Identities—What Are They Good For?   /   Summer 2018   /    Book Reviews

Confessing Secularism

Jonathan D. Teubner

Same-sex marriage equality demonstration in Paris, 27 January 2013. Vassil/Wikimedia Commons.

Tracing the history of German secularism.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, French president François Hollande took the opportunity to reaffirm France’s commitment to laïcité, or “secularism.” Secularism is “non-negotiable,” President Hollande proclaimed, a “guarantee against internal and external threats.” As it was originally cast in the French Revolution, laïcité sought to dethrone the Catholic church and monarchy in order to foster a postreligious society. In 1905, laïcité was officially enshrined as the formal separation of church and state. But it was not until the second half of the twentieth century that French secularism became what it is today: a strict prohibition of religious symbols in the public sphere. This later form of laïcité was famously used to justify a ban on head coverings worn by Muslim women. But it has also included a prohibition on wearing the Christian cross while working at a government or state-owned business. Do head coverings and crosses really constitute a threat to France? How can a country that so bravely proclaims liberté for all curtail the personal expression of the devout?

This seems like an outrageous contradiction, even for the French. But we misunderstand contemporary French secularism if we see it as a neutrality doctrine. Laïcité is not simply a policy to keep religion at bay. It is also an essential part of French identity meant to replace its traditional Catholic identity. In other words, French secularism is intended as a kind of religious identity, although one shorn of devotion to anything beyond the state. For secularism to succeed Catholicism as the national creed, it required more than a coherent set of doctrines of enlightenment: It needed organizations to give it life as a practice that could compete with Catholicism. In France’s case, the state lent a helping hand through its educational, cultural, and social services, a practice that continues today. Hollande declared December 9 a “Journée nationale de la laïcité,” introduced an edict reinforcing the teaching of laïcité in the schools, and required parents and children to sign a “Charte de la laïcité” demonstrating their respect for the doctrine. In short, laïcité is more than a concept today. It is France’s state religion.

With the right accent, address, and degree, almost anything can be elevated to a noble ideal in France. But how exceptional is the transformation of secularism into a quasi-religion? Is this unique to a France that built—often, literally—its postrevolutionary state out of the rubble of church and monarchy? In Secularism and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Germany: The Rise of the Fourth Confession, Todd Weir offers an account of a similar process in Germany. Expanding upon Kurt Nowak’s suggestion that Germany’s religious history must be told as a “triconfessional history”—Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish—Weir provocatively extends this framework to include secularism. Invoking Pierre Bourdieu’s “field” concept, Weir baptizes secularism as a fourth Konfession: German secularism emerged from and acted within the field of juridical, social, and political relations that were structured by the category of confession. As he shows, the story of secularism is about how secularists organized themselves. But the status of secularism as a fully organized confession was ultimately insecure, and points toward dangers that might lie ahead for secularism in Western Europe today.

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