Where Did All the Religion Go?

Posted on February 20th, 2012 by

(Update: I thought I understood the law I was writing about.  It turns out, I missed many details, like the fact that there are two separate laws, not one.  See comments bellow.)

In France, it is forbidden for Muslim women to wear a hijab in public.  This is something that usually shocks Americans.  However, something I didn’t realized until I got here is that it isn’t just Muslim religious clothing, but all religious clothing that is banned.

I once thought this law was hateful and oppressive, but I no longer believe the law itself is.  However, from what I understand (though I’ve never personally seen anyone fined for wearing religious clothing in public) it is often selectively enforced to discriminate against Muslims, and that is hateful.  Yet while I know there are those who support this law for the wrong reasons, after learning more about the religious history of France, I have come to see that there is a legitimate case for the law, free from hate or islamophobia (though it could be that such a case doesn’t actually describe anyone’s motives, I don’t know).  I believe such a radical secularization of public space in France can be understood by examining the role religion has played in politics throughout French history.

France has a long history of sleeping with the church.  Early on, the kings were considered to rule by the authority of God, and there have always been little spats where French Catholics didn’t know which parent to listen to: the king or the pope.  Then, during the revolution, Catholics were persecuted as anti-religious revolutionaries took control.  Later, despite sometimes throwing things at each other, France and the church decided to commit to one another and exchange vows.  Napoleon got administrative authority over the church in France, and became its breadwinner, agreeing to fund the whole operation from bishops to buildings.  But, when Paris and the Vatican tried to separate around a hundred years ago, they couldn’t get an annulment to erase their extensive history together.  They also had kids who could not be cut up by Solomon, and so they entered a messy divorce and custody battle over the stunning and historically significant churches for which the state had paid, while it was Catholics who used them and felt entitled to keep them.

I don’t have time here to elaborate the extensive melodrama in full detail, but relations between France and religion have ever been dominated by the pendulum swing of religious persecution, and then favored inclusion and privilege.  Whenever one group reacted against another’s persecution and intolerance, they simply redirected the persecution and intolerance, rather than stopping it.  It is in this context that a law of such radical secularization can make some sense.  Perhaps to some extent, France believed that their only hope of limiting this constant pendulum swing was to completely ban religion from the public sphere.

Hopefully with that context, we can begin to understand such a law in France.  But should it really be that hard in the first place?  While the United States does not have such breadth or depth of scars from religious battles and abuses in our history, our hands are not clean.

Before we became the nation we are today, we drove many tribes out from their land and ensured the near evaporation of their religious traditions.  Not long after the Mormon faith emerged, we drove them from the east coast out to Utah, where many can still be found.  Now, despite having experienced what it means to be oppressed by a society who doesn’t understand you, the Mormon church, along with other highly dignified bodies such as the Westboro Baptist Church (and many others who are hidden by the notoriety of their more militant fellows) fight to put religion in the law by outlawing certain kinds of marriage.

It also causes controversy in the United States when a Muslim wants to be sworn in on their own holy book, but why?  I don’t care if someone wants to be sworn in on Twilight, if that is the most meaningful book to them.  But to question whether we should let someone be sworn into office on the holy book of their faith (a book for which they receive far more persecution and tests of commitment than do Christians for our book) is a kind of canned ignorance, concentrated prejudice, and profound stupidity.

We also still have a candidate now and then questioning whether or not evolution should be taught in school.  And what is it with “In God We Trust” on our money?  Some days, I’m not sure whether or not I trust in God, and when I do, I don’t need a false homage to my god on the money which is the preferred god of so many people.

So, should it be hard for us to understand?  Is it because we have a fundamentally different history and trajectory?  Or do we simply not have as much of that kind of history as France has amassed?  France has learned some hard lessons about voting faith into law, what happens when lines of persecution are simply redrawn rather than erased, and that their candadates’ policies must always be more important than their faith.

This law is comprehensible (regardless of whether or not it is right) because of the history in France of religious interference, favoritism, and persecution.  Perhaps some citizens of France felt that it was necessary to use the law to force faith back into the private life;  that it was necessary to manually generate secular equality in the public domain in order to prevent the selective inclusion which ever perpetuates such problems.  In our voting, our public and civic life, and our education of children, let us never aim to enshrine our own religion and its traditions into the laws of our country.  Instead, we must enshrine the freedom to hold our own beliefs, and for others to live differently.  Let us never create such a history.



  1. Yann says:

    Hello Eric :)

    I’m sorry but your 1st statement is wrong; hijab is only forbidden in public schools (but allowed at university) according to this law : http://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichTexte.do?cidTexte=JORFTEXT000000252465&dateTexte

    Which is forbidden in public area is clothing hiding the whole face : http://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichTexte.do?cidTexte=JORFTEXT000023654701

    Finally,(even if I don’t like this newspaper) you can find a sum up here : http://www.lefigaro.fr/actualite-france/2011/04/08/01016-20110408ARTFIG00630-voile-signes-religieux-ce-qui-est-interdit-en-france.php

    See you soon!

  2. Eric Halvorson says:

    Thank you Yann for these clarifications, and I’m sorry to my readers who have been misinformed by this article.

    I believe I understand now: there are two laws, the first one prohibits “conspicuous” religious signs in public schools except universities. This includes veils, scull caps, large crosses, turbans, and essentially anything that covers the head or hair.

    The second law applies only to that which covers the face, and prohibits such clothes in public spaces.

    These laws remain a consequence of the history and attitude of France, but I think these clarifications reduce even more the likelihood of a justifiable argument for such restrictions.