'Fear not!', Jacques?

April 18, 2005

REALLY, MONSIEUR CHIRAC, YOU ARE A VERY FUNNY MAN! There you were on television, surrounded by young people in a carefully choreographed non-debate, trying to convince all of France to vote in favour of the EU Constitution. You thought you could borrow a sermon from the pope and tell your audience: ‘Fear not!’ Yet you yourself looked as scared as heck (you know – the place people go to who don’t believe in ‘gosh’).

Polls the next day showed those planning to vote ‘Non!’ rose to 56%. Tell us, Monsieur le president, do you have a reason not to fear?

You can’t simply steal a sound-bite from the pope and expect to be convincing. The pope’s message came from a deep source of transcendence. His ‘Fear not!’ came from his own personal conviction, nurtured in years of prayer, as to who really was in control of history and where history really was headed. His ‘Fear not!’ was not a shallow, borrowed, political slogan. It expressed his own perception of Truth. It was a message of integrity. What those two millions Poles heard on the outside as they gathered near Krakow in 1979 was what he truly believed on the inside. The pope’s authentic ‘Fear not!’ sparked a people’s revolution and made history in Europe.

Somehow your ‘Fear not!’ lacked the ring of truth.

You see, faith gives eyes to see that which otherwise cannot be seen. Faith gives reasons why we should not have to fear. But secularists like yourself only have faith that there is nothing to have faith in. And that cuts you off from the whole realm of transcendence, from spiritual reality. That blinds you to certain perspectives of history that help you see the future.

When Paul, for example, first arrived in Rome, passers by on the Via Appia would have seen a wretched, bow-legged, balding Jewish prisoner, captive of the world’s greatest military power, being led by soldiers towards his grim fate. The grandeur of that empire, expressed in gigantic marble edifices, magnificent gardens and monuments, should have been totally intimidating.

But not for Paul. His own life-story, his inner life of prayer, even his life-threatening journey to Rome, had convinced him who really was in control of history and where history really was headed. His faith also had a deep source of transcendence. He had had many an occasion to declare ‘Fear not!’, even to his captors – in an Ephesian prison after an earthquake or during the shipwreck on Malta. He was far more impressed with the power of Jesus Christ than with the pomp of Julius Caesar. Paul spent his last days sharing his excitement about the Kingdom of God, not the Empire of Rome.

Time passed. Rome fell. And Paul’s message triumphed. He had seen the future – by faith.

So don’t you think it was rather cheeky to try to hijack the pope’s message when you yourself had so vehemently opposed his efforts to have God and the Christian heritage mentioned in the preamble of the EU Constitution? After all, it was the introduction of the very concept of God that made Europe ‘Europe’ in the first place. That heritage has been the single greatest shaper of Europe’s past. Yet, like other French secularists, you interpreted the Enlightenment as offering freedom from religion, and thus insisted faith should not have a role in politics. In other parts of Europe and in America, the Enlightenment meant freedom for religious expression, without the suffocating control of state religion.

Your breed of secular fundamentalism prohibits the mention of God in the public square, and the wearing of any overt signs of religious affiliation in public institutions. What you are doing is imposing your faith on everyone. In public affairs, you want everyone to act as if there were no God – as if they were atheists. That may be true for you, but not for a lot of other people. Obviously it was not true for the pope, which is why he could say with conviction, ‘Fear not!’. And why you cannot.

Your elitist form of secularism assumes that you and your sort know what’s best for everyone else. When your countryman Rousseau was asked what to do when people didn’t want to be ‘free’ according to liberalism’s definition, he said: ‘force them to be free!’ Which is what you are trying to do with many muslim women in your country who do want the freedom to express their religious identity. And with Christians who would like to wear crosses.

The state’s role is not to be secular, Monsieur Chirac. It is to be neutral. That is, using the word ‘secular’ in its popularly-used sense today. Yet ‘secular’ was coined by Christians to describe the non-ecclesiastical realms of life. It’s actually a good word. It does not describe those areas of life where God is out of bounds. He is sovereign over all things, sacred and secular. But secular fundamentalists like yourself have twisted that concept to put God in a private box. You insist that only human reason should be used in the public square, not religious faith. But religious liberty demands that believers and non-believers be free to engage in public discourse on the basis of their beliefs.

Secular fundamentalism likes to blame religious fundamentalism for all the problems in our world today. And that may be partly true for some sorts of religious fundamentalism. But let’s not forget that secular fundamentalists made the twentieth century the bloodiest in all history.

Short memories lead to short-sightedness.

Which gets us back to the problem of the future. Here in Holland, people are realising that the secular, liberal vision of society is not working. The late, gay, flamboyant politician, Pim Fortuyn stood up and said, ‘Anyone who does not accept our tolerant lifestyle should not be tolerated!’ We had, it seemed, reached the limits of liberal tolerance. But the situation has only worsened since Theo van Gogh had his throat slit in the streets of Amsterdam. As if tolerance really ever was a virtue! Have you ever sat in an office or lived in a neighbourhood where others simply tolerated you?

If you were to listen to your own intellectuals, monsieur, some talk might disturb you. Sorbonne teacher Aleksander Smolar told the Christian Science Monitor recently, “You can feel there is a problem of soul in Europe. There is a crisis of secularism. People are conscious of a void. God is back among intellectuals.”

A crisis of secularism! God is back? Political analyst Dominique Moisi sees preoccupation with spirituality much more prevalent now at a philosophical level than a few years ago. Frederic Lenoir, in his opening editorial of the new magazine World of Religion (published by Le Monde!) explains: “The need for meaning affects the secularised and de-ideologised West most of all. Ultramodern individuals… are still confronted by the big questions about origins, suffering and death.”

And what obviously is worrying for you, fr√®re Jacques, is what Nicolas Sarkozy is saying – the leader of your own centre-right ruling party and your possible successor as president in 2007. If you dare to read his popular book, La R√©publique, les religions, l’esp√©rance (The Republic, religions, and hope), you’ll hear him argue that religion should have a central place in France! Politicians should tackle spiritual questions! The state should even subsidise churches and mosques! If we support gymnasiums for the body, shouldn’t we also for the soul – like churches and mosques? That’s very revolutionary in your bastion of secular fundamentalism. Yet he makes sense to a lot of your compatriots.

Sarkozy believes religion is more important than you think. He can see how it can contribute to peace, balance, integration, unity and dialogue. “The Republic should debate this and reflect on it,” he urges.

Good advice, Monsieur Chirac. And not as new and radical as it might sound. For back in
the 19th century, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in Ameri
: “Despotism may gover
n without faith, but liberty cannot. Religion is much more necessary in democratic republics than in any others.”

Chew on it, Jacques. Some day you too could say with conviction, “Fear not!”

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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