Rise of French Laïcité

French Secularism from the Reformation to the Twenty-first Century

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Stephen M. Davis
Evangelical Missiological Society Monograph Series
  • Eugene, OR: 
    , August
     250 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Stephen M. Davis’ Rise of French Laïcité: French Secularism from the Reformation to the Twenty-First Century is a well-researched and comprehensive treatment of the way in which the French have come to understand a unique form of secularity enshrined in French law and accepted as a now-natural reality of French culture. The operative term for this secularity is laïcité, which Davis unpacks in a clear, direct, and disciplined historical survey. Any student of modern Western history, particularly those constrained to reading in English, would gain much from Davis’ treatment, solidly sourced from a varied group of mostly French thinkers, both old and new.

The author’s primary aim is to draw the reader into the story of the “long shadow” cast over modern French history by a progressive marginalization of religion. Terminologically, laïcité names this long shadow, but the reader will encounter, especially in later chapters where Davis puts his French interlocuters into dialogue with each other, a multivalent concept not easily hemmed in by terms such as secularism and not always bearing a common meaning in the minds of the French.

At the heart of the book is an additional educational objective aimed at evangelical church planters. Davis has planted churches in France, and his text is meant to make visible to other missionaries the biases that can exist both in church planters and in the culture that surrounds them. Although the author writes from his own confessional perspective, his precise faith commitments, implicitly suggested in the early chapters and explicitly exposed in the last, barely interfere with a rich historical unpacking of the concept under discussion. Instead, these commitments are presented without polemic and in a way that invites dialogue with those of other faith traditions about the historical issues under discussion.

It could be that Davis has Winston Churchill in mind when he argues through his interlocutors that the United States and France are two nations divided by a common concept. Without knowledge of how the separation of church and state operates in two very different cultural appropriations, American evangelicals missioned to France may mistake laïcité as bearing a strong likeness to the US Constitution’s First Amendment assurance of disestablishment and free exercise.

One of the book’s stronger emphases starts from the observation that in the United States the separation of church and state was a feat accomplished without the long historical memory of a state religion. Although the US seems to hold the principle of separation in common with France, Davis points out that from Roger Williams onward an optimistic orientation to religious pluralism and voluntarism became an expression of the American appreciation for liberty of conscience. The kind of religious liberty that existed in the United States was, says Davis, unobtainable under the ancien régime (the time before the French Revolution) after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Postrevolutionary zeal for a “free conscience,” therefore, did not start from optimism but from a will first to control and then to refuse the privileges of the Gallican church.

From the mid-19th century onward French governments were moved toward an ideal of separation that required the positive educational reinforcement of religiously neutral citizenship. Davis demonstrates how this zeal eliminated Catholic religious instruction in stages so that the formation of mostly Catholic children was replaced over time by the formation of French citizens adhering to the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity as those of first importance. Particularly with respect to the second ideal of equality, the author shows that the state imposed on itself a responsibility, sourced in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to go beyond the noninvasive guarantee of the US Constitution for free expression.

For these reasons Americans who enter France as missionary church planters ought to chasten their optimism and approach the French wall of separation with humility, accepting that in traversing from one nation to another the barrier that stands between church and state will likely be experienced as hard and not soft, seasoned with as much mutual hostility as affection. They ought also to recognize that the objects of hostility or affection can vary through time. The early trajectory of the book aims to demonstrate through several historical turning points how the Catholic Church was the primary object of the French state’s 1905 law “Concerning the Separation of the Churches and the State.” This trajectory, however, illuminates two late chapters that reveal Islam as the present-day object of both French law and cultural hostility.

Thus, Davis brings the reader into a consideration of the difference between two relationships. The first is the relationship that had existed between the Catholic Church and the French state and had formed French culture for a thousand years. The second is the relationship that has come into existence more recently between Islam and France. This latter relationship, while not new, is more visible in the presence of a large number of recently arrived immigrants and appears to many French nationals as a foreign import dangerous to the preservation of French law and culture. With some irony, Davis shows that the challenge of Islam, particularly in its visible symbols, may reactivate the French affection for Christianity.

Davis unpacks this potential when he evaluates the remarks of French President Emanuel Macron. In 2018 Macron suggested that retrieving an historical sense of the Christian heritage could be appropriate to French society and unoffensive to the ideal of laïcité. The president’s remarks received a mixed reception, his critics believing that Catholicism deserved no greater privilege in the interpretation of laïcité than other traditions. Davis’ evaluation shows, however, that if a Macron-style retrieval goes forward it will not be of the old religion per se but of an object intended to inspire, from its historical pedigree, a general reverence for native French culture among the still secular-minded. Thus, a retrieval does not relieve church planters of their responsibility to discern “the enormous spiritual needs” hiding behind the sophistication of French culture (195). The French must be met “where they are” so that the gospel can be presented with good effect (195).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Laura Coughlin is a PhD student in theology at the University of Dayton.

Date of Review: 
October 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen M. Davis is an elder at Grace Church. He and his wife Kathy have been engaged in church planting in the United States, France, and Romania since 1982. He earned a DMin in missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a PhD in intercultural studies from Columbia International University. He is the author of Crossing Cultures: Preparing Strangers for Ministry in Strange Places (Wipf & Stock, 2019) and Urban Church Planting: Journey into a World of Depravity, Density, and Diversity (Resource Publications, 2019).


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