Europe’s Feckless Secularism

January 28, 2016

Europe’s Feckless Secularism

By William McGurn

Benjamin Amsellem on Jan. 12; the Jewish teacher had been attacked the day before by a 15-year-old with a machete, in Marseille, France.

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.





10 thoughts on “Europe’s Feckless Secularism

  1. Oh dear, good ol’ Billy McGurn found time to do a hatchet piece on those filthy Euros esp the horrible French (hiss) and their dodgy “secularism”. His writing (and I’m stretching the definition) is the equivalent of a Dear Penthouse letter. Ad hominems is all he deserves.

  2. /// Must even the most moderate Muslims renounce their faith to be good Europeans? ///

    Would be a good idea if people of ALL faiths abandon their desert-based religions. The world would be a better place.

  3. Understandably, secularism could work well with or without religion but religion cannot work at all with secularism.

    It’s like this, it’s the people in them, unlike religion, secularism has people of many scholarly disciplines, thus with many inventive and innovative thought faculties, while religion has people of just one discipline and one track thought faculty and they, the one discipline imam chose theology because they don’t have the discipline nor the intelligence to do other disciplines. If they do have other disciplines under their kopiah, the overriding factor when they articulate an issue, any issue will be their religion. So it renders their additional learnt disciplines irrelavant.

    So, religion cannot work with secularism because they are not smart enough to think further than the scriptures of thousand years ago. It’s like this, thousands of years ago, they read and learnt the scriptures and today they read and learn the same scriptures of a thousand years ago. The learnt the same thing over and over again with no value added to it or had anything new to articulate. Nothing changed and nothing new to learn. So, in actual fact they learnt nothing new from that 1400 years ago.

    So, the one discipline imam gets stuck in mud of a thousand four hundred years ago and do not think like the secular Joe who is into civilisation, economics, space, all sciences, humanities, the future and all things of innovative today. Even if the one track mind theologian reads other disciplines, the overriding factor would be God and His laws.

    He who thinks the whole wide world, the space, the moon, the stars, civilization, economics, space, all sciences, humanities, the future and all things of innovative today, the future versus he who thinks only theology, that one book he learned rote, with nothing new added to his reading, all his life, nothing cerebral gained, that he who is stuck somewhere in the mud of Mecca.

    So, do you get it?

  4. William McGurn is the chief speechwriter of President W Bush. If one is not a neocon, one could not be close to the administration for too long. I have never gotten that spirit mentioned by Mr McGurn during President W Bush’s governance.

    In any case, … I am inclined to suggest this about liberal ideals that got lost somewhere in the middle. Perhaps it is mere humanism, not liberalism as we call it today.
    The liberal project is what it was when liberalism began: a search for order amid endless conflict and unceasing change guided by resistance to power, faith in progress, and respect for people.

  5. Each country inherits its history and become what it is now; USA is no exception. The form of secularism in US government has its genesis in its Constitution. Specifically, it is the one-liner that decides the character of the nation: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

    Our Malaysia Constitution has its own twist, and must be understood carefully for us to move forward. We have affirmation of Islam as religion of federation (Article 3.1), negation of Islam’s influence to any clauses in the Constitution (Article 3.4), and affirmation of state rulers as religion heads of their respective states.

    The reason we can have a religious department called JAKIM consuming almost 1 billion ringgit per year in Prime Minister department is not because JAKIM is supported by the Constitution, but because our judiciary has been emasculated from the ability to decide constitutionality of government action during May Day 1988. Even judges of the supreme court are not free to exercise their conscience to make judgement matter to the nation because they could be fired or dragged to a tribunal to be tried when the Prime Minister makes such recommendation to do so. This situation is too supported in our Constitution thank to the doctor in the house.

    May Day 1988 must be revisited, and judiciary be made an equal and independent branch of government through amending articles in the Constitution . Short of that, we are a nation that cannot live up to its creation’s creed.

  6. Had Malaysians to choose between European secularism and American secularism, it is clear that American secularism is going to work better here. Under American-style secularism, private citizens, not government, can build as many mosques or temples as they want per resources they have. Privates citizens, not government, can evangelize as much as they want on any religions or atheism. Private citizens, not government, can criticize as much as they want about religions or cultures or not criticize at all. Then all chips will fall in its natural and true state.

  7. “Under American-style secularism, private citizens, not government, can build as many mosques or temples as they want per resources they have.”

    Um you are aware that the same applies under European secularism (sic), right ? And you are aware that the GOP/DNC and the Federal government (GOP/DNC) funds religious programs ?

  8. A very abbreviated version of what secularist and religious (or traditionalist) society means from one of the most prodigious intellect of our time:

  9. “Um you are aware that the same applies under European secularism (sic), right ? And you are aware that the GOP/DNC and the Federal government (GOP/DNC) funds religious programs ?”, Conrad.

    American-styled secularism dictates government does not pass law to specifically honor a particular religion; all laws are supposedly created with the First Amendment in mind. This of course serves, among other things, to avoid committing the sin of stealing at the governmental level. This, however, does not mean religious institutions cannot apply for government grant designed for general welfare — otherwise it, under the American-styled secularism, would be discriminating against traditional religious people in favor of neo-religious people such as socialists.

    Under such background, tell me which US law funds a religious program with the intention to honor a particular religion. (Hint: keyword is “law”)

  10. “Under such background, tell me which US law funds a religious program with the intention to honor a particular religion. (Hint: keyword is “law”)”

    Um yeah which is why I used funds religious “programs” and not “pass law”. So in one posts not only did you not address the point but you also moved the goal post.

    What was my point that you failed to address ? The reality (1) that people in Europe are free to practise their religious beliefs by independently funding their own places of worship [too] (2) that political parties in America and the Federal government fund religious programs which in a sense blurs the line between State and Church.

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