Models of secularism

Walter Russell Mead writes that the French model of secularism is crashing in the Middle East in places like Turkey and Syria (and already has in other parts of the Arab world). In Turkey, he believes, it succeeded long enough to create a stable society.

He lays out four models of Western secularism:

In England (the situation in Scotland is a little different) the Church of England is the official religion, supported by taxpayers, and by law the Queen is the head of the church and no Roman Catholic can wear the English crown.  On the other hand, other religions are fully free and in Parliament, where the real power lies, Catholics, atheists, Muslims, Jews and anybody else can serve.  Much of Nordic Europe has similar arrangements and much of the English speaking world is linked to this system through the position of the Queen as the Head of State in countries like Canada and New Zealand.

In Germany, there is no single established religion, but the state acts as a tax collector for the major churches, funneling the equivalent of dues from members to religious bodies through the tax system.

In the United States, the government takes no religious position and endorses no faith, but exercises a benign neutrality toward any faith whose tenets support American democracy and the rule of the existing legal order.  The tax system provides an indirect subsidy for both religious and philanthropic activity; charitable contributions reduce the basis of income counted for tax purposes.

The French system is the most aggressively secular Atlantic system.  It grows out of the experience of the French Revolution, when the Republic and the Catholic Church were at daggers drawn.  The hierarchical and highly organized nature of the Catholic church, its deep involvement with the monarchy and aristocracy, its wealth and land holdings, its extraterritorial connections with Rome and the intense loyalty to the church felt by many French people all made the Catholic Church a potentially hostile and powerful force.

Despite the efforts of moderates in both camps to find common ground, the Revolution persecuted the Church and the Church resisted the Revolution.  The rivalry and even hatred between republicanism and Catholicism was an important driving force in French life well into the twentieth century and still echoes in French politics today.  French secularism sees religion as a dangerous force that must be excluded from the public square; if you give the priests an inch they will take a mile, and civic republicanism must be constantly on its guard to prevent religion from reconquering the state.  (Modern French hostility to the burqa is not just about Islamophobia; it also represents the enduring power of the lay republican ideal in France — religion must remain a private matter and stay off the street.)

Hand in hand with this vision is the belief that religion is a backward-looking, anti-enlightenment, anti-modernizing force.  The Republic must curb the Church in order to fulfill the task of economically and politically modernizing the country.  If the Republic fails, the Church will drag the country back into economic and political backwardness.  Religion from this point of view not only debauches human intelligence and suppresses human freedom; it condemns the fatherland to impotence.  A backward, superstitious country will not be strong enough to overcome its international rivals.  The Republican vanguard is the only force capable of enabling the country to stand up against its foreign foes: the fight against religion is a fight that patriots must embrace.

Peter Berger explains a bit about the German system here:

Also, the German churches have encountered financial problems, losing income from the “church tax” because of a loss in members. (Note: The term “church tax” is misleading. It is not a compulsory tax. Amounting to about 8% of an individual’s income tax, it is collected by the state on behalf of the various churches from those who voluntarily declare themselves to be members. An individual can save himself the “church tax” by simply declaring himself to be konfessionslos—without religious affiliation.)

Religion and Ethics Newsweekly (watch or read the transcript here, extended interview with Jocelyn Cesari here) featured a report recently about French secularism. French education stresses religious violence as part of the need to keep religion private. One of the people interviewed was a French professor who is Catholic and wears a small cross that is mostly hidden under his shirt. At a meeting with senior French officials it came out and one official told him, “Be careful!” Here was his summary of the situation: “Our culture erases religion. We’re here, but we don’t show ourselves.” He continued:

Today it’s unimaginable to go against the state, against the public space, and to show a cross, a skullcap, a veil. It’s impossible. It’s wanting to destroy the state. That’s what the French feel. The majority of French people do not think it’s possible to be French and Muslim. Most French people think you can’t be a citizen and believe in God. We are the most atheist people in the world. Why? Because when you are a believer, in France people think you have lost your freedom, your reason, okay?

A couple of ways that religion continues in public do exist: the continuing Catholic pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres, 5% of the population regularly attending mass, religious schools that get state money (including Muslim schools where girls can where headscarves, which they can’t in public schools in line with other religious dress restrictions), the allowance for Muslim public prayer where their facilities are too small.

Doug Wilson has written provocatively about this, as is his wont. Here addresses the assumption that underlies French-style secularism:

This foundational myth — that secularism saved us from the death trap of sectarian, religious strife — is a myth that needs to be denied, root and branch, every chance we get….

We should not deny the secular myth because the myth is not ours, or because it is getting in the way of what we want to do. We do not deny it because it is inconvenient for us as Christians. We deny it because it isfalse. The Thirty Years War was fought by religious people, sure enough. It was fought by Protestants and Catholics, certainly. But there are some inconvenient and stubborn facts that are tangled up in this version of the myth. For example, did Protestants always fight Catholics throughout the course of the Thirty Years War? Did Protestants ever team up with some Catholics to fight with other Catholics? If that happened, what might the explanation for that be? Might it have been the fact that the conflict was actually being driven by the rise of incipient nation-states?

Might it have been that when the dragon came and captured us all, he told us a great story about how he was delivering us from dragons?

You can see more of Wilson’s thought on this by looking at the categories “Dualism is Bad Juju” and “Mere Christendom” on his blog.



  1. Fascinating roundup, Scott, thanks!

    Besides the good history and political lesson, it also helps me see a clearer picture of how religious affiliation is discouraged by rules like the “church tax”. While it may have been intended to fund Christianity, it actually encourages its disarticulation.

    More generally, such secular rules serve to dissolve formalisms bearing the moniker of ‘religion’. Most of the negative trappings of religion would still be present since they are actually human trappings, but we will perhaps be less able to identify them.

  2. You’re both welcome. I was glad to clarify some things in my mind too. Kevin, could you expand on your last paragraph?

  3. That does read a little cryptic, doesn’t it? 🙂 Why does it come out like that?

    I was trying to say that those rules encourage people to avoid defining their beliefs and that looseness and vagueness still permits similar flaws of bigotry, blind obedience, irrationality, corruption, and coercion in secularism as in religion, it just doesn’t have a religious wrapper that is easy to identify.

    As you quoted, they define religion by losing “your freedom, your reason” even though secularism (the exclusion of religion) does not actually require liberty or reason. That association isn’t unwarranted given their particular history, and they do try to uphold freedom and reason independently, but people often argue past each other about secularism vs. religion by conflating it with freedom vs. coercion.

  4. Good point, Kevin. Secularism is not as different from religion as its adherents like to pretend. It’s still a world and life view that rests on certain assumptions.

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