Maybe it’s time they give Tocqueville a try

In Europe’s Feckless Secularism, William McGurn asks, “Must even the most moderate Muslims renounce their faith to be good Europeans?

Nearly a quarter century ago, Yale’s Harold Bloom famously described America as a “dangerously religion-soaked, even religion-mad, society.”

When Europeans gaze upon our shores, this is pretty much what they see. From our strip-mall churches to the raucous intrusions of faith into our public life to our presidents routinely invoking the Almighty, they see an America hostage to primitive beliefs.

At a moment when Europol is reporting that Islamic State is planning more Paris-style terror attacks, that’s unfortunate. It’s unfortunate because America’s overt religiosity blinds Europe’s elites to the one part of the American experiment most relevant to their needs today: our secularism.

They have their own secularism, of course. In France, where it is most formalized, it is called laïcité—the idea that the state isn’t simply neutral toward religion but must banish all things religious, including religious arguments, from the public square…

The idea is that when you boot religion off the public square, you remove from public life the religious friction that in centuries past fueled devastating conflicts. This same idea now animates the European Union, and in principle leads to a more liberal, more cohesive and more inclusive society.

That’s the theory.

The reality is that in many European cities today, a Jew cannot walk the streets in safety…  Women are also losing the freedom to walk Europe’s streets in safety… The reality is not much better for sexual minorities…

To put it another way, not only is Euro-secularism failing to persuade Europe’s growing Muslim minority of its merits; increasingly it cannot protect its own citizens.

But there’s the rub. Because Europe is not the only model of secularism. America is also a secular state.

The contrasts are illuminating. Where European secularism is built on unspoken agnosticism about the ultimate source of human dignity, American secularism is rooted in a declaration of self-evident truths about man and the divine source of his unalienable rights. The result is a nation that is a living, secular contradiction of contemporary European orthodoxy: For not only is the U.S. among the earth’s most religious nations, it is also the most modern.

In “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville took on the European orthodoxy of his own day when he noted that, in America, free religion was the friend of liberty. The beauty of the American approach is that it avoided the aggressiveness of both extremes: the throne-and-altar alliance of the ancien régime on the one hand, and the militant secular state that emerged from the French Revolution on the other.

Europeans have spent the past decade obsessing about bans on head scarves and burqas. Maybe it’s time they give Tocqueville a try.

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2 Responses to Maybe it’s time they give Tocqueville a try

  1. Paul Marks says:

    Religion was in decline in the United States even when Harold Bloom shot his mouth off 25 years ago. Especially in places such as New Haven Conn. If people want to see what a secular society is like – where there is just atomised individuals and the all-mighty-government, they do not need to go to Europe. Just go to New Haven Conn.

  2. Paul Marks says:

    As for the philosophers who defended both religion and freedom – indeed held that went hand-in-hand. They are forgotten also.

    In the 18th century Ralph Cudworth (the great defender of the existence of the soul, and its freedom of choice, against Thomas Hobbes) was well known – today forgotten.

    The American Samuel Johnson? Forgotten. Along with his pro philosophical freedom arguments (as forgotten as Alexander of Aphrodisias’ “On Fate”).

    Thomas Reid and the rest of the Common Sense School (the foundation of the thought of the Founders)? Forgotten.

    The American philosophers Noah Porter and James McCosh? Forgotten.

    America is becoming Europe – go to most American government (or many private) schools or universities (government or “private” – i.e. government backed student loan place) and see.

    But, sadly, you already know.

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