Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Few More Thoughts on Religion

The subject of laïcité sparked a lively thread. Many different issues have been raised, and I can't respond to them all, but it might be useful to collect here a few random thoughts stimulated by one or another of the commenters.

The first thing that strikes me is that several commenters are able to discern a clearer pattern in Sarkozy's interventions in this realm, both before and after his election, than I can. Is he trying to respond to "numerous social indicators?" Is he attempting to arouse hostility against a minority in order to appeal to a segment of the electorate? Is he developing an alibi for the failure to integrate a minority economically and socially? Is he responding to a "crisis of individualism"? Is he attempting to allay fears of loss of national identity? Is he cynically reactivating a settled issue in order to put himself at the center of controversy and divert attention from his diminishing popularity? Is he expressing a deeply held conviction about moral decay and social degeneration? Is he a Machiavellian master of inflammatory rhetoric or a rather clumsy politician who has blundered in ways that threaten established republican principles? Do his three divorces mean that his professed attachment to religious values is patently insincere? These remarks do not begin to exhaust the implications of the many comments.

Because there is no satisfactory way of answering these questions, I think that there is little point in pursuing the question of what Sarkozy's "true intentions" are. As Christine says, this can only yield un procès d'intention. To be sure, it is hard to avoid this habitual vice of political commentary altogether, and much of the art of politics consists in accurately gauging the intentions of rivals and adversaries. I would be less reluctant to speculate about Sarkozy's intention in, say, detaxing overtime or overhauling the special retirement regimes than I am to speculate about the intention of his pronouncements in the religious realm, in part because he is more explicit about his economic goals and in part because the aims of economic policy are more clearly delimited than the aims of symbolic interventions.

So when I look at symbolic pronouncements, I am interested mainly in their value as an index to latent cultural tensions. Of course Sarkozy's diagnosis of those tensions may be inaccurate. His choice to emphasize one thing rather than another may itself distort the phenomenon to which it is supposed to be an index. Intense debate may erupt at points selected for emphasis by the president, whereas other simmering tensions may in fact be more significant. If I were not writing a blog on French politics, responding to events day by day, my focal points would surely be different (though perhaps no more accurate a gauge to "social reality" than the quotidian barometer, since my attention would then be guided by intellectual fashion, the academic and literary marketplace, and personal idiosyncrasy).

Some commenters seem to feel that any attention paid to the cultural rather than the economic realm is a diversion from the real. Without denying the extreme importance of economic exclusion, discrimination, and exploitation, I resist the hard and fast distinction. Ethnic markers are at the very least a "signal" in the labor market, so controversy over symbols may have economic consequences by changing the nature of the information conveyed--or at any rate presumed by prospective employers to be conveyed--by those symbols. John Bowen, for example, describes the perception by some of his respondents that headscarves worn in private workplaces, where they are not forbidden by law, are a mark of "aggression" or an expression of "superiority." It is no great leap to hypothesize that such perceptions, if widespread, may well influence hiring decisions.

Some commenters remarked on generational variations in outward religious expression and suggested that this might have something to do with outside influences. Yes, perhaps, but it might also reflect a heightened consciousness of difference in response to laws intended to suppress a difference that was previously assumed rather than expressed. African-Americans adopted the hyphenated designation, donned African dress, and changed the way they wore their hair even as barriers to the full expression of their citizenship were lowered. Assimilation and differentiation are not opposed processes; in some circumstances they may be complementary.

I'll leave it there for now.


Unknown said...

Ron Tiersky said:

In comparative perspective, it is astonishing that any president, by himself, can have launched such a wide-ranging debate on religion (or any other cultural phenomenon) in a liberal democratic regime and society. This is clearly a vital conversation in French public opinion that was waiting to happen. Nevertheless, the fact that the centralization of political initiative in the presidency extends to such fundamental cultural matters sets France apart. (Is it imaginable that Angela Merkel or Gordon Brown or any other European leader could have the same influence? Some may say that George W. Bush's effect in American public debate has been equally intense but I think not.)

Similarly, it is amazing in comparative perspective that a French president, by himself, can seek to impose (or would even think of such a thing) the reading of the Guy Moquet letter in the public schools or the "adoption" by school kids of a child killed in the Shoah. Not to be misunderstood: Guarding historical memory has nothing to do with this matter.It is a question of the degree of presidential centrality in French liberal democracy.

At the same time, despite what I've just said and whatever Sarkozy's intentions (and following on my earlier posts about Sarkozy's interest in religion and society), my personal reaction is,Bravo! well done! There is more courage here than recklessness.

Anonymous said...

Sarkozy is no doubt sincere when he talks about religion. Even if its practice is quite far from the canonical practice, it is not so far from the practice of catholicism in France.

His speeches with religious content are speeches where he talks about values. Speaking about values is an important part of any important politician's action. But the replies from opponents will most likely include 2 elements:
- he's not sincere
- disagreement with his values

The fact also is that religion is a touchy subject in french politics, it has been so for quite a long time. In the last 25 years, it has made regular appearances in the public debate (private schools, islamic veil, ...). Sarkozy must know it, and could not ignore he would provoke a controversy.
So the 'latent cultural tensions' here are not really new. Saying that religion is sooo good is for a president the most straightforward way to awake the anti-clerical instincts of some, and to start a controversy.

It should also be noted that being actively religious in France is also not really socially accepted. Proselytism is not welcome...
It explains part of the problems with the 'sectes': some of these are groups that actively seek new potential believers -- or are attracting people.
Wearing a veil is a very visble sign of religiosity.
So being a president that tends to be a preacher is not really a good idea if one does not want to start controversies every day.