Newspaper article International New York Times

An Uneasy Truce between Church and State ; from Bastille to Burkini, Liberalism and Religion Have Warily Coexisted

Newspaper article International New York Times

An Uneasy Truce between Church and State ; from Bastille to Burkini, Liberalism and Religion Have Warily Coexisted

Article excerpt

Liberal democracy and religious sentiment have always had an uneasy coexistence, and they probably always will.

The fuss over the burkini on French beaches this summer is just the latest and most ridiculous iteration of France's uncomfortable confrontation with Islam.

The French Republic, having overthrown the monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church in 1789, has made laicite, or secularism, the cornerstone of citizenship, seeming to prioritize it over liberty, fraternity and, let's not forget, equality.

But the contretemps over the burkini, like that over the burqa (actually the niqab) and the hijab, or head scarf, before it, is emblematic of a deeper discomfort with religion throughout the Western world.

The relationship of liberal democracy to religious belief has always been fraught. But now, as the conception of liberal values seems to be expanding to issues like same-sex marriage, it is becoming more antagonistic to Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants and Jews, as well as to Muslims.

Most nation-states arose out of ethnic and religious identities, and many conflicts among nations were, at their heart, religious wars. In a real sense, much as parliamentary rule developed to put limits on the power of monarchs, liberalism and liberal democracy were developed as a way to keep religion out of politics, to take God, as much as possible, out of human conflict.

The presumption was always that the state should be a neutral space, fair to all citizen believers. Freedom of worship is meant to protect nearly every odd form of belief, but it does not allow believers to impose their faith on others. Yet historically, even those who were agnostic, argues Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, came from religious backgrounds and asked religious questions. "But today, agnostics come from secular households," he said, with little conception of what religious belief means or entails.

Charles Moore, a British author who has written deeply about religion and about his own conversion to Catholicism, thinks there is a confusion in liberal democracy between keeping religion out of politics, preferred by many religious people, and "pretending that religion doesn't matter and doesn't exist."

In his view, "secularists have greatly underestimated what happens to a culture if you take God out of it." Liberal societies require "a lot of shared values in order to be free," Mr. Moore said, to hold together in the swirl of diversity.

Without a belief in God, he said, "it's more likely that your ultimate belief will become meaningless." Further, "you don't know what religious people are talking about, you don't understand the springs of their behavior -- the importance of scripture or the symbolism of blasphemy."

Worse, he said, is a growing ahistoricism. "If a secular person is taught that these things are merely private matters, they won't understand how they affect world history."

The rise of such secular ahistoricism also makes liberal democracies more vulnerable to, and puzzled by, a religion like Islam, which never had a Reformation and does not separate the political from the religious in any meaningful doctrinal way. For many Muslim women, for example, as for many Orthodox Jewish women (and many nuns), covering their hair is not simply a fashion but a religious tenet.

Many see the renewed debate over Islam in the West as a function of decolonization, its second wave. First the colonizers returned home, and now the colonized and their descendants are migrating to the former colonial powers of Europe, which don't really know yet how to cope with such an influx of migrants and refugees with a very different set of religious beliefs and expectations.

European liberal democracy has a kind of apotheosis in the European Union, but as borders disappear, and nations share sovereignty, there is a deep sense of loss among many -- that their identities, including their national and religious identities, are being dissolved in the global stew. …

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