Manent and Secular Society I: Laicite

What is the nature of modern society? According to French philosopher Pierre Manent, the nature of democracy is a separation of functions. We separate the political power from the spiritual power, the economic from the legal and the legal from the other branches of government. This is a good understanding, it serves as a partial explanation of many problems facing the Western world today. In a world in which all functions, or spheres, are made separate from the others there is a danger of each forgetting its function as part of a whole and seeking its own interests alone. One of the most pressing concerns is the conflict which religion threatens to create. Manent’s own approach to this is curious to an American reader.

Manent takes note of that, in Europe and America, where abortion is legal, the Christian church, in its various institutional forms, continues in many places to oppose it as being legally sanctioned murder. He writes “The religious institution itself must reconcile its absolute refusal of abortion with its active participation in a society that legalizes it.” In this regard we must ask, what is the nature of this reconciliation, and, must the church reconcile to the present age at all? To answer this, we must briefly explain the context of Manent’s background as a French political thinker.

Like all thinkers, Manent comes at the church-state question from a particular context, his happens to be French. France has a legacy of secularism which is different from that found in the Anglosphere. French society was under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church for much of its history. Cardinals served in government, the most eminent of them, Cardinal Richelieu, effectively ruled France in place of weak kings. France saw a the effects of the Reformation, and French Protestants called Huguenots, were involved in the French religious civil wars from 1562-1598. The Edict of Nantes of 1598 allowed them to live in peace, until the Edict of Fountainbleu in 1685, which declared Protestantism to be illegal. The Catholic Church exerted such authority that later French philosophes like Voltaire had to labor to escape persecution. Scholar James Livingstone writes this, “The Catholic Church opposed free thinkers uncompromisingly and could call upon the State for assistance in repressing religious heterodoxy.” The French Revolution overturned all of this. Revolutionaries despised Christianity to such a degree that they tried to replace the Catholic calender and liturgy with a new, secular, religion of the State and the Nation. One of their leading figures was the French paint Jacques-Louis David, who memorialized such events as the death of Marat and the Tennis Court Oath and organized secular-religio festivals to show the absolute unity of the Nation.

The French turned this anti-clerical, anti-Catholicism, into a principle of politicalf, called laicite, which enshrined the secular principle into law. In France, religious voices have no place, there is no French Catholic Party, as there have been in other parts of Europe.  Given this historical context, when Manent writes of society, he sees it as an inherently secular enterprise.

In his work, A World Without Politics? Manent appears to be troubled, and even puzzled, by the conundrum offered by the Christian religion in a secular society. The problem Manent presents, between the two identities of Christian and Citizen, is, for an American, a false dichotomy. America has never had a history of anti-clericalism, neither has it been truly anti-religious. Many Americans have seen little or no contradiction between claiming to be a Christian and and American citizen. This may have to do with the idea of American Exceptionalism, which possess some religious undertones. French thinkers have, since 1789, seen themselves as the heirs to the French Revolution, the great act of overthrowing the decaying ancien regime and ushering in a new age of freedom and equality.

For France today, this problem of identity reaches into the soul of France as well as into her past. France denies any role to religion in the public sphere. Today she faces the problem of a growing Islamic group within its borders. French multiculturalism has failed to provide a way, or a rationale, by which people from Algeria and Morocco, two of the chief sources of emigres into France in the past, might become culturally French. Instead, many of have remained in government subsidized racial ghettoes, where traditional, often Islamic, ideas hold sway. As may be seen here, and here, French Muslims are allowed to violate the law and get away with it. France’s problems with her Muslim minority has led to the controversial banning of the burqa in 2010. The Islamization of France is a problem for the French thinker who, like Manent, takes laicite as a presumption of democratic life. Whether it will last remains to be seen.


C. McDonald

This entry was posted in Democracy, European Affairs, Islamic, New French Thought, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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