France vs. the US: God Talk and Renditions of Secularism

While living abroad I tend to try and keep up a connection with the homeland through occasional doses of the Daily Show.  I watched Monday’s installment today and learned that Obama got a bit of criticism for failing to mention God in his Thanksgiving speech on YouTube.

Sure enough I googled and found all sorts of amusing articles with titles like:

Obama Under Fire for Not Saying ‘God’ in Thanksgiving Speech

These actually reminded me of a similar debate I’ve read about in articles that criticize the President of France!  Articles like the following:

Sarkozy sparks French debate over God and faith

(Reuters) – President Nicolas Sarkozy’s increasingly frequent and positive references to God and faith have drawn fire from critics who accuse him of violating France’s separation of church and state.

Well ok, they are actually almost polar opposite situations, highlighting how different two Western countries can treat the issue of religion in politics. It’s amazing that these two countries both ostensibly operate secular governments and yet have such an absolutely divergent perspective on the inclusion of expressions of faith in public discourse by politicians.

Now those Americans that REALLY had a problem with Obama’s non-mention of God last Thursday are not the majority (I hope!) – but it’s a little scary to look at some of the immediate comments to an article on this issue: (

1) “What do you expect from muslim.”
2) “How can anyone, besides an atheist leave Our Heavenly Father God’s Name out of this?”
3) “There will always be “God” substitutes. Ultimately, they will let us down (in less than a generation or two, generally). They are not the same yesterday, today and forever.”
4) “God Is Love, I do not think your comment is appropriate. Instead of criticizing him, we should pray for him.”
5) “Im surprised he didnt mention allah”
6) “God will turn his back on America because of people like Obama. We must pray for him until we can vote him out!”
7) “We should vote him out period,we need a xtian who is not ashame of his faith nor of the judeo xtian history of america!”
8 ) “Double minded man ….unstable in all his ways…Amen!”

Etc etc.  Oh America.

In this video three women debate the issue as though it were really important:


One of these women (no surprise a Fox news commentator) said the following:

“I think that every President, now forget about his personal beliefs, he represents the United States. You know the Mayflower compact going back 400 years talks about thanks to God, George Washington, first American President to talk about Thanksgiving under God, and I think it’s a mistake for any American president to give thanks without SOME reference to a higher cause and a higher being. Period.”

Ok so THAT seems a bit extreme, no?  The US doesn’t really require its politicians to be THAT religious all the time…right?


I think in the US we have gotten frighteningly accustomed to the way politicians kowtow to the religious, and basically all have to wear FAITH on their sleeve (even if it’s not really their faith).  I find it mindboggling that this OVERT faith is considered an essential ingredient for wise political leadership.

As a child I was a little weirded out by the fact that our money all said God on it, and that everyone always swore on the Bible, even people that weren’t Christian, to prove they really meant something.  But I guess I sort of got used to all that.  I mean that’s just how the US is, how it’s always been right? It’s only now, stepping away from it all for awhile into this very different environment, that these very non-secular things in our ostensibly secular society have regained their total weirdness for me.

For example the French would find it absolutely bizarre that anyone who claims that God needed him to run for President would ever be taken remotely seriously by the general public, but that he would then STOP being taken seriously because of infidelity rumors.  This would seem SO backwards to the French.

Look at some of the French backlash to their own President mentioning God and Faith in speeches on occasion from an article written in 2008:

French President’s Religious Mixing Riles Critics

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is drawing criticism from opponents for his frequent and increasing talks on religion in society, which critics say is a very “un-French” thing to do.

Sarkozy broke a taboo last December when he emphasized France’s Christian roots at a speech in Rome basilica, referring to France as “the eldest daughter of the Church” and stating that “the roots of France are essentially Christian.”

Some say his speeches, including his latest in Saudi Arabia’s capital city, ignore a French law separating church and state.

“A speech citing God not only on every page, but on every line, creates a fundamental problem for the republic,” argued Socialist Jean Glavany at the National Assembly last Wednesday referring to Sarkozy’s speech earlier in the week on providing state subsidies for faith-based groups.

“This is not respect for the separation of church and state,” socialist opposition leader Francois Hollande said, according to Reuters.“This is an ideological stand that makes religion into an instrument to promote French products civilian nuclear plants for Muslim countries,” he said. “Mixing religion and foreign policy is illogical and wrong.”

Although the 1905 law aimed at undercutting the vast influence the Roman Catholic Church once wielded in France, church leaders now are reserved about any reforms that could upset the status quo and revive anti-clerical movements.

The strict separation of church and state began with the enactment of law in 1905 that grew into a kind of political correctness that made bringing religion into public affairs a major taboo.”

Now maybe the French go too far – for example in September when they banned prayer in the streets.  This kind of hardcore attempt to eradicate any trace of religion from the public sphere not only seems a bit authoritarian, but it will surely ultimately create a negative backlash, particularly within the French Muslim community.  Secularism does not have to be that extreme – however, can we in good “faith” really call ourselves secular when a leader is not considered electable unless he talks about God all the time?  What kind of secularism is that?  And was the US always like this – or has it gotten worse?

~ by zoetropic on November 30, 2011.

10 Responses to “France vs. the US: God Talk and Renditions of Secularism”

  1. Have to say as an Australian i have always found the American religious right very scary. We are led to believe they are the minority yet their voice in US politics seems to be omnipresent!

    • It’s strange what power a supposed minority wields no? I also find it bizarre how everyone who is NOT UBER-religious, or just prefers to keep their religion private, is trained to accept religion permeating every aspect of political life.

  2. That was great!

  3. […] eradicate any trace of religion from the public sphere not only seems a bit authoritarian, …Via GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  4. I find this post fascinating and they’re thoughts I’ve gone through many times, even more so this past year. I lived in France all of my adult life (moved there when I was 15, until 25), until I moved back to the States last year, for my husband’s job. I hadn’t lived in the States since I was 8 years old, and the culture shock has been immense.

    To be honest, I think things have gotten worse in the U.S. Religion was always part of their rhetoric, but I feel that it’s moved on to new extremes this past decade. A lot of things have, unfortunately. It’s an interesting and strange experience to be living here as an adult and going through all this first-hand.

    Thanks for this post – it’s very interesting and thought-provoking. I’m happy you were freshly pressed since it gave me a chance to find your blog!

  5. I really like the way you conveyed your thoughts. I don’t spend much time reading others views but I like your style. I’m one of those that can’t see leaving God out of anything but by the grace of God I endure. I’m glad I found your blog!

  6. You’re a braver blogger than I to wade into such choppy waters! Good for you!

  7. The fundamentalists in America are indeed scary.

  8. […] France vs. the US: God Talk and Renditions of Secularism […]

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