Secularism requires that the state be separate from, and neutral vis-à-vis, religious groups. The state must also protect the religious freedom of all citizens, regardless of their beliefs. As demonstrated by scholars such as Jean Baubérot and Roberto Blancarte, although marked by different historical trajectories, all liberal democracies espouse the principles of secularism.
In liberal democracies, states have gradually distanced themselves from churches that sought to retain moral and political influence over societal choices. In so doing, these states have, in a context of increasing diversity, bolstered their autonomy with respect to the religious sphere. They have also solidified the foundations of a legal order protective of fundamental human rights, such as moral equality between citizens and freedom of conscience and religion. In this context, the decriminalization of abortion and homosexuality, the lifting of restrictions on opening businesses on Sundays, the legalization of medically assisted dying, and the successive reforms of family law are just a few examples of measures showing the extent to which religious normativities have loosened their grip on civil law.
There has been an undeniable transfer of legitimacy from church to state linked to the application of the principle of separation of church and state, a principle that need not be formalized as a legal norm to play an effective role in governance.Such transfer of legitimacy goes hand in hand with a constitutional enactment of the protection of fundamental rights, including the freedom of conscience and religion. This dual process has been well documented in a variety of national contexts, such as Canada (Quebec), Mexico, Belgium, and France, among others.
However, secularism is never pure or perfect. It moves forward or recedes with the advances and setbacks in liberal democracy.Yet, especially in French-speaking societies, traditional liberal schemes of secularism are being reinterpreted, leading to particularized versions of secularism that are increasingly associated with the defense of inherited national identities. These phenomena thus contribute to the decline of secularism (understood as a principle of political organization in liberal democracy) as it is increasingly cut off from its liberal roots. With this decline, secularism may lose its universality.
In several francophone societies, the acrimonious discussions over Islam have placed the notion of secularism at the heart of public debates. For the past twenty years, French debate on secularism has been deeply inflected by this tendency, which exports well, having found loud echoes in political debates on the regulation of religious diversity taking place in Switzerland (Canton of Geneva), Canada (Province of Quebec), and Belgium (Wallonia). In the process, the multidimensionality of secularism has been reduced to the sole issue of religion’s “visibility” in the public sphere. This reductive notion is finding a widespread resonance in media and political debates, and to some extent in the legal arena as well. Reducing secularism to issues related to Islam creates at least two problems.
First, the popularity of this simplistic understanding of secularism, combined with the rise of populism, can lead to abuses that undermine rights and freedoms and damage the social fabric. This has happened in France, and more recently in Switzerland and Canada. In 2019, the Canton of Geneva approved, by popular vote, the Law on the Secularism of the State. The law’s first chapter was devoted mainly to banning civil servants and elected officials from wearing religious symbols while performing their duties. The same year, Quebec’s legislative assembly adopted a law boastfully titled the Act Respecting the Laicity of the State. However, this law’s ambition was in no way to organize the relations between state and religions, but simply to prohibit some categories of provincial civil servants from wearing religious symbols.
Second, focusing primarily on Islam weakens secular vigilance over other, sometimes far more important, issues: the expansion of civil marriage to same-sex couples, the legalization of euthanasia and abortion, and so on. These are very important issues for secularism, but are not perceived as such by either citizens or politicians. In fact, they are, at least in French-speaking and Catholic societies, problematic blindspots of contemporary secularism.While the focus on Islam and the weight of a collective Christian ethos often obscure important secularism issues in many Western societies, challenges can also emerge in new, unexpected domains.
For instance, in Quebec, while the constitutionality of the Act Respecting the Laicity of the State was being challenged before the Superior Court, another issue pertaining to secularism was unfolding. Indeed, as part of its Covid-19 emergency measures, the government not only reduced the freedom of worship but also required shops to close on Sundays. However, in 1985, the Supreme Court of Canada reaffirmed the separation of religious and civil normativities in R. v. Big M Drug Mart, a case examining the constitutionality of a law prohibiting any work on Sundays in Canada:
The Act gives the appearance of discrimination against non-Christian Canadians. Religious values rooted in Christian morality are translated into positive law binding on believers and non-believers alike. […] The protection of one religion and the concomitant non-protection of others imports a disparate destructive of the religious freedom of society.
In other countries, notably in France, the issue of businesses opening on Sundays regularly makes its way into political debates. But here again, the issue is always approached as a matter of labor law rather than as a matter related to secularism. This situation is all the more problematic since many societal and secular issues are at the heart of significant religious—often Christian—activism, as illustrated by religious activists’ strong mobilization against opening civil marriage to same-sex couples in France in 2012 and 2013.
In recent decades, the visibility of religious symbols associated with majority groups has declined, especially with the conversion or demolition of abandoned Christian places of worship in several Western societies. By contrast, the perceived heightened visibility of Islam feeds into a sentiment among the population that the majority group’s cultural and religious identity is being erased. Islam is also deemed a worrisome religion as the wearing of religious clothing is systematically associated in the general public with a rejection of modern values, particularly gender equality and the protection of the rights of sexual minorities.
Some politicians, from both left- and right-wing political parties, as well as secular activists invoke the rationalism and modern ideals of the Enlightenment as tools to reinforce secularism. In their minds, as Annamaria Rivera has argued, contemporary secularism has become too permissive and is threatened by religion’s return to the public sphere. In the face of Islam’s visibility, politicians and activists also invoke the imperative that every citizen be free and cut off from any identity other than citizenship… and this is used almost as a mantra, even if this means that freedom of religion will be weakened along the way.
Paradoxically, as Lori Beaman has shown, religion is making its way back into the national imaginaries of societies who think of themselves as “secular.” However, it is the religion of the majority that comes into play here, and many politicians no longer hesitate to refer to their nations’ Judeo-Christian history and identity. This happened in Quebec, where Prime Minister François Legault did not hesitate to voice his emblematic statement, “that’s the way we live here,” in a debate around prohibiting public servants from wearing religious symbols in the workplace. It also happened in France, where President Macron now claims that “our Nation often grew from the wisdom of the Church” to call for the renewal of ties between the secular state and the Catholic Church in the aftermath of tensions linked to the legalization of same-sex marriage. Furthermore, Christian relics are increasingly associated with cultural heritage to legitimize their presence and visibility in public institutions. Here, we should recall the debates on the installation of nativity scenes or crucifixes in some public buildings in France and Quebec.
In contemporary debates and policies in Western francophone societies we observe that secularism is used for nationalist ends. Such manipulation unfolds in a paradoxical dialectic tension between two poles. This new secularism is of a French republican nationalist vein. It draws on Enlightenment rationalism and conveys several age-old values: humanism, liberty, emancipation, and progress. This form of secularism invokes the universality of citizenship, making membership in the polity conditional upon a prior suspension of particular allegiances. It undermines some freedoms, particularly the freedom of religious expression. It is profoundly assimilationist.This new secularism is also often civilizationist-nationalist. It reintroduces religion into a national imaginary and anchors citizenship to a Christian identity purported to have been handed down to and shared by all. It is profoundly differentialist.
In several francophone societies, the improbable coexistence of these republican-nationalist and civilizationist-nationalist secularisms in contemporary public governance derives its justification from one single factor: the presence of Muslim minorities, which, over the past twenty years, has been gradually construed as a “problem.” This becomes the glue holding together the two albeit contradictory poles of nationalist secularism. Through a reinterpretation of traditional schemas of republican universalism, secularism becomes a central component of a republican identity and a Christian culture specific to the nation, even if Quebec and Belgium are not republics. The nation is, in a sense, re-ethnicized in its Christianity, but as Geneviève Zubrzycki has argued in the case of Quebec, this ethnicity is ultimately considered to be potentially universal.