Academic journal article The George Washington International Law Review

A Commentary to Fred Gedicks's Paper: "American Civil Religion: An Idea Whose Time Is Past"

Academic journal article The George Washington International Law Review

A Commentary to Fred Gedicks's Paper: "American Civil Religion: An Idea Whose Time Is Past"

Article excerpt


First of all, thank you for inviting me to take part in the conference at Brigham Young University. Fred Gedicks's paper demonstrates the complexity of the controversial concept of civil religion; an idea that has gone1 seems to be the reality.

It is a great honor for me to be with you, especially with the difficult task of talking to Americans about the United States. I have to talk about the common beliefs of Americans, which is very hard to do for someone who does not think like an American. Europeans tend to characterize Americans as an overly religious People.

One difficulty is that I am not American. Another difficulty is that I am French. Some legal or sociological key concepts, such as neutrality of state, freedom of religion, secularism, and civil religion, are common to occidental nations and cultures, and particularly to France and the United States. These concepts, however, do not have the same significance everywhere. Confusion resulting from the use of the same concepts in different cultural contexts is one of the main causes of misunderstanding between people. For example, I have to explain to my students the difference between the role of the French and the U.S. President. I tell them that Americans decided to have a president because they did not want to have a king anymore, whereas the French wanted to have a king again after killing him.

The most relevant example of such misunderstandings in the field of religion is the concept of freedom of religion itself that was proclaimed in the U.S. Constitution, the French Déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du citoyen,2 and in almost all the French constitutions since 1791. The Third Republic, which is so important from the point of view of Laïcité and the separation of church and state, grants freedom of religion in a single law, the famous loi sur la séparation des Eglises et de l'Etat du 9 décembre 1905 (Article 1).3 For a majority of French constitutionalists, however, freedom of religion is part of the republican tradition, and, as such, it belongs to our material constitution.

The significance of freedom of religion is completely different in the United States and in France. In the United States, freedom of religion protects religions and individuals from the state, from other religions, or both. Most other western countries understand freedom of religion in this same way; the French perception of religion is rather rare. In France, freedom of religion emancipated people from Catholicism and grants them the protection of the state against religious influence in society. Therefore, freedom of religion actually should be considered freedom from religion, meaning that a free man (a citizen) can only belong to the national community, regardless of his (private) religious beliefs. This is why the prohibition of Muslim scarves in French schools is consistent with religious freedom in France, whereas it would not be in the United States.

The legal and political meaning of the concept of freedom of religion is fundamental to understanding the meaning of civil religion. Gedicks defines civil religion as a common faith of the people through religious pluralism4-in France, it would rather be a kind of common theology-that is beyond religious diversity. This is the great difference between France and the United States: civil religion in France is a national theology, whereas civil religion in the United States is a common faith.

A. The Religious Origins of Nations

As Gedicks suggested, there are four defining moments for civil religion in the United States. Anthropologically, the most interesting moment is the founding of the United States, because it tells us the story-or the myth-of the origin of American civil religion. The creation of the United States was the realization of God's will.5 Like the Jewish People in the Old Testament, the first Americans understood themselves as a chosen people arriving at the Promised Land. …

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