December 18, 2003

DEGREES OF SEPARATION:

Secularism gone mad: Chirac's determination to ban Muslim headscarves from schools will cause years of confrontation (Madeleine Bunting, December 18, 2003, The Guardian)

It seems preposterous: how can the clothing of schoolgirls become an issue of such enormous symbolic weight that for 14 years it has been the touchstone of a debate about the French constitution, about what it is to be French and how France should "integrate" its 3.7 million Muslims - the largest Muslim minority in Europe? (Significantly, France talks of integration, not multi-culturalism.) It is not just schoolgirls who will be affected but also public servants; a juror was even dismissed during a trial because she was wearing a headscarf. The French state must be seen to be entirely neutral in all its dealings, and Chirac yesterday endorsed the findings of an official commission and asked parliament to pass a law banning all "ostentatious religious symbols".

From this side of the Channel, one can easily pour scorn on Gallic arrogance. What lies ahead is many more years of confrontation between the French state and Muslims, and a dangerous reinforcement in the Muslim community of the perception of Islamophobia, of exclusion and persecution. One can reasonably ask, as David Drake at Middlesex University does after studying this issue, why so much political, intellectual and emotional energy has been spent on this subject rather than on far more pressing issues of integration such as the high rates of unemployment and deprivation in the Muslim community.

But any smug sense of British superiority is misplaced. The themes that underlie this vexed issue in France are as evident here: this is the latest chapter in a long and troubled history of how liberalism interacts with religion in Europe.


You know things have run amok when the Guardian is worried about secularism, but this the truth that secularists have to face: in elevating politics, the State, and the Law above religion, society, and morality they create a situation in which their chosen authority must act to quash other sources of authority. That's simply how power works.

It was inevitable that this clash come first in France, where the French Revolution long ago created a culture that centers around the State--as the means of delivering equality--and which, having stamped out Catholic influence, was certainly not going to brook a challenge from Islam. But we can also be fairly certain how this clash ends--sooner or later the Muslims will outnumber the "French" and then the State will be easily transformed into a tool of the faith.

England is a more muddled case. It has for some time been able to cover over how completely authority has been concentrated in just one institution: the party in charge of the House of Commons. The danger inherent in a parliamentary system--that the head of the dominant parliamentary party is automatically the Head of State--has now though been unleashed in full. The Church was subsumed in the state long ago, the king followed in short order, and the House of Lords fell early in the 20th Century, with any remaining possibility of reasserting itself disappearing in recent "reforms" which effectively allow the Prime Minister to name its members. The gravity of the situation became obvious in the recent Iraq War, which was opposed by the Church, the Crown, the people, the Lords, etc., etc., etc., but supported by Tony Blair, who was supported (albeit narrowly) by his party--and so it was waged.

Whether you think the war was a good thing or not, it seems apparent that this was the last moment in British life in which it could be said that there is any check at all on the party in power in the Commons. There seems no possibility of it happening, but were any institution, church or state, in Britain to challenge the authority of the Commons, it too would be crushed.

Which brings us to America, unusual in so many ways and no less so here. To begin with, we can easily see the genius of the divided government that the Founders set up and of the separation of powers. Executive, judiciary, and legislative are certainly interdependent to some degree, but in the broadest sense independent. There are thus three (four if we divide the Congress in two) centers of power vying against each other at all times. Scratch that. Thanks to federalism--considerably weakened now, but a factor nonetheless--the individual states too are claimants to authority. One or the other of these contestants will sometimes gain primacy, but not often for long duration and never unchallenged and undiluted.

More important, we see the true value of the separation of Church and State. Modern secularists misinterpret the chief function of this separation to be keeping religious values out of government. Instead, what it does (when functioning properly) is cordon off an entire segment of life into which the State is not to intrude, building limitations of State authority into the system. America has therefore generally had a more vibrant society than other modern nations, the associations and organizations with which de Tocqueville was so taken being a replacement for government in a country where government was rather limited.

This has changed of course, and quite rapidly, since Herbert Hoover and the New Deal came along in the Depression. The State has expanded not just terms of its raw size but, more dangerously, in terms of what areas of life it is considered mete that government become involved. The most obvious examples involve things like the Courts intervening to stop school prayer, legalize abortion, and now legalize and even require sanction of homosexuality. Each is an instance of traditional social morality being trampled and replaced by arbitrary state legality. It must be apparent that a system which has been so altered as to allow the State to intrude at will upon society in matters which it had never been considered to have any say in is headed in the direction of a dangerously centralized authority.

However, here's where the genius of the Founders comes into play. Right now it is the Courts--long recognized as the "most dangerous branch"--which are trying to aggrandize authority. This means that we can use the jealousy of the other branches, Congress and the president, and of the forgotten competitor, the states, to reign in the Courts and restore power to society. The easiest way to do this would be through constitutional amendments on discrete or general issues. Both gay marriage and abortion, for example, might be taken care of by an Amendment making it clear that nothing in the text of the constitution and its amendments may be interpreted to create a free floating right of privacy and all such issues are to be left to the discretion of the citizens of the individual states. At any rate, the very struggle for power between the three branches and their unwilingness to see one gain too much authority could be used to lessen the authority of all and refurbish that of the states and the church (which still wields great power in society). So might we avoid confrontations like the one going on in France or like Roe v. Wade, where the quest for power and authority leads the State or, in our case, a part of the State to overreach what should be its bounds.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 18, 2003 12:01 PM
Comments

Some fine commentary, OJ. Let me add that some of the corrections you mention in your final graf could probably be accomplished, given sufficent legislative will, within constitutional amendments. I have seen the Article III Section 2* route mentioned several times now (Fr. Neuhaus in the current First Things for example).

Also, it is probably worth emphasizing that the constitutional government which Orrin celebrates here -- and which is usually thought of as conservative -- is in fact conducive to spectacle change: for the simple reason that (this is news to liberals) most change, especially positive change, occurs independent of government. An economy sympathetic to human creativity is an economy free from state meddling.

* "In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make."

Posted by: Paul Cella at December 18, 2003 12:55 PM

Oops! Sentence 2 should read: " . . . could probably be accomplished, given sufficent legislative will, without constitutional amendments.

Posted by: Paul Cella at December 18, 2003 12:56 PM

OJ, you get it wrong when you say that school prayer is an instance of traditional moral authority being trampled by arbitrary state legality. School prayer is an enforcement of religious norms BY the state. It is to limit the arbitrary authority of the state that we ban it from prescribing prayer, an activity which is to be exercised freely by individuals.

Posted by: Robert D at December 18, 2003 12:57 PM

Robert:

That's a novel concept--the Supreme Court (against the wishes of Congress and the President) banned school prayers which had been going on in the states, in the counties, in the localities, in the schoolroom, for a hundred and seventy years and that marked a reduction of arbitrary power?

Posted by: oj at December 18, 2003 2:38 PM

It represented a reduction in the arbitrary power of the states, counties, and localities. These all qualify under the "State" in my book.

Posted by: Robert D at December 18, 2003 2:58 PM

France is probably going to experience years of unrest, period, because of its unassimilated (unassimmilatable?) muslim population, headscarf ban or no.

Posted by: Twn at December 18, 2003 3:44 PM

http://rogerlsimon.com/

Roger Simons take on France after his trip.

Posted by: M. at December 18, 2003 4:11 PM

Robert:

So a shift of power and different ways of doing things from the "states, counties, and localities" to an unelected central body that requires things be done just one way (its way) is an advance for liberty? Strange...

Posted by: oj at December 18, 2003 4:48 PM

How is the supression of religious freedom more acceptable if it originates at the local level? Why is it wrong for a national government to ban religious garb, but acceptable for a local community to coerce prayer from an unwilling participant?

Posted by: Robert D at December 18, 2003 5:25 PM

Robert:

You can move.

Posted by: oj at December 18, 2003 5:36 PM

By the way, I have no problem with France banning religion. It's a secular state and is entitled to enforce its orthodoxy. It has too, because it can't tolerate other sources of authority.

Posted by: oj at December 18, 2003 5:39 PM

The preliminary round sucess of LePen and his National Front party in the last French presidential election is still seen as an aborration, when in fact it's more likely a sign of things to come. Given past French history, the conflict will probably come before there is a Muslim majority, which makes me wonder what the Arabic equivalent of "pogrom" is...

Posted by: John at December 18, 2003 10:41 PM

OJ, that sounds like a prescription for a Yugoslavia type state. Our dynamism as a nation is based on our ability for multiple creeds to thrive and to blend into a common identity at the same time. By secularizing public institutions, we allow that blending to take place.

I think that banning outward symbols of religiosity are wrong. Let people express their faiths through what they wear, that does not coerce anyone else to accept that creed. I think that we go too far in this country in discouraging this in public schools. The best way to foster religious tolerance is to get people used to associating with others who are different than themselves.

France is pursuing a policy of coerced assimilation. This will lead either to a Balkanized society or to a winner-take-all struggle for cultural hegemony. Neither is necessary.

I'd hate to see our country turn into a collection of Baptist towns and Catholic counties and secular cities. That's tribalism, and we are not a tribal people.

Posted by: Robert D at December 18, 2003 11:27 PM

Robert:

The argument that pre-1962 America--when the court ruling came down, if I recall correctly--was like Yugoslavia seems even wierder than what you were saying before.

But let's try another tack. You favor this particular Court decision because it is antireligious, but imagine one you don't like: Suppose the Court said there can be no sexual age of consent laws. Does it not seem better to allow communities to set standards than to accede when one unelected central authority overthrows generations worth of standards and imposes a single rule that all must follow?

The problem under discussion is less the specific content of rulings than the principle of distributing power and authority widely so that such centralized power is less a threat.

Posted by: oj at December 19, 2003 12:14 AM

Robert:

The argument that pre-1962 America--when the court ruling came down, if I recall correctly--was like Yugoslavia seems even wierder than what you were saying before.

But let's try another tack. You favor this particular Court decision because it is antireligious, but imagine one you don't like: Suppose the Court said there can be no sexual age of consent laws. Does it not seem better to allow communities to set standards than to accede when one unelected central authority overthrows generations worth of standards and imposes a single rule that all must follow?

The problem under discussion is less the specific content of rulings than the principle of distributing power and authority widely so that such centralized power is less a threat.

Posted by: oj at December 19, 2003 12:19 AM

OJ
I think you are downplaying the real conflicts between the existing Protestant society and immigrant Catholics, who had to set up their own separate school system in order to maintain the integrity of their own faith rather than let their children be Protestantized in public schools. And what about the Mormons? Wasn't their forced expulsion from the settled eastern and midwestern states and exile to the Utah desert a form of Yugoslavian style ethnic cleansing?

As far as the jurisdiction of local vs central authorities, there has to be a balance. Too much power at the center is surely a bad thing, but so is too much power at the community level. A hodge-podge of small tyrannies can be as bad as a single, large tyranny. The Yugoslavia scenario is not totally unrealistic. We are starting to face it with the whole red state/blue state thing, although I think that is overblown. San Francisco is pretty much a gay enclave, and Utah is a Mormon state. This is what you get when you say "If you don't like it, move".

Posted by: Robert D at December 19, 2003 2:30 AM

Robert:

? Yes, there are Catholic schools and there is a Utah, amply proving my point.

What's wrong with gays living where they are welcome and Mormons creating their own community? The Constitution after all enshrined estabnlishment of religion in the states.

Posted by: oj at December 19, 2003 8:29 AM

Robert:

The number of great political philosophers who endorse the federalist principle as one of few measures which can preserve liberty in a large republic is strikingly preponderant. They range from Publius in The Federalist itself to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Government of Poland. That is an impressive compass of thought.

Posted by: Paul Cella at December 19, 2003 9:36 AM

And now we have Catholic schools with two types of pupils: Catholics trying to avoid having their children secularized by the proselitizing secularists in the public schools and non-Catholics trying to find a decent education for their kids because education programs are so caught up teaching how to secularize, they forget to teach how to teach.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 19, 2003 9:56 AM

The book of Revelation symbolically explains that one day the UN will take power and ban all false religion.

Posted by: at February 15, 2004 11:39 PM
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