Saturday, September 11, 2010

Christianity and France

Last year I interviewed a number of French Christians to find out what it was like being a Christian in France. What they said may come as a surprise, especially for those of us in England and America who tend to take our freedoms for granted.

But first, some cultural and historical background may be helpful.

Of France’s 60 million inhabitants, only about 5 million attend church each month. Although French society is extremely secular, dominated by deists, agnostics and atheists, the nation has historically been solidly Christian. Under Charlemagne and the Carolingian Renaissance, the Franks played a pivotal role in Christianizing Western Europe towards the end of the first millennium. With the rise of the Huguenots in the sixteenth century, France again had an important role to play, this time with the Protestant Reformation.

Christianity and the French Revolution

France continued to be a deeply religious nation until the revolution of 1789. Undergirded by the ideas of the Enlightenment, the French revolution represented a concerted and deliberate attempt to dechristianize the nation, including
  • The implementation of a new calendar to replace the Christian one. The calendar, which was adopted in 1793 and used for the next 12 years, employed a ten day week (in a 10 day week, no one could ever know which day was Sunday) and had 1792 (the year Louis XVI was taken into custody) as year 1. This was known as ‘the year of liberty.’
  • The dispossession, deportation and brutal martyrdom of thousands of clergy
  • Christians being denied freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of thought if it contravened the secular humanist ideology of the revolution.The criminalization of all religious education
  • The elimination of all Christian symbols from the public sphere, including removing the word ‘saint’ from street names and destroying or defacing churches and religious monuments
  • The replacing of Christian holidays and symbols with civic and revolutionary cults like the ‘Cult of Reason’ and ‘Cult of the Supreme Being.’ A statue to the goddess Reason was even erected and worshiped in Notre Dame Cathedral on 10 November 1793.
In these and many other ways, the French revolution tried to create a new man through civic regeneration. French society has never fully recovered from the impact of this paradigm shift and all of the successive French government have born the mark of the revolution upon them, including an institutionalized antipathy to the Christian faith.

Modern History of France

France’s Revolutionary Republic officially lasted until the establishment of the First French Empire in 1804. Its leaders included Napoleon Bonaparte, who served as First Consul from 1799 to 1804, before ending the republic and declaring himself Emperor. Napoleon then ruled as a dictator, dominating much of continental Europe, until his defeat at Waterloo on 18 June 1815.

Following the ousting of Napoleon, the Allies restored the Bourbon Dynasty (an important European royal house that had ruled France up to the revolution) to the French throne. Charles X of the House of Bourbon was overthrown in the July Revolution, and was succeeded on August 9, 1830 by Louis-Philippe of the House of Orléans (another royal family related to the House of Bourbon). There followed a period of moderate, constitutional monarchy under Louis-Philippe until the revolution of 1848. A second republic was established until a coup by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte brought that to an end in 1852 and initiated the Second Empire.

When the Empire of Napoleon III crumbled during the Franco-Prussian War, a third Republic was created, lasting from 1870-1940. After the turbulence of WWII, a fourth Republic was proclaimed (1946-1958), lasting until 1958 when the constitution was rewritten and the current form of government was adopted.
The Threat of Tolerance

One of the key areas where the effects of the revolution are still felt in France is in the notion of tolerance. Prior to the revolution, late 18th century France had been the most tolerant society in all of Europe. Tolerance was understood as allowing or permitting another person’s viewpoint or values in spite of how one personally felt. Though this notion of tolerance, like any type of liberty, has obvious legal limits, it was based on the Biblical idea (not always perfectly followed by Christian societies) that we should refrain from deporting, imprisoning, executing or humiliating those whose beliefs, practices and behaviours are inferior to one’s own.

Tolerance in this sense did not suggest an acceptance of that which was being tolerated, but connoted the idea of allowing something in spite of how one actually felt about it, as embodied in the quotation falsely attributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

During the revolution’s reign of terror, all tolerance came to a sudden end. Revolutionary thought police began enforcing what we now call ‘political correctness.’ The guillotine was used to vigorously suppress any opinion or expression which contravened the anti-Christian values of the revolution.

Though France regained some of its freedoms after the fall of Napoleon, the nation has remained institutionally secular, paving the way for a new shift in the notion of tolerance which began to emerge in the 20th century. Around the middle of the last century, tolerance gradually ceased to be understood in the original sense as permitting that which one did not personally accept. Instead, it began to mean actually accepting ideas, values and practices that differed from one’s own. Whereas under the old notion of tolerance a Frenchman had to disagree with someone in order to tolerate, allow or put up with the different viewpoint, the new meaning of tolerance does not allow for such disagreement; rather, it asserts that a person must actually accept all values and viewpoint as being equally legitimate (the obvious exception is that we are not supposed to tolerate the older notion of tolerance, since the older notion assumed what is now an allegedly intolerant antithesis.)

This paradigm shift in the notion of tolerance has had far reaching implications for Christians living in France. Since it is now an act of intolerance to call anything wrong or immoral, Christians who hold to the Biblical standards are constantly finding themselves accused of intolerance. The result was described succinctly by Janey DeMeo, former missionary in France of 22 years and author of Heaven Help Me Raise These Children!: “They tolerate everything — except Christians. Unless you have actually lived in France, it is hard to understand just how challenging this can be.”

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