Church, State, and the Future of Laicite by Anne Guillard

May 16, 2018

Invited by the Council of Bishops of France in early April, President Emmanuel Macron delivered a rare speech addressed to French Catholics. In it, he presented his purpose as “repairing the damaged relationship between Church and State.” This was a marked divergence from his predecessors, who had kept their distance from the church and it provoked hysteria on the left. A large number of radical leftist politicians expressed fears that the long-cherished tradition of French secularism – laïcité – was under threat.

In contrast to the liberal tradition that understands state neutrality as indifference to religious matters, President Macron seemed to present himself as a shepherd caring for all his sheep, including Catholics. By doing so, he embraced a classical pastoral understanding of political power which is directly founded on a Christian theological pattern.

In fact, the general tone of his speech was quite unfamiliar to French citizens, especially Catholics, who are accustomed to being reduced to a block constituency whose function is to guard good morals in a liberal society without boundaries. Instead of such generalizing statements, he recognized the diversity within the Catholic community and, like a priest from his pulpit, he urged members to get involved in politics. “A Church pretending to be disinterested in temporal questions would not fulfill its vocation, whereas a President of the Republic pretending to be disinterested in the Church would fail in his duty,” he said.

What kind of engagement did he mean? What can we do in a world where we witness the disintegration of social ties, growing economic inequality, and massive environmental degradation? How can we become more involved in a political future shaped by the fear of decline relayed by so many intellectuals, and among them plenty of Christians?

It is disheartening to hear so many of them holding counter-cultural discourses that criticize modernity, appeal to the past, and deny their mission, as Christians, to improve their society. In fact, after decades of passive withdrawal from public life, some Catholic movements in France have been remobilized and broadcast their suspicion towards the secular world. In 2013 for example, conservatives organized demonstrations to protest against the legalization of same-sex marriage. This movement sparked a conservative resurgence, and it has grown since then.

Their narratives of distrust have expanded in the Church, where many believers and some of the clergy keep their distance from Pope Francis. His encyclical Amoris Laetitia (2016) has not been warmly welcomed, nor have his prophetic calls for caring about refugees generated much enthusiasm. However, while these conservatives are increasingly vocal, they remain a minority.

Religious sociologist Jacques Lagroye characterizes the Church as split into two regimes of truth. We see a fracture line between what he calls the “regime of certainty,” which appeals to an authoritarian statement of incontestable affirmations concerning God’s design, his revelation and the role of the Church.  The second, the “regime of testimony,” focuses on the witness of a person who presented himself as the Son of God, and proposes hope and the possibility of renewal for everyone.

This split can be seen in the very practices of the faith, in the understanding of morality and in the attitude towards the Church’s hierarchy. But it also manifests in the political preferences of believers. The proponents of a faith shaped by certainty are more likely to prefer conservative programs where they believe that their patrimonial values – the defense of a certain conception of work, and a deep attachment to property, Christian culture and heritage – and their cultural identity as Christians are best defended. Whereas the followers of a testimonial faith would rather concern themselves with such issues as racism, economic inequality, or ecological catastrophe.

The Church celebrates the diversity within it and yet at the same time fears the threat of disintegration. With contradictory injunctions, the “unity in diversity” proclaimed quickly turns into a barren uniformization. The church subscribes to pluralism in its principle, but there is no real translation into action. It means that those who subscribe to the regime of certainty, a majority of believers, will almost certainly vote for conservative parties.

But political engagement is not limited to elections. Official texts of the Episcopate urge the Catholics to take part, as citizens and as Christians, in political and union fights, regarding pluralism and the secularization of society. Such exhortation is embedded in the idea of a consubstantiality between spiritual experience and engagement in social and political activities.

The last encyclical Gaudate&Exultate (2018) underlines the deep joy that activists experience and the holiness of their engagement for others. Nevertheless, many Christians prefer charitable work over political involvement. As though this kind of engagement would be more legitimate and more adequate to their faith, as though it would be easier or more proper to incarnate a Christian identity in the framework of political-free associations.

It is no bad thing if President Macron seeks to rebuild the relationship between church and state, not if it re-engages Christians in politics in a real and meaningful way and prompts believers to explore their faith more deeply and more coherently.

Anne Guillard is a doctoral candidate in Political Theory and Theology at Sciences Po and the University of Geneva.

New Podcast with E.J. Dionne

In this special edition of The Square, E.J. Dionne talks with Jane Little and an audience of scholars about truth, patriotism, Donald Trump, and the “King Cyrus theology” that helped white evangelicals elect him.

E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post, senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, and Professor in the Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University.

For more episodes of The Square, head to our Podcast page.

Evangelicalism and the Problem of Selective Memory by Kevin Stewart Rose

May 3, 2018

The past century or so of evangelical history in America might best be understood as a story of multiple rebrands. In the 1910s, evangelicalism drew on the expertise of business leaders like Henry Parsons Crowell of Quaker Oats fame to rebrand itself as “fundamentalism” through a massive print campaign that cast evangelical doctrine as authentic old-time religion. By mid-century, many fundamentalists felt their “old-fashioned” branding had come to be associated more with backwardness than trustworthiness, so they underwent a second rebrand, reclaiming the name “evangelical” to signal a more respectably modern presence in the public square.

Last week, some fifty evangelical leaders met at my alma mater, Wheaton College, for yet another exercise in branding, this time to reclaim the name “evangelical” from its negative association with President Donald Trump’s allies such as Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham.

Often, as in the case of the fundamentalist image invented a century ago, the recovery of a brand’s public authority and legitimacy is based on the invocation of a more authentic past and a promise to restore it. But often these calls for restoration are deeply selective, choosing to overlook contested issues from a group’s past and present in order to construct a streamlined, positive basis for restoration.

As a case in point, Wheaton’s brand of respectable evangelicalism often invokes the positive legacy of its founder, Jonathan Blanchard, who was a noted opponent of slavery as early as the 1830s. But as evangelical historian, Mark Noll, has argued, by 1860 the majority of evangelicals, both southern and northern, actually believed in a biblical basis for slavery. When leaders choose to remember Blanchard’s stance on slavery without bothering with that of the majority of evangelicals, they engage in selective memory. This enables the construction of a respectable brand whose cultural authority might go unchallenged by difficult questions from its past and whose white American adherents might go unperturbed by their connection to it in the present.

Not all in attendance at Wheaton were so enthusiastic about this selective remembering.  Katelyn Beaty, writing in the New Yorker, observed a rift between an older, largely white group of leaders who wanted to focus more on unity and civility (including one who worried that calls to repent from racism might seem “too political” to his followers); and a younger group of leaders, many of whom were women and people of color, who expressed a desire to deal directly with the movement’s less-than-spotless record on white supremacy.

In addition to their troubled history on domestic issues, many evangelical leaders have used their public platforms to sanctify American military aggression abroad. Billy Graham, whose legacy in mid-century evangelicalism’s respectable brand was what these meeting organizers had hoped to revitalize, wove Cold War nationalism into much of his preaching. He even recommended military intervention in Vietnam to Eisenhower, promising to “do [his] best through radio and television to make [his] contribution in selling the American public” on the president’s decision.

Recently, former George W. Bush speechwriter and Wheaton alumnus Michael Gerson, wrote an extensive criticism of religious conservatives and their loyal adherence to Donald Trump. In a subsequent reflection on the Wheaton meeting, he joined these calls for restoration.

For Gerson, Bush’s brand of compassionate conservatism embodies the kind of respectable evangelicalism that should be restored. Gerson is particularly selective, saying that Bush’s compassionate conservatism was derailed by “global crisis,” but he fails to mention the direct hand his former boss had in creating that crisis when he launched a war in Iraq.  Gerson, himself, coined the infamous phrase “Axis of Evil”  which was instrumental in shepherding the nation into a war whose massive civilian death toll is yet another troubling memory too often hidden away from American public discourse.

By forgetting the troubled history of white evangelicalism on race, evangelical leaders allow their followers to continue comfortably in a respectably-branded evangelicalism that makes room for white supremacy. And by building their brand around civility and legitimacy, evangelical leaders can go on sanctifying a militaristic nationalism that has enjoyed an all too long moment in the sun of American public life.

What is called for now is repentance from racism and a frank, direct reckoning with the way evangelicalism has legitimated and sanctified state violence in the public square. This applies not only to those who have enthusiastically fused the evangelical brand with that of Donald Trump, but also to those who see themselves as trying to rescue it from such a legacy.

Kevin Stewart Rose is a doctoral student in American Religious History at the University of Virginia.

Interview with Michael Banner

The Reverend Dr. Michael Banner is a well-known ethicist in the UK and Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge. He recently visited us to deliver two lectures on bio-ethics.

Our Co-Director, Charles Mathewes, sat down with him to talk about his extensive public work, which has included advising government on some of the toughest moral questions, from lethal weapons to the use of human tissue.

For more conversations exploring the intersection of religion and public life, head to our Podcast page and our Audio resources page.