L'Express, he was told that his book was "disturbing," and he was
    derided for his "offensive manner."

    France's religious demons were supposed to have been exorcized with
    the enactment in 1905 of a law forbidding state funding of religion.
    This was the culmination of a hundred-year religious war of sorts that
    began when -- after the often strange and violent events following the
    beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 -- laïcité triumphed, and
    religion was banished from the public square, hopefully to die a slow
    and quiet death in the hearts of the last few believers.

    But with the influx of Muslim immigrants from the Maghreb, of whom
    there are now at least 5 million and counting -- including a
    burgeoning number of youth -- the challenge and political necessity of
    integrating them into France's increasingly secular society has fallen
    to its political leaders. Sarkozy has thus far been the most visible
    and articulate interpreter of the question of religion and politics
    and his views have come into daylight with the publication of this
    book. La Republic vigorously challenges France's existing laws and
    status quo, reinvigorates questions about the soul, and throws into
    doubt widely accepted and encrusted beliefs about the temporal and the
    eternal. While Sarkozy's practical concern is how to improve French
    society and promote tolerance among Muslims, Jews, Christians, and
    nonbelievers in France, his overall approach to the question of
    religion and society has much in common with the views of many
    American conservatives.

    Although it is unwise to try to make windows into men's souls to know
    their true beliefs, what is incontrovertibly true is that Nicolas
    Sarkozy is the son of a Hungarian emigrant father and a French Jewish
    mother, and he is also a member of the Roman Catholic Church. As he
    puts it, "I am of Catholic culture, Catholic tradition, Catholic
    faith. Even if my religious practice is episodic, I acknowledge myself
    as a member of the Catholic Church." Furthermore, he believes that
    "spiritual need and hope are not satisfied by the republican ideal. .
    . . [The republic] is the best way to live together, but it is not the
    finality of man." Sarkozy acknowledges the importance of religion in
    France and of the religious sphere in life generally. He follows
    America's friendly critic, Alexis de Tocqueville, who advised
    Americans to avoid the tragedies of Europe's past by not integrating
    politics and religion too closely, but also cautioned us not to remove
    either from human life altogether. His views stand in stark contrast
    to those of most contemporary secular French politicians, who see no
    place for this outmoded, superstitious, dangerous, and apparently
    superfluous aspect of human life. Sarkozy's book appeared on the heels
    of a summer in which Christianity's meaning and impact on Europe's
    traditions and contemporary life had been hotly debated, with scant
    success achieved by religious leaders.

    It is important to make a distinction regarding political secularism
    that is often forgotten. Sarkozy recoils from any "sectarian"
    understanding of laïcité and is unequivocally committed to secular
    democracy. Good secular government also ensures that religious leaders
    do not manage the untidy business of political power, in spite of all
    temptation. Spiritual and temporal powers must remain separate, and
    Sarkozy opposes writing God into the European constitution. But he is
    an opponent of the absolute secularization of society that attempts to
    remove any and all religious influence from human life.

    hile the 1905 law's explicit intention was to deny any
    state-sanctioned religion, its effectual end was the crippling of the
    Catholic religion in public life by denying it, or any other religion,
    government funding. In contradistinction to this stark division
    between the secular and the sacred, Sarkozy favors a "laïcité
    positive," one that guarantees the right to live one's religion as a
    fundamental right. To his mind, this includes providing public funding
    for religions. If soccer fields, libraries, and theaters all benefit
    from public funding, Sarkozy wonders, why shouldn't religious
    communities, which also promote cultural flourishing, also receive
    funds? While he doesn't favor earmarking funds to build mosques per
    se, he favors funding for parking lots for them, as well as for Muslim
    "cultural centers." Sarkozy recognizes that the 1905 law was the
    result of a delicate "equilibrium," reached after divisions that tore
    the nation, and thus "it is necessary to reflect carefully" before
    breaking with the spirit of the law. Without modifying its basic
    structure, he favors public financing of the "great religions" of
    France. To that end, he advocates funding "national republican"
    education for religious leaders, reasoning that it is preferable to
    have imams educated in French universities and speaking French than to
    have imams educated abroad who are hostile to the existing republic.
    It also discourages the clandestine extremism that plagues many
    banlieues, the often decrepit Muslim-dominated neighborhoods of
    France's largest cities, and promotes transparency of religious

    Sarkozy is not about to fling France back into the Dark Ages: He's
    wary of "those who call for a return to the past . . . . The search
    for solutions by looking backwards is at the antipodes of my
    reflexes." But he makes an adroit observation about life: "My
    long-held conviction is that the need for hope is consubstantial to
    human existence; and that what makes religious liberty so important is
    that it is in reality a matter of the liberty to hope."

    More potential dangers seem to attend believing ages (without
    forgetting the militant atheism of the twentieth century). For this
    reason it might seem sensible (or at least useful, if not politically
    necessary) to advocate removing that threat by tempering and
    eventually eliminating it altogether through the process of
    secularizing all aspects of life. But the long-term prospects of a
    universalized secularism are dubious at best, for some of the deepest
    sources of decent political life may be obscured or effaced in the
    process of hyper-secularization. Regarding the question of forbidding
    young Muslim females from wearing the veil at school, Sarkozy defended
    the ban without being as viscerally supportive of it as some of
    France's more secular politicians. He viewed the fact that many young
    Muslims ignored the prohibition as a reflex of cultural identity in a
    secular society that they perceive as hostile. Moreover, he sees the
    veil question as a matter of freedom of expression, though one which
    can only be protected within the framework of laïcité.

    A persuasive argument could be made that the welcome approval of
    religion in France could lead to increased levels of anti-Semitism and
    a reduction of tolerance among sects and factions. France's historical
    and contemporary anti-Semitism is a stain and a poison. It compelled
    Theodor Herzl to declare that if the French Jew Alfred Dreyfus could
    be unjustly convicted of treason in 1894 in a country whose
    fundamental principles proclaimed the universal liberté, égalité, and
    fraternité of all men, then there could be no completely satisfying
    settlement on the Jewish question between Jews and any modern liberal
    democracy. However, Sarkozy is himself of Jewish descent and therefore
    particularly sensitive to such threats, and in any case France's
    periodic spates of anti-Semitic animus seem to have deeper roots that
    haven't been eradicated with the advent of secular political
    institutions, liberal or otherwise. The existence and continued
    influence of Jean-Marie Le Pen is a case in point. Sarkozy reserves
    the possibility "for the state to expel by military force any imam who
    exhorts hatred toward Jews, the West, or modern societies." As the
    cfcm gains in credibility and stature, "responsible" Jews, Muslims,
    and Christians must, through dialogue, "act hand in hand" to combat
    racism and xenophobia.

    In continuing to affirm the pluralism of the French Republic, Sarkozy
    allows for competition among religions, which has long been a useful
    means to block the takeover of politics by a single dominant religion.
    This is unquestionably a difficult balancing act, as it has been in
    times past, but can it really be asserted that with Europe's current
    lack of fervor in faith there is any serious impending danger to the
    rights of its citizens? Both the American and the French systems of
    government lay claim to being dedicated to political freedom. Surely
    both countries can be counted on to continue to affirm the superiority
    of their political organizations over the undemocratic and corrupt
    governments of the world.

    In Sarkozy's mind, religion answers an important need in any healthy
    society. A stable balance between religion and good politics can be
    achieved without sanctioning a state religion and forced proselytism,
    and without favoring one religion over another. Sarkozy doesn't fail
    to point out that the religion which he has worked hardest to
    incorporate into French society, Islam, is not his own. He has labored
    for it not in the name of his own faith but in the name of the
    republic. While he is a proud defender of the established French
    Republic (and its intransigent division between the autonomy of the
    political, governed by free human beings, and religious authority), he
    realizes equally the need and importance of religion in any society,
    Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or otherwise. "The spiritual question," he
    says, "is one of hope, of hope to have, after death, a perspective of
    accomplishment in eternity."

    ne of the ultimate questions is whether a rational and enlightened (or
    irrationally enlightened) Europe has really figured things out, once
    and for all. Can people live contentedly in a post-historical paradise
    of material pursuit? Or is there something not completely satisfying
    about those circumstances? The debate over religion in Europe is
    whether it was a noxious (and now discredited) fairy tale that caused
    needless bloodshed and suffering in the Middle Ages, or an important
    part of society, the absence of which caused needless bloodshed and
    suffering in the century just past. Clearly, both alternatives in
    their extremes sought to establish unnatural utopias on earth. The
    attempt to satisfy religious longings was horrifyingly damaging to
    decent political and social life in the Middle Ages. But the attempted
    extirpation by force of the unsatisfied religious longing from Nazi
    Germany and Communist Russia was equally, if not more horrifyingly,
    damaging to Europe. Its unforced extirpation in some of the liberal
    democracies of the West is damaging in its own way. In Sarkozy's eyes,
    "religions must exist elsewhere besides in the museums, and the
    churches must not become nostalgic conservatories of a glorious past.
    . . .We're not in the ussr where the churches became markets and
    gymnasiums." He sees in religious structures "a factor of integration,
    of meetings, of exchanges, whichever religion is concerned."

    Although Sarkozy must know that there are considerable risks involved
    in melding democracy and Islam, he refuses to countenance the
    possibility of their ultimate incompatibility, dismissing such
    suggestions as "irresponsible." This may well be rhetoric intended to
    appeal to potential Muslim democrats, but it may indeed be
    irresponsible not to consider, or to underemphasize, the ways in which
    Islam has manifested itself in the past, and its tolerance (or lack)
    of political freedom. The French must therefore confront the terrible
    possibility that Islam as it has existed in the past and their secular
    democracy may not be able to unite over the long term. Sarkozy isn't
    so naïve as not to realize that  religion can be used to justify
    violence and intolerance. A real clash of civilizations could occur if
    he and his allies fail to guide French politics successfully, as
    Tocqueville warned at the beginning of the democratic era. To be sure,
    Tocqueville's isn't the last word on the matter, and many faithful
    Muslims, like Dalil Boubakeur, the head of the Paris mosque, are more
    sanguine than he was about establishing a democratic Islam. Muslim
    citizens enjoy the same rights as others, as Sarkozy makes clear, and
    they should not be deprived of their right to believe. Time and time
    again, Sarkozy insists that there must be an Islam of France, not an
    Islam in France.

    The cfcm is intended to organize and represent Muslim believers by
    allowing them to associate publicly, to encourage dialogue with others
    and thus promote democratic compromise, and to deprive the extremists
    of their main arguments. Regional councils have also been created,
    encouraging local representation. In addition, Sarkozy favors
    educating more young Muslims in public administration, which has so
    far been a successful experiment at the prestigious Sciences-Po.

    Sarkozy's strong support of religion in public life may shock people
    who believe that taking religion seriously is symptomatic of nostalgia
    for the dark ages. However, he knows there can be absolutely no
    thought of going back to pre-democratic times. Secular democratic
    politics and some degree of materialism are acceptable if tempered by
    a pre-democratic religious inheritance outside the contours of secular
    modernity. Sarkozy is said to "love" American culture, and even met
    with Tom Cruise (whom he regards as a "great actor") during the
    American's recent trip to Paris.

    In the absence -- or nonarrival --   of a new age of German-inspired
    gods disclosing themselves to men to light  up our horizon for the
    better, we might be witnessing the revitalization of a moderate
    religious influence on modern democratic life. Europe's current
    leaders and many of its citizens will hardly be keen on such a
    prospect: Hollywood films on Saturday night and mass on Sunday --
    quelle horreur! The coexistence of mosque-goers and shameless Euro
    Disney tourists with sophisticated Gauloise-smoking grande
    école graduates will be trying at the very least. But Sarkozy's
    ambitious plans may be steering French democracy in that direction. If
    he is unsuccessful the alternatives may be far uglier. None of his
    critics has proposed a feasible alternative strategy.


    3. http://www.policyreview.org/authorindex.html#tlehmann

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