Monday, April 14, 2008

Laicite versus Separation

The United States has a political philosophy of separation of church and state. The US government (specifically congress) may make "no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". This is from the First Amendment, probably the most important for preserving rights in America, and a personal favorite of mine. This doctrine has been interpreted to mean that the US takes no sides in religious disputes, that it does not legislate something because it is religious (though debate over legislating semi-religious morality is ongoing) and does not ever ever EVER promote a religion of inhibit another. Of course, the US often fails in the these goals, but they are an idea to live up to not a template from which the US will be docked points. Despite ahistorical assertions protestations by those who want a larger role for Christianity, the Separation doctrine is the current law of the land.

France and Turkey are examples of another philosophy of secularism. I believe that secularism of some form is the best way of organizing a democracy and modern government. Turkey draws its tradition of secularism directly and explicitly from France, which created this philosophy, laicite (actually laïcité but I don't want to spend ten years typing out diacritics). Laicite arose during the French First Republic, which tried to change the governmental order so completely that it made many Europeans sure the End Times were near.

Laicite is not Separation; it is a policy of 'active noninterference' on the part of the state. This leads France to seriously contemplate banning headscarves in its universities, as they are a religious symbol. Laicite prefers religion and religious activities to be private (in the sense that they're not state-supported) and private (in the sense that they take place out of the public eye). Turkey is similarly inclined.

Now which of these philosophies is theoretically superior for maintaining secularism? If the 'active noninterference' of laicite were always carried out by a just government (as defined by whose standards?) then the two might be near-equals. My argument is that Separation is more universal and laicite is more discretionary, which means that Separation can more easily balance between secularism and freedom of religion.

First off, laicite is indeed discretionary: the government must positively decide to act to preserve secularism. This means that sometimes it will not act. The government action will have a stated purpose: the headscarf ban construes the wearing of scarfs with Islamic denigration of women. However, some Muslim women see the headscarf as a thing of pride since it was originally for Muhammad's wives. It is, to them, respectful and superior to wear a scarf. By banning the headscarf in universities, laicite has cut into religious freedom.

This is not to say that Separation does not sometimes abridge religious freedom. Of course it does. Rules for the slaughtering of animals, or the possession of items the government designates as 'drugs' do indeed curtail some religious traditions. That is sad, sometimes bigoted, and unfortunately unavoidable to some extent.

The difficultly that laicite has to cope with, which Separation avoids, is discretion. Sometimes, a laicite-style government will choose not to act. Have crucifixes been banned in universities, seeing as Jesus advocated nonviolent overthrow of the state economic system? Some would argue Jesus did such a thing, and so a call to ban symbols of his teaching would not be impossible under laicite. Even in more subtle situations, the government may not act. My argument, sure to be accepted by anyone cynical enough to read this post, is that when choosing to act/not act, a laicite government will overall prefer the religious interference of whatever faith is the majority in the country at the expense of minority faiths.

Separation avoids this fate by have a default position of non-action, and by creating a dynamic tension between many different faith groups. If the government tries to curtail the religious freedoms of, say, the Seventh Day Adventists it will be more obvious that this action is targeted. There is a reason that the greatest court cases in favor of religious liberty were all won by Jehovah's Witnesses. Much like the distinction between unitary and federal states, the Separation doctrine makes assaults on any one group much more visible by all the groups, and more likely to be opposed.

Both systems are superior to a non-secular system, but within secular systems Separation more easily preserves both secularism and religious freedom.

To sum it up in a just-so-story kind of way:
The USA got religion right, France and Turkey slightly off, Iran got it wrong.


Anonymous said...

seperation may not be perfect but it is better than any other choice.

madeline m. o'hare

Anonymous said...


The following website summarizes over 500 U.S. court cases and lawsuits affecting children of Jehovah's Witness Parents, including 370 cases where the JW Parents refused to consent to life-saving blood transfusions for their dying children:


The following website summarizes over 500 Jehovah's Witnesses Employment related lawsuits, etc, including DOZENS of court cases in which JW Employees refused blood transfusions, and/or other cases involving Worker's Comp, medical, health, and disability issues:


Anonymous said...

With laicite more discretionary, we must always honor and revere our First Amendment's separation of church and state, because we cannot trust those in power like Bush and Cheney, and yes -- Condoleeza, to make ""discretionary decisions" for the rest of us. They have already effectively begun to erode the great work and words of the Constitution.

Matilda Menninger

Anonymous said...

i am interested in your take on the children being taken from "the compound" of Mormons in the west.

that whole thing is a mess

what happens when religion crosses the line and alleged abuses of children ensue, how should the "law" step in?

interested mother

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