The traditional rivalry between Britain and France is discussed in many a dusty historical textbook. As Douglas Jerrold, a 19th Century British writer, summarized the relationship, “The best thing I know between England and France is the sea.” Far from being an interesting but outdated piece of history, the contest between these two ancient enemies is alive and well today in terms of the ideas they adopted, cultivated, and spread to the world. America customarily walks a tightrope between the two, harmonizing a cousinly affection for Britain—and the premium it placed on individual liberty—with a revolutionary kinship with France, which emphasized the equality guaranteed to all citizens. That traditional balance has shifted as of late. Before proceeding any further down a continental path, we—as a nation—might want to consider where that road leads.
French president François Hollande recently announced the creation of a new government agency called the “National Observatory of Secularism.” Lest you be deceived into thinking the French are just serenely gazing at the stars, this particular agency has nothing to do with admiring the heavens and a great deal to do with grounding people in the mire of earth. Its only aim is to ensure secularism in the nation. And public schools are a prime target. In fact, the agency is specifically tasked with fostering secular values in schools. The education minister, Vincent Peillon, has explained that French schools must renew their emphasis on values of equality and fraternity, teaching children “not about simple tolerance” but about “understanding what is right and being able to distinguish good from evil,” i.e., a secular “set of values that we have to share.” To translate into plain English, France’s government sets the nation’s moral compass and all the little French boys and girls must play along.
Hand in hand with the creation of the National Observatory of Secularism is the French government’s new policy of monitoring citizens and groups for signs of “religious pathology.” France’s interior minister, Manuel Valls, has explained that those labeled “sectarian” or “extremist” will face prosecution or deportation. “What sort of extremism?,” you might ask. Valls mentioned American creationists, conservative Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and radical Islamists all in the same breath. Illustrating the fundamental problem with government distinctions between religious beliefs, Valls cautioned: “We have to say that religions are not sects, otherwise sects are religions.” It must be a cold comfort to millions of French citizens that their beliefs are protected if a bureaucrat deems them compatible with a “religion,” but are banned as “sectarian” if a pencil-pusher thinks they take their faith too seriously.
In stark contrast, the British House of Lords engaged in an extensive discussion just last month of the important role religion plays in society. Lord Singh, the crossbench peer who introduced the debate, eloquently reflected on the “fallout” caused by “selfish living and a lack of wider responsibility.” Dismissing suggestions similar to Peillon’s for “better citizenship training” in schools, Lord Singh noted “that citizenship looks at society as it is and teaches children to conform to transient and sometimes questionable social norms. Religion frequently challenges such norms.” And he cited the battle against segregation as a classic example. The fundamental building block of society, Lord Singh opined, is not centralized government enforcing secular moral orthodoxy, but the family and a universal “recognition of the importance of marriage.” School serves to teach “the three Rs of basic education.” But it is parents who teach “the equally important three Rs of right, wrong and responsibility.” He called not for “preventing religions [from] making nuisances of themselves,” like the French interior minister, but for “a greater enabling focus that helps religions to work more fully at all levels with secular society.”
These sentiments were echoed by Baroness Warsi, the British Minister for Faith and Communities, who recognized that the state is “there when things in society go wrong, but religion [is] there from the outset to stop them going wrong in the first place.” She trumpeted the current government’s commitment to “maintain the status of religious education as a compulsory subject that all pupils must study throughout their schooling, subject to parental choice.” And she noted the key role this education plays in helping children to “understand the history that has shaped the values and tradition of this country.” Although the British government’s record is far from perfect when it comes to religious liberty, Baroness Warsi noted that is has taken concrete steps to welcome religion in the public sphere. She specifically mentioned a recent change in law that allows local governments “to continue to hold prayers at the beginning of their meetings” after a secularist group sought to have this practice banned, as well as the renewed official celebration of Easter along with other religious holidays.
Sometimes examining our neighbors helps us to gain a clearer view of ourselves. Do we, as Americans, want a government that defines equality, demands a certain level of uniformity in all walks of life, and enforces a secular, lowest-common-denominator code of morality to which all must pledge allegiance? Or do we still believe that the primary purpose of government is to protect individual liberty, that religious freedom is a fundamental God-given right, and that the family has the right and responsibility to train children in the way they should go? (Proverbs 22:6). Alliance Defending Freedom’s primary purpose is to keep the flame of liberty alive. And we invite you to join us in preserving religious freedom in America before we have a “National Observatory of Secularism” of our own.
This post originally appeared here.