French Secularism, At Home and Abroad

Loudly secular France is now engaged in a hot war, in its former imperial domain of Africa, against Islamist killers – the ultimate anti-secularists. The French military, which numbers in its ranks some of my friends, has always defied American stereotypes of “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” In my operational military experience, French forces could be great to work with: smart, amicable, capable, and gifted with fortitude. (And, yes, they knew where to find the best food wherever we were; my thanks to them.) 

But whenever operations began to touch conflicting national policies, usually stemming more from deeply different traditions playing out in domestic politics than from divergent geopolitical interests, cooperation and communication abruptly ceased. 

The French are currently seeking to defeat Islamists connected with terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda, who threaten the governments of Mali and other nations in Africa. On that continent, which has given us so many priests thankfully come to re-evangelize our country, an extended confrontation between Islam and Christianity is playing out. Post-1789, post-modern French rulers, like our own political elites, would not describe this war as a conflict of civilizations. 

But these Islamists are able to seize on any parcel of ungoverned territory to set up operations that could eventually kill their opponents, broadly described as “the West,” including Israel. Let’s hope the French operation succeeds.

On the domestic front, a related but different picture emerges. France is in the throes of an unexpectedly sharp contest over same-sex marriage, with opposition from the Church, the leading rabbi of France, and some colorful (including some gay) secular characters. In grand French tradition, the opposition has taken to the streets. (On this, see Robert Royal’s column yesterday in First Things.)

In December, the French government of Socialist President François Hollande announced a new National Observatory of Secularism.  Coming on the anniversary of the 1905 law establishing “laicité,” or secularity, as national dogma, the bulletin declared that the observatory aims to “formulate propositions for the transmission of public morality, giving it a dignified place in schools.”

A few days later, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls elaborated, saying the Observatory would monitor religious groups for signs of dangerous deviancy that suggested a tendency towards violence, allowing the state to intervene preemptively: The aim is not to combat opinions by force, but to detect and understand when an opinion turns into a potentially violent and criminal excess. The objective is to identify when its suitable to intervene to treat what has become a religious pathology.

Valls expressed concern about all possible “excesses” – not just Muslims whose lack of assimilation and potential radicalization are constant concerns for France. Suspects include all who reject or separate themselves from the modern world, including some orthodox Jews as well as Catholics in the Civitas organization, aligned with the Society of St. Pius X and favoring a return to the monarchy. (For those who think that monarchy might not be a bad idea, see the site of Catholic Thing contributor David Warren.)

Diagnosing opinions as pathological and dangerous opens up boundless possibilities for preemptive action, motivated by any number of biases and agendas. Yet two journalists in Paris tell me the Observatory does not seem to be controversial. Former President Jacques Chirac once proffered a similar proposal. Hollande probably wants to appeal to his leftist base, and some anti-Catholic commentators hope that the move will remedy former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s alleged tendency to accommodate the Church.

But in fact its practical effects will be minimal. France already has robust domestic intelligence and counterterrorism capabilities to detect violent extremism. It has deported terror-teaching imams and banned some forms of the veil for Muslim women in schools and government facilities. 

For Americans, the problem is less the Observatory itself than the fact of its political appeal to a segment of French opinion. George Marlin was right when he wrote here recently that we are becoming like France, which could be in some ways a good thing but in this context is not. The boos at the mention of God at the Democratic Convention came from people who see religion as a dangerous pathology.

They are not the only ones concerned with this pathology. Pope Benedict XVI has addressed it in a somewhat more complete – let’s say tolerant and open-minded – way than Hollande and Valls: 

There are pathologies of religion, as we can see, and there are pathologies of reason, as we can also see. Both sorts of pathologies pose a fatal threat to peace and even to mankind as a whole, in our age of global power structures.  . . .God or the Divinity can become a way of making absolute claims for one’s own authority and interests. Such a partisan image of God. . .dissolves law and morality. Good is then whatever serves my own power, and the difference between good and evil collapses in practice. . . . We can see something of this sort in the terrorists and their ideology of martyrdom. . . . But there is also a pathology of reason that is entirely cut off from God. We have seen it in the totalitarian ideologies that cut themselves off from God and wanted. . .to construct a new man, a new world.

The consequences of reason divorced from faith emerged vividly in the French Revolution and subsequent Terror. In France and America, we need, prudently, to counter all pathologies that advance the culture of death everywhere on the political spectrum, be they Islamist terrorists abroad or the forces of modern materialist reason that exclude the supernatural at home.

And if we cannot counter them, we must at least seek to preserve the ideas and beliefs that they would eradicate, until the madness of these pathologies, sooner or later, collapses.


Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.