The United States, India, Israel and most of Europe are now grappling with the intense struggle between democratic values, religion and cultural identity.
I find it interesting that France, which has for so long positioned itself as the champion of free thought and expression, is in the process of enacting legislation that would make the law of the republic greater than the law of God.
The reasons for this are complex. The country is trying to maintain its cultural identity while navigating an influx of immigrants from the Muslim world. While France desires to welcome all who are committed to living peaceably, the nation wants to take a stand against religious extremism and terror in any form.
Yet, the "separatism bill" allows the French government a significant amount of reach into individuals’ lives, which has raised concerns about freedom of religion, particularly among Muslim communities.
President Macron has stated the bill is a response to "Islamist seperatism" which, a recent article noted, "the president describes as an ideology that aims to build a parallel society in France where religious rules override civil laws."
Neither initiative will work. The French cannot suppress religious freedom and Islamic laws and customs cannot supersede state law. There can be no zero sum approach.
Freedom of religion is understood as providing equal space for all belief systems — including atheism and agnosticism — and freedom to propagate the same is a biblical idea for those who follow Judeo-Christian traditions.
Humans have free will and thus the freedom of conscience to follow God, not follow God or reject the idea of God completely.
However, freedom of religion understood as the negation of God in public and private life is not an idea rooted in western, legal tradition.
It is an offense to natural law theory undergirding the western system. This kind of secularism is simply a thinly veiled form of institutionalized religion.
It seems France risks kicking undermining its entire legal system and tradition, secular as it is, by taking a short-term approach to a complicated, long-term problem.
We need France’s best intellectuals finding a middle way through this treacherous territory. The issues motivating this law are important ones but the solutions cannot undermine the state itself.
Whether France passes this new legislation remains to be seen though it has passed its first test and comes before the French Senate on March 30. But even if it does pass, the nation will fail to preserve another part of its cultural identity.
The great secular democratic state will have institutionalized a secular religion in exchange for its robust religious freedom protections.
One thing is certain, religion will survive. Religion arises out of the spiritual aspect of our common humanity, something science is only now beginning to unravel. Religions seem to always thrive and strengthen the cultures built around them (for good or ill). For centuries, different religions have developed different cultural values, inevitably leading to political and civil conflict. This reality dispels the utopian illusion that all religions are the same.
It is also to France’s—and Europe’s—detriment that it has distanced itself from its Christian heritage, however fraught with wrongdoing that heritage may be.
To imagine that its democratic values arose out of a republic or secular state instead of the principles found in Christian tradition is to ignore history, even secular, French history. There could have been no enlightenment without the religious centuries which preceded it.
If France is to preserve itself, it needs to rediscover its spiritual roots and not make legislative war against religious freedom even if it finds certain religious practices untoward.
Modern France has been able to be a secular democracy only because it has had religious freedom.
Most Rev. Joseph D’Souza is widely considered one of the most influential voices of global Christianity. Rev. D’Souza is the founder and international president of Dignity Freedom Network and presides as archbishop over the Good Shepherd Church of India. To Read More of His Reports — Click Here.
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