I concluded my last blog post by gesturing towards the viral quality of religion in the modern world—the way it continuously seems to exceed its institutional confines. I was going to use this second post to address the question of where one might look to find historical evidence of such a quality, but the responses to my previous post were so interesting that I was inspired to reflect further on the discourse of contamination and the role it plays in both religious and secular worldviews.
What fascinates me about this language of purity and contamination is the extent to which it is mobilized in the service of both religious and secularist narratives. This is particularly true in the case of France’s republican culture of laïcité, as the recent controversy over the Islamic headscarf—repeatedly figured as a scandalous threat to the purity of the secular public sphere—amply attests.
What is interesting is that both the religious and the laïque appeal to a discourse on purity and contamination and rely upon a similar narrative structure, invoking the rhetoric of purity to describe both an originary moment that has since been lost, and an eschatological ideal to be fulfilled at some point in the future. If the sudden appearance of “visible signs” of religion in the public sphere is such a scandal to the contemporary laïque imaginary, this is only because it presumes that there was, in fact, a moment when that public sphere was pure from any such contamination—a moment usually identified with the legal separation of Church and state under the Third Republic. Much like the assumption that secular modernity was preceded by a pre-modern state of pure religiosity, which underwrites so many theories of secularization, such prelapsarian models are of course fantasmatic retrospective projections.
These thoughts were powerfully driven home to me the other day, when I walked past the Pantheon in Paris. Initially built as a church and then converted into a secular temple consecrated to the great men of France, it was converted back into a church in 1806, secularized and then desecularized yet again, before finally becoming a civic monument under the Third Republic. In other words, even this most iconic emblem of secular republicanism is contaminated by its own religious past. What I love about the accompanying picture is the way the Pantheon appears to be literally overpowering, hiding, or edging out the tiny church behind it and to the left. And yet, the cross atop of the Pantheon’s dome (not to mention the religious frescoes inside) constantly subvert the purity of this monument to laïcité.
If there has never been a pure moment of laïcité or of religiosity, what then accounts for the persistence with which both secular and religious discourses appeal to the rhetoric of purity and contamination? What ideological work does this rhetoric do? Why does it emerge more powerfully at certain historical moments? Most importantly—what does it obscure? Indeed, the case of the Pantheon led me to think about some of the uncanny parallels between France’s Catholic heritage and its modern secular republican identity, even though these identities tend to be articulated in opposing terms. For sworn enemies, they seem to have an awful lot in common. Most obviously, both Catholicism and French secular republicanism make (competing) claims to embody an authentic universalism, for which the threat of division and disunity represent the greatest possible evil.
Despite these pretensions to unity and universality, both identify themselves with a particular group and therefore necessarily exclude certain people. One need look no further than the inscription adorning the Pantheon itself for evidence of this foundational paradox of republicanism, for it is a monument specifically dedicated “to the great men” of the nation. In other words, both Catholicism and French republicanism rely on a similar set of paradoxes—a promise of liberation paired with a demand for obedience; the need to materially embody or represent that which is invisible and universal—in addition to the rhetoric of purity and contamination. And yet, it is precisely this kind of rhetoric which has so often been mobilized by both Catholics and defenders of laïcité to disavow any connection between their respective projects. Is it perhaps the very similarity of these projects which makes them incompatible? The task for the historian is to try and elucidate the precise historical relationship between them, as well as the contexts that lead both parties to disavow any such relationship. But it is also worth asking, more broadly, about the political stakes of this relationship and of its systematic disavowal, particularly given the extent to which current debates over the public place of Islam rely upon a particular historical account of the clean (or not-so-clean) separation between Catholic Church and secular republic.