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France and the Secular State Religion

Fr. Francis DesMarais

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Greetings from La Belle France, the land of a true and thorough separation of Church and State.

Today the French Senate approved a law which makes it punishable to carry or wear a noticeable religious symbol in a school, hospital or government building. The ban includes crosses, veils, yarmulkes, and turbans. France wants to protect the ideal of a truly secular state.

Does the ban deny legal recognition of traditional religion? Does it ambiguously define a new kind of religion? The French don't know yet.

Some observers remarked that the ban is a counter attack against a large and growing immigrant population - predominantly Muslim, but also includes immigrants from the Christian countries of Eastern Europe as well as Africa, India and the Far East.

Immigrants from some of these countries often dress in ways that identify them with a particular religion. They implicitly challenge the unofficial creed of secularism - the religion that has slowly replaced Christianity (mostly Roman Catholicism) in France since 1789. The official and state protected creed of LAÏCITÉ (best translated as "secularism") underlies the French conception of government. Challenging the creed challenges French society in the minds of these secularists.

Writing in the International Herald Tribune, observer Elaine Sciolino remarked, "In contrast to pluralistic societies that try to accept, or even celebrate, cultural (and religious, my addition) differences among their citizens, the French ideal envisions a uniform, secularized French identity as the best guarantee of national unity and the separation of church and state."*

The ban defines a tenet of this secular religion. Sciolino also mentioned that it has a prominent symbol: a deified Marianne carrying a carpenter's level instead of a cross between her exposed and nurturing breasts, and a Gallic rooster sitting on her Phrygian bonnet representing liberty.

The secular religion has rituals as well. French news recently reported about a marriage of a woman to her absent fiancé in a ceremony performed by the mayor of her city and approved by the high priest of the secular religion, the President of France. The odd thing was that the fiancé has been dead for over a year. Presumably he didn't have the chance to sign the marriage document, or even change his mind. How will he file for divorce if the marriage doesn't work out?

A second news account touched more directly on the longstanding ritual of baptism that is practiced in several religious traditions, especially Christianity. Christianity was de-legalized by the Republican decrees of 1789. Religion needs ritual however, and so the Republican religion decided that Christian baptism could be repudiated in a ceremony called Bapteme Republicain, or "Republican Baptism."

The mayor conducted the baptism, apparently functioning as the legate of the high priest. It included a baptismal certificate and was witnessed by a Parrain  and Marraine (Godfather and Godmother) The young boy, who had already been baptized as a Roman Catholic Christian, justified his new "baptism" by saying that it was better to have a Marraine who lived closer to him than one who lived far away.

His non-practicing Muslim father and non-practicing Christian mother said that they are believers. Apparently they believe in the power of the state religion to wash their son clean of any civil infraction thereby inaugurating him full French citizenship and the promise of an inheritance of the ideals of French Republicanism.

Oh yes. He received plenty of gifts in honor of his republican baptism including a watch and some books. A Bible or Koran were not among them.

Perhaps the most telling action was made by a mayor of one of the province cities. He ordered that the national symbol (shield) that includes the inscriptions of the three pillars of French secular philosophy Liberté, Fraternité, Égalité, to include a fourth - LAÏCITÉ (Secularism).

There is no information if he has been ex-communicated from the ranks of the hierarchical administration in his city. Perhaps he became an ecumenical officer to non-secular religions in Metropolitan France and Territories & Departments abroad.

* From: Guarding Secularism, Religiously, in France by Elaine Sciolino, International Herald Tribune, Monday 09 Feb. 2004.

Fr. Francis DesMarais is an Orthodox Priest serving in France. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted 2/16/04

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