‘Twas the week before Christmas and all across America…people were losing their minds.
The little town of Bethlehem (N.Y.) threw away a sign that said “Merry Christmas” and then tore down the “Happy Hanukkah” sign that had been displayed to “solve” the (non-)problem. A Texas county and its county seat were censured by an atheist group for displaying Nativities without also displaying atheist Christmas scenes (oxymoronic, I know). Most smh-worthy was a Kentucky school that censored the Bible passage Linus recites in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" to answer what the real meaning of Christmas is.
Why? Say it along with me: “separation of church and state.”
There’s a lot of confusion about what “separation of church and state” means, and there’s actually a reason for that. It has two meanings, one from American history and one from French history. Americans in the situations above seem to think they live in France.
The French idea of “religious liberty” is called laïcité (la-ey-cee-tay), which translates most closely as “secularism.” Laïcité “protects” freedom of religion by banning religious expression in the public square. Par exemple, public officials cannot wear religious emblems, and cities and towns cannot elevate any religious expression over any other. The influence of secularism anchored itself in the French cultural psyche during the French Revolution. Despite language stating that everyone was free to believe what they wished, the revolutionary government destroyed church property and Christian symbols and eventually guillotined many clergy.
French history gets complicated from there, but, in 1905, the French government codified the current form of laïcité: a full embrace and vigorous enforcement of secularism. Laïcité rules the day in many European countries, and even Turkey’s government tenuously upholds a form of it.
The historical American understanding of religious freedom, though many of the same words and ideas come into play, is much different. In America, the Founding Fathers were clear that separation of church and state does not equal secularism; instead, the government cannot create a national church and demand fealty to it under threat of punishment. The Establishment Clause does not eliminate religious expression from the public square or mandate that public leaders purge their expression of religious convictions.
Here’s where Americans got confused: we think that “separation of church and state” in the Establishment Clause must mean “secularism” as we see in Europe, so obviously Linus can’t quote Scripture in a public school play and a city-sponsored Nativity scene is a violation of the Establishment Clause. This is a grave mistake, and, if we can’t get this worked out, we’re in danger of losing the most precious gift the Founding Fathers left for us.
The heritage of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers means that the Linus character can quote Scripture in a public school play, just as children can learn the story of Hanukkah and discuss the Five Pillars of Islam with their public schoolteachers. We don’t have to pretend that freedom of thought and freedom of religion are opposites in America.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the French author of “Democracy in America,” put it this way when he visited America in the 1830s: “In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other; but in America I found that they were intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country.”
Jacques Maritain, a French philosopher who moved to America from France just before World War II, warned us about this melding of American religious freedom and laïcité. He saw the chief treasure of the Establishment Clause in America’s ability to maintain separation between government and churches that also promoted harmony and cooperation for social advancement. He wrote to Americans in the book “Man and the State,” “Please to God that you keep [this] carefully, and do not let your concept of separation veer around to the European one.”
This Christmas season, we owe an apology to these two perceptive Frenchmen for giving up our heritage of religious freedom and for setting up religious freedom and freedom of thought as opposites (and also to Linus for censoring the true meaning of Christmas). Maybe our New Year’s resolution can be to work to restore an understanding of our own freedom and to hold more tightly to our uniquely American form of religious freedom.