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One Nation Under Secularism
France's peculiar aversion to public religiosity is rooted in a sordid history of sectarian violence.
In a highly controversial move aimed at reasserting the French republic's secular ideal, the French National Assembly voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to ban conspicuous religious symbols from public schools. Despite inviting international scrutiny and sowing the seeds for potential religious mutiny, the French public strongly favored the ban, which includes Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps, and large Christian crosses.
International media have mocked the proposal, arguing that schoolgirl wardrobes don't exactly threaten the essential nature of French republicanism. As a result, Muslims may face further marginalization within French culture and turn toward Islamic fundamentalists for acceptance. The French government hopes for the opposite result, believing it can quash radical Islam only by such contrived assimilation.
This notion may sound absurd to Americans, who so highly esteem individualistic notions of freedom in expression and conscience. Yet in France, there can be no other conclusion. To be French is to guard against the threat posed by public religiosity. Drawing upon their volatile and frequently bloody religious history for justification, proponents of the ban assert that liberty must be preserved through vigilant public secularism.
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
The storming of the Bastille in 1789 unleashed centuries of unrest. Encouraged by the unlikely success of their cross-Atlantic allies, the French people revolted against their rulers and ushered in a breathtaking new order founded on three principles-liberty, equality, and fraternity. Though the Revolution famously collapsed in the bloodbath of Robespierre's Reign of Terror, then morphed into Napoleonic monarchy and conquest, its essential aims earned international acclaim. Even some American Protestants applauded the developments in France. Like so many others riding the tidal wave of democratic sentiment, they rejoiced as France asserted popular rule. In 1793 Samuel Miller, who eventually became a conservative stalwart at Princeton Theological Seminary, optimistically and rhetorically asked if Americans and other observers could "view the interesting situation of our affectionate allies, without indulging the delightful hope, that the sparks, which are there seen rising toward heaven, though in tumultuous confusion, shall soon be the means of kindling a general flame, which shall illuminate the darkest and remotest corners of the earth, and pour upon them the effulgence of ten-fold glory?"
Observers like Miller initially brushed the Revolution's unsavory elements under the rug because few deemed the French monarchy an institution worth saving. Nor did they, for that matter, shed a tear for the toppled Roman Catholic Church. As the state-sponsored church, the Roman Catholic Church was inextricably linked with the monarchy, sharing culpability for the nation's ills.
This church-state alliance produced many problematic outcomes. Confessional unity couldn't prevent French kings during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from allying with the Muslim Turks to check the Holy Roman Empire's power. This pact severely weakened Christendom both spiritually and militarily, and contributed to the shocking Turkish conquests that culminated in sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683.
Confessional hostility erupted in 1572 when the French Queen Catherine de' Medici endorsed a plan to kill Huguenot leader Admiral Coligny. The initial attempt failed, but days later sectarian mob violence resulted in the death of about 70,000 French Protestants. This Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre marked the most gruesome outbreak in a series of sixteenth-century conflicts that have become known as the Wars of Religion. (See Issue 71: Huguenots and the Wars of Religion.) This violence reached an apparent conclusion with the Edict of Nantes in 1598, but subsequent Catholic rulers first revoked the Protestants' political power and then their rights to freely worship.
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