In May I completed a PhD at Columbia International University under Dr. Ed Smither. I wrote my dissertation on the rise of French secularism from the Reformation to the present crisis with Islam in France, which might not interest many people but allowed me to use mostly French resources and keep up with the language. The title is : LA LAÏCITÉ À LA FRANÇAISE: FRENCH “SECULARISM” FROM THE SIXTEENTH-CENTURY REFORMATION  AND WARS OF RELIGION TO CONTEMPORARY CHALLENGES IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY.

French laïcité presents a specificity in origin, definition and evolution which arises from a unique societal context leading to the official separation of Church and State in 1905. Laïcité has been described as the complete secularization of institutions as a necessity to prevent a return to the Ancien Régime characterized by the union of Church and State. To understand the concept of laïcité, one must begin in the sixteenth century with the Protestant Reformation, Wars of Religion, and religious toleration granted by the Edict of Nantes in 1598 under Henry IV. This has been called the period of embryonic or incipient laïcité in the tolerance of Protestantism. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes under Louis XIV in 1685 reestablished the union of the throne and altar which resulted in persecution of the Huguenots who fought for the principle of the freedom of conscience and religious liberty.

The Law of Separation of Churches and State (Loi concernant la Séparation des Églises et de l’État) was enacted in 1905 in fulfillment of the French Revolution’s attempt to remove the Roman Catholic Church as the State religion. The law abrogated the 1801 Napoleonic Concordat with the Vatican, disestablished the Roman Catholic Church, ended centuries of religious turmoil, declared state neutrality in religious matters, and continues as a subject of debate and dissension one hundred years later with the emergence of Islam as the second-largest religion in France. The question at the turn of the twentieth century concerned the Roman Catholic Church’s compatibility with democracy. That same question is being asked of Islam in the twenty-first century.

This dissertation traces five centuries of religious experience in France, the attempts to separate Church and State, the decline of institutional religion, and the growing presence and influence of  Islam, in order to understand the meaning of laïcité and to provide insight into the challenging and changing religious context for cross-cultural ministry in the twenty-first century. Many of these challenges exist simply due to the religious history of France, the marginalization of religion, and the unwelcome presence of foreign missionaries in France. These challenges have been intensified by the growing presence of Islam which has led to a  reexamination and redefining of laïcité concerning the place of religion in the twenty-first century. These areas of inquiry do not imply that a causal relationship can be demonstrated between laïcité and religious decline. There is however the assumption that in France the place of religion and the response to the gospel has been shaped in part by the historical context in which laïcité developed.

Leave a Reply