Q&A: Sarkozy's Religion

Do religion and politics mix? It's a question Nicholas Sarkozy has answered in the affirmative--and he's been criticized for it. Secularism, however, doesn't necessarily rebuff religion in public life, but protects it, argues Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. Although Sarkozy's public support of religion may sound to some ears like a throwback to the past, it might also be forward-looking. Wolfe, who is also professor of political science and author of "Does American Democracy Still Work?" and other books on religion and politics in America spoke with NEWSWEEK's Lily Huang. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What does secularism really mean?
Alan Wolfe: Secularism has a couple of meanings. It's often used to mean "not religious," but that's incorrect. "Nonreligious" is the opposite of "religious." "Secular" is actually a religious idea. It's the idea that there's a separate realm for religion, separate from politics or from political authority. And in that sense, it's a way of imagining not a lack of religion but a particular kind of religion, a religion that's based upon voluntarism, upon an individual's own choice--a religion that serves individual needs.

It sounds like secularism has more to do with religious pluralism.
It usually accompanies religious pluralism, but it's not the same thing. You can have secularism without pluralism. Secularism really comes down to the idea of viewing religion and politics as separate spheres, as opposed to the 17th- and 18th-century notion of the king having his political authority stemming directly from God … that a monarch's political authority is ultimately theological, rooted in God's authority. Secularism rejects that idea and establishes two realms: there's a realm of godly authority, but there's also a realm of political authority. So the United States is formally a secular society but has a great deal of religious activity.

That makes Sarkozy's "positive secularism" sound redundant.
In a sense, yes. In France, secularism came into being in 1905 with a formal separation of religious and political authority. That framework does allow for religion to flourish in a particular manner, and Sarkozy is operating very much within [that] understanding.

But should we think about this differently at a time when religious fundamentalism poses the greatest threat to world stability?
It depends on what kind of religious fundamentalism we're talking about. In the United States, the preponderance of the people we call evangelicals are not really fundamentalists. They come from a tradition of dissent, actually--a tradition that, in a sense, honors the principle of religious liberty. So, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention--the largest conservative Protestant religion in America--has a long history of supporting separation of church and state. It is the kind of religion that flourishes under modern secular conditions. In some places, though, fundamentalists do try to grab state power, and there certainly are fundamentalists in the United States who would like to do that--people like Pat Robertson and James Dobson and so on. And they are a danger, not only to people who are not religious but to [these other] kinds of religion.

Some say that Sarkozy even encourages fundamentalism in France when he prescribes religion as an antidote to social unrest.
I wouldn't say it's encouraging fundamentalism. There's a difference between religion and specific religions. The dangers to liberal democracy come when a specific religion is established as having political authority. So, in European history, it's the Catholic Church in Catholic countries or it's the Calvinist Church in Holland. These were state churches that used political authority to undergird a particular religion. Once we start talking about generic religion, as Sarkozy is doing, or as even [President] Bush in this country does--religion in general--there's much less of a danger to liberal democratic values. Because it's a generic religion, it lacks the content of a specific religion. It's almost as if it's saying that it doesn't matter what religion you have as long as you're religious. In a funny way, if a president like Sarkozy says we need religion to undergird the social order, they're actually denigrating specific religions. Louis XIV or Marie Antoinette would be shocked at this idea of a general religion [laughs]. To them religion was Catholicism. Catholicism would support the monarchy and undergird the social order, not some generic mish-mash that lacks theological content.

You've written that the U.S. is a religious country, but you also think that it is a secular country.
I think the fact that [the U.S.] has a secular history--we were the first country to separate church and state, and we established our religious framework on secular grounds in the 18th century--makes it possible for our culture and so much of our political life to have a religious coloration. We separate church and state but we don't separate church and culture. We have a very religious culture, even though we have a very formally nonreligious state. And politics is about culture, especially these days when we have a so-called culture war. So religion infuses a great deal of our politics and our political campaigns. But no president could then get elected and say, "I'm going to make my religion be the religion of the country." George W. Bush never tried doing anything like that. Nobody can do that.

But having a religion puts a presidential candidate in the cultural mainstream.
That's right. No aetheist could ever be elected president of the United States, for the foreseeable future. Now, that's not true elsewhere. Chile has an aetheist president--a woman. An unmarried mother. It's inconceivable [in the United States]! But if you're a nonbeliever and you think that enlightenment or progress is measured by the extent to which a country can elect a nonbeliever as president, then Chile is a more progressive or modern country than the United States.

Why do people insist on having candidates from this mainstream and then insist equally on secularism in the government?
I think those two things are related. Since you can't create the political system based upon the principles of one particular church, you look for signs in your candidates that they take religion seriously. But my point is that we would actually be very upset if a candidate said that I want you to take the specific theology of my religion seriously. The way I put it is, we're a very religious country but we're not at all a theological country. We don't want our candidates to talk about theology. We just want them to make general, really contentless remarks about their faith.

So we are free to talk about religion in any sphere, but there is an institutional separation between church and state.
That's right. In 1776 Adam Smith published "The Wealth of Nations" and said that we should have a free market in business because that would promote efficiency and so on. The same idea applies to religion. We have a free market in religion. We have no state church. Government doesn't pay people to be ministers. Churches have to raise all their own money. Everything's voluntary. That's what I mean about secular--it's borrowed from a very secular idea: the free market. And the result is--exactly like Adam Smith predicted about economics--that we have innovation and experimentation in religion, and religion grows. In Europe, where you have a state church, that's like what Adam Smith called a cartel, or a monopoly, and that promotes inefficiency. So where you have an official, established religion, religion tends to stagnate.

Has that been helpful to the United States in ways that set it apart from Europe?
We're having much less difficulty absorbing Muslim immigrants than Europe is. I certainly think that our tradition of religious pluralism and combination of secularism and religion has made it possible to do that. When you have an established church, then a religious minority--like Muslims--comes to the country and they see an established church as oppressive of them. If the state is paying for Catholic schools and isn't paying for Islamic schools, that's discrimination. But if you come to a country in which the state pays for no religious schools--all federal money for religious schools in America is prohibited--then Christians and Muslims are on exactly equal terms. So that's a big advantage in incorporating new groups.

Is Sarkozy modeling himself after the Americans?
The whole appeal of Sarkozy has been that he's going to modernize France, and modernize means make it more like the United States.

Yet the larger perception in Europe is that American religiosity is backward, anachronistic. Are we behind or ahead?
Ahead and behind are value terms. I look at the fact that creationism is not an issue anywhere in Europe, and Darwin is fully accepted everywhere, and I say, why is the United States so behind? We are behind in a lot of things, and you can pull your hair out sometimes. I think gender equality is a great idea, but for a lot of conservative religious people it's not. If they have enough influence to stop progress in that direction in this country, that puts us behind Europe in significant ways. Yet on the issues of pluralism and tolerance, I think we're way ahead of Europe.