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 laïcité 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 [ France’s] 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 laïcité, 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 proposed a new version of laïcité, 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.”
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.
|For Further Reading and Information|
See this explanation of laïcité.
Peter B. Beita, “French President’s Religious Mixing Riles Critics,” Christian Today, 23 January 2008.
Elaine Sciolino, “By Making Holocaust Personal to Pupils, Sarkozy Stirs Anger,” New York Times, 16 February 2008.
Lily Huang, “True Secularist: Sarkozy’s Religion May Not be a Throwback to the Past So Much As a Look to Europe’s Future, Argues Religious Scholar Alan Wolfe,” Newsweek, 8 February 2008.
Tracy McNicoll, “The President’s Passion Play: Nicolas Sarkozy Embraces God as a Good for Society, Igniting Debate Over Church and State in France,” Newsweek, 18 February 2008.
Tom Heneghan, “Sarkozy Ignites Row Over Religion, Holocaust Study,” Washington Post, 14 February 2008.
Elisabeth Eaves, “Is France Getting Religion: In the Immigrant Suburbs of Paris, Secularism is On the Wane,” Slate, 1 February 2005.
Timothy Lehmann, “Man and God in France,” The Hoover Institution Policy Review, April/May 2005.
BreakPoint Commentary No. 030703, "EU Amnesia: Europe without Christianity."
BreakPoint Commentary No. 070129, "Christian Comeback in Europe: A Hope-Filled Trend."
Charles Colson. "Sarkozy and European Secularism." BreakPoint Commentary February 28, 2008.
From BreakPoint ® (28/02/2008), Copyright 2000, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries, P.O. Box 17500, Washington, D.C. 20041-0500. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint ®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries ®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship Ministries.
Image: Nicolas Sarkozy, a watermark was present that said Photo: Jean-Louise Aubert.
Copyright © 2008 Breakpoint