Liberté, égalité, fraternité is the motto of the French Republic, but the fraternité seems to have gone up in the smoke of burning cars over the last few weeks. And so the French government has appointed a commission to see whether another distinctive mark of modern France shouldn’t also be set aside: laïcité , the official and nationally enforced secularism of the state. In particular, the French are looking into state funding of mosques and government employment of Islamic clerics.
France may once have been the eldest daughter of the Church, but she has never managed to hold a clear idea of Church-State separation. Before the French Revolution, the royal court insisted on its powers to name bishops and generally treat the Catholic Church as a state-run enterprise. (Remember the Avignon captivity?) Come the Revolution, and the French promptly swung to the other extreme, confiscating schools, hospitals, monasteries, and anything else they could get their hands on. What existed in neither case was anything that, say, the American founders would recognize as religious freedom. The French version of the Enlightenment, carried down from Voltaire to the laïcité that became fundamental French law in 1905, was not just neutral toward religion. Rather, it feared religion as the great danger both to the state and to enlightened thought.
Some while back, several observers predicted that the French, faced with its angry and active Muslim population, would remove the legal disabilities that currently hobble believers. But last year the government moved to enforce laws that limit the wearing of religious dress in public by prohibiting Muslim girls from wearing head scarves to school. And it seemed as though the French were actually going to hold to the abstract, all-religions-banned-equally language of their laïcité .
So what are we to make of the new commission that will examine changes in the law to allow state funding of mosques¯a commission, it should be noted, appointed by the more conservative member of the government, interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy?
If concessions denied to Christians are granted to Muslims, it will obviously demonstrate what the counter-Enlightenment always claimed: The French version of the Enlightenment wasn’t anti-religious; it was entirely anti- Christian ¯born, in its deepest sense, from a hatred of Europe’s past.
But there may be something else signaled as well. The commission’s goal, Sarkozy said, will be "to separate French Islam from foreign influences"¯to build, in other words, a distinct and government-controlled form of Islam in France.
We have a name for that. We call it a state religion. A curious state religion to be held by the eldest daughter of the Church, certainly, but in reality only the swinging back of the pendulum to where the nation was before the Revolution. Once again, the French are getting the relation of religion and the state wrong. Perhaps we’ll eventually see an Avignon captivity of the imams in France, the youngest daughter of Mecca.
As if not satisfied with the notice I gave his new book of translations from the Portuguese, the poet William Baer has just sent a flyer about a new program on Catholic arts that he is organizing. His first workshop will be this summer in New Jersey. You can see information about the workshop here , where it reads:
"The first Southwell Creative Writing Workshop will take place June 15-25, 2006, at the Carmel Retreat House in Mahwah, New Jersey¯which is about an hour from the New York City and Newark, N.J., airports. Each accepted applicant will receive a Southwell Scholarship covering all costs, including room and board, except for travel expenses to and from the Retreat House.
"The purpose of the workshop is to encourage a small group of interested, post-baccalaureate Catholics (ages 21-30) to develop their talents in creative writing from a traditional Catholic point of view."
The faculty looks good, particularly for a first installment, and though the National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia and I will weaken it, Baer nonetheless is having us both come in for one-day lectures during the workshop. If you know young Catholic writers, encourage them to apply through the website. If you are one of those young Catholic writers, the Southwell program sounds like where you might want to be this summer.