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Volume 16, Issue 3: Tohu

Schools, Secularism, and Slippery Slopes

Jared Miller

By now it is old news, but starting this fall, public school students will no longer be allowed to openly express their religious affiliation—in France, that is. In early February, France banned students in public schools from wearing all but the most "discreet" religious symbols, and there is talk of extending the ban to state hospitals and workplaces. The story received some mainstream attention, but domestic and international response was spotty and short-lived, confined to "criticism" and certainly falling short of denunciation. Why wasn't the UN in their face? Why were American media outlets so ready to send the story to the archives? Perhaps we saw an unsettling (or promising?) reflection of our own future.

The rationale behind the ban, according to one of Chirac's late-2003 speeches, is primarily to affirm France's secular unity and identity. Secularism is basic to France's constitution, and according to Chirac, the presence of religious expression in the secular classroom threatens the "soul" of his country. Chirac asserted that secularism guarantees "social harmony and national cohesion," and the new law prevents the weakening of this official secularism.
I love the French. While we continue to muddle about on the sad, confused border between our Christian past and our secular future, they have gone boldly where we have so far feared to tread. In a time when Americans enjoy flexing and cracking jokes about French invertebrates, it is refreshing to find an instance of our spineless PC-ness being shown up by some real humanism, in the admission that the issue is not whether there is a state religion, but which it is. Here we have a prime minister, with seventy percent of the population backing him, stating that there is no place for pluralism in a modern secular society. The secular meta-ideology, which controls and suppresses all others and will not be challenged or blasphemed, and which we Americans generally assume but have the decency not to mention, is here hoisted up with the tricolor and worshiped as the guardian god of "social harmony and national cohesion." Get in line, face front, take off your headscarf (or yarmulke, or crucifix), and genuflect. In the name of social harmony, be silent. We must control religious tension—join the national church.
Of course, underneath the high-flown rhetoric of "harmony" and "cohesion" is the fear of Islamic fundamentalism. France's Muslim population has grown to be the largest in Europe, and the new law is a shockingly blunt and awkwardly-concealed move to suppress strong Muslim identity in order to avoid a future in which Islam has significant clout in French politics. "Diversity" and pluralism? Don't need them. Democracy? Only as defined by secularists. In France, immigrant pressure is beginning to reveal the fissures and self-contradictions in the secular-democratic model. Some estimate that the majority of its population will be Muslim within a few decades, leading frightened secularists to imagine a France which is (horror!) both a democracy and an officially Islamic state. The only way to prevent this scenario is to fight fire with fire—if secularism must become a fundamentalist religion in order to fight fundamentalists, so be it.
Stateside commentators cannot yet fathom Chirac's logic, not because it is faulty logic but because we are socially and philosophically still a few steps behind the Continent. Our bread and circuses are still effective—the bread of a wealthy economy (even in a trough) and the circuses of a vigorous, uniform pop culture keep us from leaning too heavily on some idealistic pluralism. It is still too easy for us to assimilate all races and religions into satellite-enabled, broadband-connected, fifty-thousand-a-year suburbia. Amused comfort is our god and pluralism is his prophet. We have the most religion and the least conviction. Our much-touted diversity is successful precisely because it is so superficial. We are the most conformist nation on the planet. What happens, then, when for one reason or another, the bread is spread too thin or is finally treated with moderation? When the circuses lose their novelty and spiral into self-parody and cynicism? When people turn back to worship in order to find one solid truth? When various fundamentalisms begin to grow and vie for social and governmental control? Our system is thought to be strong because it has never been sorely tested. When it is, we will goosestep right behind Paris, finally admitting with them that pluralism and its offspring secularism are simply other fundamentalisms, and that when the One collides with the Many, the One must win, throwing a bone to the losers by offering them all a place at his table. Religious symbols are just the beginning. When a society begins to bear suppression gladly in exchange for "harmony and cohesion," it has accepted a way of thinking which renders them vulnerable to any rhetoric that can alter the relative values of liberty and harmony. The Patriot Act is careless and licentious in comparison.
As in France, our government schools are, and will be, the canaries in the coal mine. Is it worth mentioning that just this summer, a measure severely criticizing our government schools and calling for removal of children from them was soundly rejected by the Southern Baptist Convention? I wonder, will they take to French-style secular education so readily?

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