The image has been making its rounds on news sites and social media: a French Muslim woman sitting on the beach, being forced, in the name of “good morals and secularism,” to remove her clothes. Last week, Nice was the last city to lift the Burkini Ban, in accordance with an order from France’s Council of State, which ruled that the ban “illegally breached fundamental freedoms.” But the veiling debate—which has been going on for years in France—is clearly not over.
As a woman who dresses modestly and wears a head covering on the basis of my Christian faith, I have been thinking about the issues involved here for a while. In a class last year, we were informally discussing the brutal attacks at the Charlie Hebdo offices. I come from a tradition of Christian pacifism. I find all acts of violence to be indefensible and unjustifiable. But I found myself saying: “But if I saw blasphemous cartoons of Jesus . . . if I wasn’t allowed to dress according to my convictions publicly . . .” I got a table-full of blank stares. I sounded like an apologist. My argument trailed off into a lame “I don’t know—.”
The burkini controversy makes the issues a bit clearer. This is the problem I see at the heart of the matter. France is forcing its Muslim citizens to make this choice: To be French, or to be Muslim. In accordance with the French policy of laïcité, French Muslims are told that, in order to be good citizens, they must keep their religion out of the public square. (In a way, this seems a strange demand to make in France, where town squares are shadowed by some of the most beautiful cathedrals ever built.)
The way I dress seems to invite people to think in these terms, and to assert the principle that the spiritual life should not be lived in public. Perfect strangers have approached me on the street to assure me that they are “spiritual but not religious.” The subtext seems to be: “You appear to be a woman of the cloth, but I have living spirituality in my soul.” Thanks for sharing, but if faith has any strength it must move beyond this misguided Manichean distinction between spirit and matter, to shape my actual life. Otherwise religion, as a spiritually formed way of life, is replaced by “spirituality.”
The French author Georges Bernanos has his country priest reflect that:
The expression “to lose one’s faith,” as one might a purse or a ring of keys, has always seemed to me rather foolish. It must be one of these sayings of bourgeois piety, a legacy of those wretched priests of the eighteenth century who talked so much.
Faith is not a thing which one loses; we merely cease to shape our lives by it.
The formal aspects of my life are not dead religiosity. Practice—how I relate to others, how I work, how I pray, and how I dress—is the lived expression of faith. I am blessed to live in a country that has a rich tradition of religious liberty, where I can call myself an Anabaptist Christian and an American, a country where, aside from unsolicited encounters with the “spiritual but not religious” people, I can live my faith freely and without impediment.
I know that ultimately my faith takes precedence over my citizenship. I pray that the day will never come when I will be forced to choose between them. If I were to be faced with this choice—if the expression of my faith were not allowed in public—my response would be to continue to live according to my convictions, taking a cue from Martin Luther King Jr., “openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”
Veery Huleatt is a Junior Fellow at First Things.