No Sects, Please; We’re French

John Graz January/February 2002 The United States views the new legislation as another step toward restricting religious freedom in France and is concerned about the example France is giving to the rest of the world. France has solid democratic institutions; not the case for many of the countries likely to follow its lead. The United States’ reaction echoes the reservations voiced by the president of the French Protestant Federation, Jean-Arnold de Clermont, and the Catholic Bishops Conference of France. Many majority churches and religions see the possibility of becoming victims of this antisect thrust sometime in the future.2

American opposition has been perceived as interference in France’s internal politics, and suspected religious groups are accused of being the United States’ “Trojan horse in Europe.”3 In other words, they are considered by some as the arm of “American imperialism.” This reaction is not totally new: French Protestants and Jews once faced a similar suspicion in France.

Freedom was the great cry of the American and French revolutions. But from the very beginning the two countries did not share the same concept of religious freedom. After its revolution in 1789 France accepted religious freedom. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen claims, “All citizens, being equal before [the law] (Article I) and no one shall be molested because of his opinions, even religious opinions, provided their expression does not disturb the public order established by law” (Article X).4

The declaration was a great step toward more freedom in a country that for centuries had been dominated by one exclusive and intolerant church.5 Protestants, then Jews, were recognized; which was not the case in most of the countries in Europe.

A comparison between the French and American declarations is useful. God is almost absent in the French declaration, and religious freedom is accepted with timidity. The only mention of God can be found in the preamble: “En presence et sous les auspices de l’Etre suprꭥ [Supreme Being].” The 1776 American Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” God is also the “Supreme Judge,” and the one who provides “the protection of Divine Providence.”6

Religious freedom, which had not been explicitly included in the Declaration of Independence, was strongly affirmed by the first amendment of the American Constitution, which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”7

In contrast, the French revolutionaries were suspicious of religion. Too timid, in the judgment of the Protestants. Religious freedom appeared as a concession: mꭥ (“even”) and strongly limited by “Pourvu que . . . provided their expression does not disturb the public order established by law.”

The dream of many French revolutionaries was to organize a church closely linked to the state. A church independent from the Vatican but under the authority of the monarch was also the dream of several kings.8 For the French revolutionaries, religious freedom was not the most important issue. Transferring the power from the king to the people was the key reform. The monarch and the aristocrats believed that the king was king by the grace of God. He was not accountable to anyone but God. He had the right of tolerating or not tolerating other religions outside of the official church. Because of differences in the religious and political contexts of the French and American revolutions, the French provided protection for human rights and religious tolerance instead of religious freedom.

Since that time religious tolerance and antireligious intolerance have alternated in France. The negative image of religion, created by religious wars and extremists, has fed antireligious feelings in a segment of the population and its leaders. State control of religion is largely accepted as a way of protecting all citizens. It would not be excessive to say that the concept of tolerance rather than religious freedom has inspired rulers. “Tolerance under control” is probably the most accurate phrase to describe the current policy. Thus Americans and French have never shared the same approach to religion.

For Americans, religion is seen as an essential factor in maintaining a democratic society and in providing a high level of values and solidarity. For many French Republicans and secular humanists, religion is a potential opponent to freedom and human rights—especially “Sects.” While some “sects” do represent a real and legitimate danger to society, minority religious groups could also be an easy target for the antireligious freedom activists.9

Antireligious Trend
The French antisect policy seeks justification by pointing to a succession of tragedies and mass suicides that happened in Guyana, Texas, Switzerland, France, California, Japan, and Uganda. The French believe that the best way to protect citizens against harmful or potentially harmful religious groups is to adopt a repressive legislation. Sects are more or less equated with criminal organizations.

The first problem facing the authorities was providing a definition of “sect.” They decided to use the common usage.10 This choice is in itself significant. It meant that objectivity and academic research were not considered by the authorities. The published list of 172 churches, associations, and groups raised many questions and some opposition. What were the criteria? Why were some independent evangelical groups and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a minority of more than 200,000 members, listed?11 Why did the Parliamentarians declare them guilty before the public before being judged by a court?

Publishing a list to stigmatize groups before there is a judicial process to determine the guilt of any crime is resorting to totalitarian methods. It is shameful for a democracy. The government policy toward the so-called dangerous sects creates a climate of hostility, which encourages bias and favors discrimination. The new law may well fuel the antireligious bigotry that periodically rises in France and that in the past has resulted in the most severe abuse of people of faith and religious institutions.

Influence on World Attitudes
Who can be sure that in times of crisis any government won’t follow in this path? The French model has received interest from South America, from Asia, and from some former Communist countries in Europe. In a number of countries, governments and societies have problems dealing with the new religious pluralism.12 They feel closer to the French approach by their history and national context than the American model. The United States, with its religious pluralism, is too unique for being a realistic model, it is claimed. Many countries, such as France, have to deal with a majority faith. If politicians want to stay in office, they need the support of the national, traditional church to build their new democracies. In giving special recognition to the traditional church, they seek to assure a certain protection for some acceptable minorities. But in combating ultracontroversial groups they set limits to their tolerance and favor their majority church. And mere tolerance is a short-term strategy that will favor discrimination and frustration in the long run.

American leaders and citizens should be especially concerned about this trend. The best response they can give to the new legislation is to remain faithful to their extraordinary heritage of freedom. A democracy doesn’t need discriminatory legislation against religious groups to protect its citizens. It simply needs to enforce its penal code in a fair manner. In the United States citizens and leaders need to continue proclaiming religious freedom as a fundamental right, to be promoted and protected for all people everywhere. In doing that, they will stand for the ideals of their Founders and be on the side of the persecuted. It will be disastrous for freedom and for the world if the United States gives up its strong stance.

It would be a mistake to treat France as an enemy of human rights and religious freedom. France is wrong in equating “sects” with terrorism. France is wrong in listing religious groups as potentially dangerous sects. France is wrong in favoring discrimination on the basis of religion. But this does not mean that religious minorities are systematically persecuted in France. The United States should maintain a constant dialogue with French officials, share information, and explain their policies. A commitment of both countries to human rights will help improve religious freedom and ensure it is respected as a fundamental right.

1 See Les sectes en France, p. 14.
2 CNS News, May 31, 2001.
3 Bruno Fouchereau, “Au nom de la libert頲eligieuse Les sectes, cheval de Troie des Etats-Unis en Europe,” Le Monde Diplomatique, Mai 2001.
4 J. F. MacLear, ed., Church and State in the Modern Age (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press 1995), p. 76.
5 See Michelle-Marie Fayard, “Les D飬arations des Droits de l’Homme,” Conscience et Libert鼯i> 10 (1975): pp. 72-89, and from the same author: “La R鶯lution de 1789 et la libert頲eligieuse,” Conscience et Libert頱8, (1979): 25-34.
6 See Fayard, “Les D飬arations,” p. 74.
7 MacLear, p. 66.
8 See “The Gallican Articles,” March 19, 1682, MacLear, pp. 3, 4.
9 The introduction to the report, Les sectes en France, begins with the death and the suicides caused by several cults. See p. 5.
10 See Les sectes en France, p. 14.
11 Ibid., p. 25.
12 See Catherine Picard, Agence France Presse, No. 51.

John Graz is secretary-general of the International Religious Liberty Association, based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He holds a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris, France.

Article Author: John Graz

John Graz is secretary-general of the International Religious Liberty Association.