January 28, 2016
Europe’s Feckless Secularism
By William McGurn
Must even the most moderate Muslims renounce their faith to be good Europeans?
Nearly a quarter century ago, Yale’s Harold Bloom famously described America as a “dangerously religion-soaked, even religion-mad, society.”
When Europeans gaze upon our shores, this is pretty much what they see. From our strip-mall churches to the raucous intrusions of faith into our public life to our presidents routinely invoking the Almighty, they see an America hostage to primitive beliefs.
At a moment when Europol is reporting that Islamic State is planning more Paris-style terror attacks, that’s unfortunate. It’s unfortunate because America’s overt religiosity blinds Europe’s elites to the one part of the American experiment most relevant to their needs today: our secularism.
They have their own secularism, of course. In France, where it is most formalized, it is called laïcité—the idea that the state isn’t simply neutral toward religion but must banish all things religious, including religious arguments, from the public square. Here note that Marine Le Pen’s right-wing National Front is appealing to the French public on the grounds that the party would be the better enforcer of laïcité.
The idea is that when you boot religion off the public square, you remove from public life the religious friction that in centuries past fueled devastating conflicts. This same idea now animates the European Union, and in principle leads to a more liberal, more cohesive and more inclusive society.
That’s the theory. The reality is that in many European cities today, a Jew cannot walk the streets in safety. Just this month in Marseille, a man invoked Islamic State as he tried to decapitate a Jewish schoolteacher. The attack led to suggestions that the targets of such attacks—French Jews—would be better off not wearing yarmulkes in public.
Many Jews have already given their answer: In 2015 a record number left Europe for Israel. Most were French.
Women are also losing the freedom to walk Europe’s streets in safety. On New Year’s Eve in Cologne and other German cities, hundreds of women were robbed or sexually assaulted by Arab and North African asylum seekers in what authorities now say was a planned campaign. Not only did police do nothing, they initially tried to cover it up.
The reality is not much better for sexual minorities. Only a month ago in Sweden, a teenage refugee from North Africa was charged with beating a gay man to death, and then wrapping a dead snake around the victim’s body. Even with all the sex-ed in the world, it is hard to envision European Muslims accommodating themselves any time soon to modern European notions of sexuality.
To put it another way, not only is Euro-secularism failing to persuade Europe’s growing Muslim minority of its merits; increasingly it cannot protect its own citizens.But there’s the rub. Because Europe is not the only model of secularism. America is also a secular state.
The contrasts are illuminating. Where European secularism is built on unspoken agnosticism about the ultimate source of human dignity, American secularism is rooted in a declaration of self-evident truths about man and the divine source of his unalienable rights. The result is a nation that is a living, secular contradiction of contemporary European orthodoxy: For not only is the U.S. among the earth’s most religious nations, it is also the most modern.
In “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville took on the European orthodoxy of his own day when he noted that, in America, free religion was the friend of liberty. The beauty of the American approach is that it avoided the aggressiveness of both extremes: the throne-and-altar alliance of the ancien régime on the one hand, and the militant secular state that emerged from the French Revolution on the other.
Perhaps most important for today, American secularism does not require people to deny their religious identities to be good Americans. In an article for the New Republic entitled “Is it Time for France to Abandon Laïcité?,” Elizabeth Winkler puts it this way:
“In the wake of terrorist attacks, it may strike some as counterintuitive to loosen—or even abandon—laïcité. But allowing Muslims greater freedom to express their beliefs in peaceful ways may make them feel more accepted and less stigmatized by the country they have made their home. It could also encourage their participation in public institutions, like schools and government workplaces, fostering their adoption of French values and identity—the very thing laïcité aims, but often fails, to do.”
Europeans have spent the past decade obsessing about bans on head scarves and burqas. Maybe it’s time they give Tocqueville a try.