At a junction on the Alaskan highway is a sign which reads ‘Choose your rut carefully, you will be in it for the next 50 miles’. As with roads, so with life. In 2004, France chose its rut and banned all obvious religious symbols from schools, including Muslim headscarves and veils, Christian crosses, Sikh turbans and Jewish kippahs.
The choice of the secular rut is, of course, not a new departure for France: it’s the home of some of the world’s greatest enlightenment thinkers and the country which founded a post-revolution republic based on secular principles. In 1905, the separation of church and state was legally enshrined and in 1937 the education minister ordered the removal of all religious signs from education establishments.
This latest decision was seen as a means of uniting a country behind secularist principles that have a long tradition, one in which citizens give their allegiance to the nation above their ethnic identity or religious belief. But young French Muslims, often second or third generation immigrants, are increasingly embracing their Muslim identity above their secular citizenship and the move to ban religious symbols is seen as a way of overcoming this.
While the concept of neutral public spaces might seem seductive there is, of course, no such thing. The state can forbid the wearing of religious symbols, but it cannot shape personal identity and a singular ideology is only effective if all citizens choose to conform. The sort of conflicts that compulsion provokes was seen this week when a 15 year-old French Muslim girl was the most recent pupil sent home from school for wearing a long black skirt. Although, as the law requires, she removed her headscarf before entering school, the skirt was seen as ‘conspicuously’ showing religious affiliation.
The action has provoked the very conflict which the law is designed to prevent, as people took to social media in their thousands to condemn the decision. ‘If it’s worn by a white person,’ one person tweeted, ‘it’s hippy chic, if it’s a Muslim it becomes conspicuous’. There is growing concern amongst French Muslims and the wider moderate communities of France that the argument, which has been largely won over headscarves, has now moved on to focus on girls’ skirts and boys’ beards. In doing so, it forces a community of people into defensive positions.
The issue is clearly less about what is worn, than about the attitude of the wearer and attitude cannot be legislated against. The imposition of a singular monocultural ideology clearly isn’t working in a multicultural, modern society. So is there any answer to ethnically and religiously varied communities living peacefully together within one nation and one cohesive society?
The concept of neutral public spaces and private personal faith, viz. the conflict between secularism and the expression of religious belief and identity, is reaching a pivotal point in the social sphere. The strong resurgence of religious belief is not a passing phenomenon; modern nations will need to accommodate this and negotiate a new consensus, accepting the fact that we have moved in a postsecular era. Religion has returned to the public square whether secularists like or not – in fact, in England, the religious vote is being actively courted in tacit acknowledgement and potential annexation of the immense contribution that religious groups make to the common good and to the building of strong, mature, outward looking communities and to social cohesion.
This was recognised by the German sociologist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas as long ago as 1999, when he acknowledged that ‘the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love.’ He suggested that we must ‘draw sustenance’ from this and that ‘everything else is postmodern talk’.
As Christians, of course, we aren’t choosing a rut, we are serving a living God. Romans 13 tells us that everyone should ‘ be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.’ That holds good regardless of the position which a governing authority takes on religious freedom. But we share God’s love in the way we live, the way we treat others and in our actions. Paul wrote to the church in Galatia that lives inhabited by the Holy Spirit will bear the fruit of ‘love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22-23). And as Paul also says: ‘Against such things there is no law’. Governments can’t legislate against attitude. Outward symbols make statements, but we don’t need them in order to give expression to our faith in ways which honour God and to share His love for humanity regardless of the rut that governments choose.