Sometimes words have two meanings, and great abuses may come from ideological confusion. It is not a French problem only.
by Marco Respinti
Article 2 of 4. Read article 1.
France is founded on the principle of separation between state and society on one hand, and any church or religious institution on the other, as established by the December 9, 1905, law, passed during the Third French Republic (September 1870–July 1940). Although differently interpreted, for some this is the major legal rationale behind the French state’s strong and constant anti-religious push, which floods also on civic society, serving as the basis of all possible subsequent national and local legislation in this field (with the exceptions of the region known as “Alsace-Moselle” as well as some French overseas departments and semi-autonomous collectivities.) Since 2011, France even celebrates that separation with a national annual day of observance on December 9.
On August 24, 2021, the French National Assembly approved the so-called law against separatism, aimed at forbidding any religious community to organize itself as a separate entity from the French society. It did it in the name of national unity. In reality, this served as a new major anti-religious measure, interposing new serious obstacles between religious groups and the fundamental human right of their members to enjoy religious liberty. All initiatives and institutions, like schools and others, which are inspired or promoted by organizations of believers, religious groups and churches, can in fact easily fall under the sickle of that legislation.
It is moreover worth noting that the new French law culturally creates the “crime” of “separatism,” which amounts almost to a blasphemy for the philosophical and political concept of the modern unitary and intangible nation-state. This remotely originates in the principle “Cuius regio, eius religio,” or “whose realm, their religion.” It means that the faith, or culture, or by extension any will of a ruler, that rulers have the force and means to implement in their countries, dictate those of the ruled, with little or no space for exceptions.
Defining the feature of the modern nation-state, that principle was first uttered at the Peace of Augsburg (a city in Germany), a treaty signed on September 25, 1555, between the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–1558) and the Schmalkaldic League (an alliance of Protestant principalities and cities within the Empire) that put an end to a serious religious war. It was then confirmed by the Peace of Westphalia (a region in Germany), as the multiple treaties signed on October 24, 1648, are known, ending the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), a bloody European conflict with a religious component.
Growing over centuries more and more secularized, and less and less democratic, the “whose realm, their religion” concept crafted the idea of the modern state step by step. Increasingly, it came to mean the recognition of no authority above and no loyalty below the ruler. In this fashion, it characterized the most bigoted period of the so-called Ancién Regime (whatever reality and span of time that expression really indicates) and the most despotic spirit of monarchical absolutism (although absolutism had shades and graduations). Then, the philosophy of the Enlightenment transformed its accidents but not its substance, as Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, comte de Tocqueville (1805–1859) acutely noted in his 1856 essay “L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution,” so that the identity of the modern state could triumph with the French Revolution (1789–1799). From believing to be anointed by God (and perhaps needing no church), the modern rulers ended up considering themselves to be God-like. Finally, when the French Revolution organized the anti-religious religion of secularism through the new word/concept “ideology,” the modern state became the ultimate ruler. Its power was larger than ever, and it needed no God.
As to the original concept “whose realm, their religion,” once religion was eliminated, its most updated version came to be the idea “one nation, one state.” This philosophy is not officialized in any document, but it pervades the understanding that many modern countries have of themselves. Here the “nation” is what the state decides it to be—basically, one human group defined by ethnicity, or by adherence to state ideology.
The word “nation” deserves attention. It comes from the Latin noun “natio,” meaning “birth.” It indicates the community of people having a communality of birth, and possibly of destiny and historic role. It is often meant only in a geographical sense, as the physical place where a community originates and/or lives, but its meaning is larger and deeper. The communality of birth is in fact chiefly a cultural concept. So, a “natio,” a “nation,” is the communal tract of people born within a culture and sharing it. The defense of this cultural identity is called patriotism, and it may or may not take the historical shape of the defense of some historic geographical borders. Nonetheless, a nation is not the same as a state (which in turn is not the same as a government), and when the defense of a cultural identity degrades to the chauvinistic sense of supremacy of an ethnic group on others, the first being perceived as the only standard-bearer of a national culture, nationalism as a fanatic and intolerant caricature of patriotism comes in, and possibly racism as well. What then should always be checked is to what extent a nation-state tends to become nationalistic.
In a rigid nation-state, in fact, linguistic, cultural, and even ethnic minorities tend to have, or concretely have, difficulties, also within a democratic context, depending on the maturity, the quality, and the level of the democracy practiced by the government. At this point, one can’t do without noting that the paroxysmal exacerbation of that idea was a core principle of the Nazi creed, epitomized in the sentence “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer,” or “One people, one state, one leader.”
An iconic image of the German and “Aryan” nationalistic extremism was a 1935‒1936 painting endorsing Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) by German artist Heinrich Knirr (1862–1944), who used a 1935 photograph by Hitler’s personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffman (1885–1957). Hitler personally approved Knirr’s painting, which was later widely used as propaganda, most probably from around 1940. It is now displayed in a poster-format reproduction at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C. Of course, it would be silly to claim a similarity between modern nation-states and Nazi Germany, or today France and the Third Reich, but curiously “separatism” is the same word used by both the new French law curtailing religious liberty and the neo-post-national-communist regime governing today’s China to violently repress religious and ethnic groups through false accusations of terrorism.
As it is revealed by the emblematic case of Nice, France, reported in the first article of this series, the first and paradigmatic application of France’s radical attitude toward religions takes place in public schools. In fact, all nation-states and nationalisms, even in their democratic incarnations, consider schools the molding factories where loyal citizens should be produced, while believers tend to be regarded with suspicion (and in the worst cases discriminated) for their supposed double loyalty—not only to the state but also to their religion.
In France, the official state doctrine to be implemented since the first school years is known as “laïcité” and the word’s meaning is subtler than some may believe. The word derives from the Latin “laicus,” both adjective (with its gender declination) and noun, which in the Middle Ages indicated a non-cleric Catholic believer. In English, “laicus” was translated with two different words: the adjective “lay” and the noun “layperson.” From “non-cleric,” the word passed slowly to indicate also an unchurched person, then subtly “only” an unchurched man or woman, and finally the exact contrary of a believer: an agnostic by conviction or method, and even an atheist.
A curious appendix: in the English language, the noun “clerk,” indicating a lay employee who works with records, accounts, letters, etc., derives from “cleric” (in Latin “clericus,”) or clergyman. In fact, during the Middle Ages and early modern times, the educated people who could perform the duties of a modern lay clerk where clergymen. But even more curiously, in the Church of England the layperson that assists in the church services is called “parish clerk.”
Yet the original value of “lay” as a non-ecclesiastical person remained, sometimes drowned by the new meanings of the word, sometimes struggling but able to surface. A parallel fate had the English word “secular,” French “séculier.” Deriving from Latin “sæculum,” more or less synonym of “mundum,” “world” in English and “monde” in French, in the Middle Ages it indicated those who lived “in the world” as opposed to those who lived separated from it, i.e. in monasteries and convents, or in complete solitude as hermits. Per se, a secular person was simply—again—somebody who was not a cleric, thus a layperson. Only those extreme currents in Christian thought (not all of them orthodox) that dialectically opposed ecclesiastical life to lay life came to regard “mundus” as a place of moral depravity, starting to call “mundane,” in a pejorative and derogatory sense, all those persons and things that were not connected with the church.
Thus, from being substantially similar to “lay,” the adjective “secular” became a synonym of “irreligious,” and from this it went to “unchurched” and finally to “opposed to faith.” Yet again this happened to the English and French word “profane,” which comes from the Mediaeval Latin “profanus” composed by “fanum,” “temple,” and “pro,” as “in front of” and “before,” to mean “what is outside a sacred area.” Following the same semantical degradation, it ended to mean “vulgar,” “offensive,” or even “blasphemous.”
Truly, to save the etymological origin of these words, while accounting for their history, some modern scholars distinguish between “laicism” and “secularism” on one hand, and “laicity” and “secularity” on the other. But in English—the “lingua franca” of today’s world as Latin was in older times— “laicity” and “secularity” are not commonly used, and thus “secular” and “secularism” cover a full range of different meanings. Sometimes, one meaning and its opposite.
Exploiting ambiguities and loopholes inside the words “lay,” “secular,” and even “profane,” often used lightheartedly, France uses “laicity” to mean “laicism” and “secularity” to mean “secularism,” all compressed within the concept of “laïcité.” So, there may be people defending “laïcité” in good faith, meaning “laicity,” and double-tongued demagogues who use “laïcité” to impose “laicism.”
But of course it is not only a French problem. In the Babel of tongues responsible for counterfeiting the real meaning of words, it is normal to see people advocating secularism to promote irreligion, or even the persecution of believers, as well as people invoking secularism for the opposite reason: defending religious groups and individuals in confessional states where they are minorities, threatened or persecuted. For example, this happens—of all places—in Bangladesh, a story to be told in the third article of this series.