Much to our surprise in Europe, religion wasn’t a big theme in the 2016 presidential election in the United States, a country that proclaims its trust in God even on its bank notes. It may therefore be puzzling to some Americans to learn that God is back in the political debate on this side of the Atlantic. And that he chose, of all places, France, the sacred land of “laïcité,” the local version of secularism.
The man who brought God — or, more specifically, Christianity — back is François Fillon, a former prime minister who is running in the presidential election in the spring as the nominee of the main center-right Republican Party. Mr. Fillon’s initial platform included a drastic proposal to cut back on public health insurance that caused widespread indignation and forced him to backpedal; to persuade voters that he did not intend to hurt the poorest, Mr. Fillon explained this month that “I am a Gaullist, and furthermore I am a Christian,” and said that as such he would never act against “the respect of human dignity.”
Christian? Did he say Christian? In the media, other politicians were promptly requested to react. The centrist François Bayrou, while pointing out that he was himself “a believer,” was appalled, adding that “in France, for more than a century, the rule has been that you don’t mix politics and religion.”
A former adviser to Nicolas Sarkozy, Henri Guaino, said that Mr. Fillon had committed a “moral error.” And Marine Le Pen of the National Front, sporting around her neck, in lieu of a cross, a heart-shaped silver pendant, said that Mr. Fillon’s “opportunistic use” of his Christianity for political purposes had created “unease.”
This fresh enthusiasm for Christianity has less to do with God, though, than with culture and identity. Polls usually show that close to 55 percent of French citizens describe themselves as Roman Catholics (the rest being divided among Muslims, Jews and Protestants), but only 5 percent to 8 percent go to church regularly. An Ipsos study recently commissioned by the Catholic media group Bayard has created a new category of believers: “committed Catholics,” people who don’t necessarily attend church but identify with the Catholic Church through philanthropy, family life or social involvement. This group is said to include 23 percent of the French population.
Though they represent a variety of opinions on matters from migrants to Pope Francis or political orientations, this group can be seen as a potential electoral bloc. “These cultural Catholics have been under the radar screen because polls did not identify them, and because secularized political and media elites did not see them,” Jean-Pierre Denis, the editor of the Catholic weekly La Vie, told me. The socially conservative Mr. Fillon, he said, “has been smart enough to spot them and tap into them.”
That’s fantastic news. While a practicing Christian has to hope that these cultural Catholics will return to a robust practice of their faith, given how anti-religious French culture has been, it’s a joy to see this. Samuel Gregg writes about “France’s Catholic moment”. Excerpts:
So what has changed? How has it come to pass that movements of young and politically active Catholics such as the Sens Commun were able to openly mobilize center-right voters to support the forthright Catholic Fillon against the self-described catholique agnostique Juppé during the primary runoff? Why did Fillon, Juppé, and Sarkozy all consider themselves obliged to appeal directly to practicing Catholics during the primaries? Is France experiencing what might be called its own Catholic moment?
As with most developments at the confluence of religion and politics, immediate concerns and long-term factors are at work. Among the former is deep angst throughout French society about Islam, something accentuated by Islamist terrorism and the spread of Muslim-dominated “no-go” areas for non-Muslims throughout France. As the Catholic intellectual Pierre Manent demonstrated in his bestselling Situation de la France (2015), many French citizens are consequently asking one of those existential questions beloved by the French: What gives France its distinct character? Some, including many nonbelievers, have concluded that France really cannot be understood without Catholicism, and that the legacy of the Enlightenment and French Revolution has not provided much of a bulwark against creeping Islamization. Fr. Jacques Hamel’s brutal murder by two Islamist terrorists in July 2016 underscored this in a particularly poignant way for many French Catholics, and no doubt for Jews, Protestants, and nonbelievers as well.
More, about the role that the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris, did to revive authentic Catholicism, and public Catholicism:
Lustiger, and many of those who became priests (often known as génération Lustiger) during his time as French Catholicism’s public face, gave the Church presence in French society. Many of these men are now bishops: Dominique Rey in Fréjus-Toulon, Olivier de Germay in Corsica, Marc Aillet of Bayonne, the Paris auxiliary Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, the military bishop Luc Ravel, to name just a few. They come from professional families, and invariably possess credentials from France’s elite secular educational institutions as impressive as their counterparts in academia, business, and politics. These bishops are what the French call décomplexé. That means they are unintimidated by secular France and do not feel the need to acquiesce to the dwindling band of progressive Catholics and their views about how practicing Catholics and the Church should behave. In 2015, for example, Bishop Rey provoked controversy by inviting Marion Maréchal-Le Pen to speak alongside representatives from other parties in a discussion about Catholics in public life at his diocese’s summer university. In his response to criticisms, Rey pointed out the obvious: You can hardly have a serious conversation about Catholics in politics and exclude representatives of a political party which regularly receives millions of votes in France.
These génération Lustiger bishops, the priests they have formed, and their lay Catholic equivalents in leadership positions refuse to behave in accord with the expectations of the heirs of Voltaire and Rousseau who have been running French culture since the end of World War II. This independent and self-confident spirit helps explain the resilience of La Manif pour tous, which was more effective in mobilizing public opinion than pro-marriage groups in the United States, in large part because of its ability to put hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of Paris, many of whom are not Catholic. It was only a matter of time before this type of Catholic activism spilled over into party politics. Fillon’s ascendancy indicates that this time has arrived.
Read the whole thing. There may be hope for France.