Today is a big day for me, personally. The French translation of The Benedict Option is published today in France. The French title is Comment être chrétien dans un monde qui ne l’est plus: Le pari bénédictin, which translates as: How to be Christian in a world that no longer is: The Benedictine gamble.
I will be traveling to Paris at the end of this month to give a few talks. Believe me, I am very curious to know how French Christians will receive the book. The translator, Hubert Darbon, surely had a challenging job, trying to make a book that was written for US Christians relevant to the French.
Of course things aren’t so very different between our countries, not beneath the surface. This morning I corresponded with a French Catholic friend about the book and how it might be received in his country. We were talking about similarities and differences between the situation Christians face in the two cultures.
“Europe is old and crumbling,” he wrote. “We desperately need new ideas, new ways of assessing our own situation. Having an American viewpoint might be just the right thing, however paradoxical it may seem.”
My friend said that at least in the US, there is a robust community of Christian intellectuals still debating ideas. However diminished American Christians may be, they are still a force. In France, he said, “Our intellectual world has become one of political correctness, almost incapable of producing a decent religious discourse.”
We had an exchange about the place of faith in public life. I told him that it seemed to me that we Americans were moving swiftly toward a US version of laïcité, the French idea that exiles religion to the private realm. In France, it’s more than mere separation of Church and State. It confines religious belief to one’s personal life, and considers it inappropriate to mention faith in public. France has lived with this for a long time, and it’s clear that we Americans are moving in that direction too, though it will take us a while to get there.
Laïcité is strongly defended by the far left and the far right, said my friend, and both left-wing and right-wing parties of the middle vacillate between defending it and trashing it to accommodate Muslims. Otherwise, in politics, Catholics — and most French Christians are Catholic — have failed to make themselves into a meaningful political force, though not for lack of trying. Similar to the US, my friend says, Christians have directed most of their energies towards politics, and have ignored culture. The result is that most live no differently from everybody else. While trying to be a force in France’s political culture, they have allowed themselves to decay from within, and to be assimilated into modern life. Sounds familiar.
My friend also said that the only issues on which Christians there speak with a unified voice are abortion, gay marriage, and euthanasia. On economic and foreign policy, Christians fall in line behind the political right. Catholicism is (wrongly, in my friend’s view) understood as being a neoliberal capitalist with socially conservative views. “It is almost as though we have lost our ability to produce our own Christian political agenda,” he writes.
Again: sounds familiar.
I mentioned to my friend that I am unsure what to say about the question of Islam, which I expect to come up in one or more of my talks. I know it is a much more urgent and pressing question in France, where Muslims are about 11 percent of the population, than it is in the US. I told him that in the US, the public discussion of Islam is highly dishonest. Generally speaking, to the extent that we talk about it here, the media police the boundaries to keep anyone from drawing negative conclusions about the religion and what it might mean in American life. On the other side, it’s far too easy to find hysterical anti-Muslim paranoia on the right. I blame the media gatekeepers for this situation. I think many people grasp that the media cannot be trusted on the subject of Islam, but the lack of an informed public debate leaves the door wide open for some pretty nasty characters to have their say.
My friend said that Islam is “one of the most burning subjects here” — but the public discussion is dishonest in the same way it is in the US. The left demands laïcité, but is quick to discard that principle for the sake of embracing Muslims, including those who wear the veil.
“It seems as though nothing can really be said about Islam,” writes my friend. “Whatever your opinion might be, you cannot really complain about its influence and the way it could endanger, or at least disrupt the Western way of life. You would be called an Islamophobe.”
Again and again: sounds familiar. But in the US, the question is at this point theoretical. We have a relatively small Muslim population. Not so in France. My friend said I should bear in mind that the Muslim question not only divides French society, but also divides Christians.
If I have any readers in France, I would love to hear your thoughts about these things, and also your advice for presenting the Benedict Option to French audiences.