Beyond Radical Secularism

The watershed year for “new left” baby boomers was 1968. In the United States, they protested the Vietnam War, occupied campus administration buildings, marched on the Pentagon, and led riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Over in France, students opposed to the war and perceived decadent Western political and social mores – particularly concerning sexual questions – took to the streets in May 1968. What began as a protest grew into a nationwide student-worker alliance with strikes and violent demonstrations that came close to taking down President Charles de Gaulle’s government.

The uprisings eventually subsided, but baby boomer radicals did not give up the fight. In America, they invaded academia and have devoted forty years to imposing a secularist ideology on impressionable students.

In France, many of the 1960s radicals worked their way into government bureaucracies in Paris and the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels. The Polish EU parliament member and academic Ryszard Legutko has observed that, from those perches, these unelected secularist apparatchiks have dedicated themselves to controlling every aspect of society, “including ethics and mores, family, churches, schools, universities, community organizations, culture and even human sentiments and aspirations.”

This phenomenon has caused a new crisis in France as well and is the subject of Pierre Manent’s newly translated book, Beyond Radical Secularism: How France and the Christian West should respond to the Islamic Challenge.

Manent, a renowned French political philosopher, just retired from the École des hautes études en sciences sociales. Raised in a Communist family, after witnessing what he considered the futile student riots of 1968 he abandoned Marxism and embraced Catholicism.

Influenced by his teacher, the anti-Communist Raymond Aron – who introduced him to Aristotle, Tocqueville, and Leo Strauss – Manent went on to become a prolific writer on the history of liberalism.

Beyond Radical Secularism, which Manent calls an “exercise in sincerity,” took France by storm when it was published shortly after the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo in 2015.

He argues that since the cultural upheaval of 1968, most forms of authority have been degraded. French policies that combined individualism with antinomianism have destroyed the legitimacy of nation, church, neighborhood, and family. The idea of the common good has been abandoned, collective rules have been delegitimized, and community loyalty has been lost.

In France’s constitutionally established secular state (laicité) has neutralized all that its people have in common and have given unlimited sovereignty to the individual. “This idea of neutralization” Manent writes, “amounts to making religion disappear as something social and spiritual by transforming the objectivity of the moral rule into the subjective rights of the individual.”


However, granting unlimited sovereignty to individuals, maintaining that religion is merely a private opinion, and accepting differences of life so long as the equal rights of others are not violated, has backfired in dealing with France’s rapidly growing Muslim population.

The secularist assumption that all problems with Muslims will dissipate because they will eventually become modern, secular, and democratic, has proven to be wrong. Public life for Muslims is a collection of morals and customs, not an environment that guarantees rights. Muslims in France conduct themselves as Muslims and under the current understanding the government has had no alternative but to accept that. As Manent writes:

Our Muslim fellow citizens are now too numerous, Islam has too much authority and the Republic. . .too little authority for things to be otherwise. I therefore conclude that our regime must concede, and frankly accept their ways, since the Muslims are our fellow citizens. We did not impose conditions upon their settling here, and so they have not violated them. Having been accepted as equals, they thus have every right to think that they were accepted ‘as they were.’

But he calls on France to employ a “politics of the possible” that involves a grand compromise “between French Muslim citizens and the rest of the body politic.”

A new “social contract” should recognize that Muslims do not adhere to Western ideas and that they will continue to practice their religious rites, with several exceptions. Polygamy must be prohibited as well as the burqa which “prevents the exchange of signs by which a human being recognizes another human being.”

Muslims will have to affirm certain elements of France’s common life. These include the “freedom of thought and expression.” Shouting “Islamophobia” when you encounter other views is a form of censorship of speech and thought, and must desist. Islam must be treated in the “same way all political, philosophic, and religious elements of [French] society have been treated for at least two centuries.”

To be part of a nation that represents all the French people, Muslims must also declare their independence “from the various Muslim countries that send out imams, and that finance and sometimes administer or guide the mosques.” Only then would they be entitled to the rights and duties of French citizenship.

Muslims need not abandon their religion but must see themselves “as Muslims, as members of a national community” and “by giving themselves to France, Muslims receive from her in return their religion.”

Finally, Manent insists that while a secular state can be neutral, a society cannot. And French society has been “stamped mainly but not exclusively by Catholic Christianity including also significant Protestant and Jewish elements.”

Acknowledging that France is a nation “marked” by Christianity does not mean Muslims must be second-class citizens (as Christians have been for centuries in the Middle East) because “political rule has been rigorously separated from religious commandments and precepts enjoined by the Church; this is a secularity in its proper sense, which is indeed necessary and salutary.”

How likely is it that French Muslims would accept this offer? The chances do not seem good. But it is good that a clear thinker of Manent’s caliber has candidly described the problem and offered what many be the only proper way to solve it.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.