French Perceptions of Religion in America: from Voltaire to Régis Debray

Denis Lacorne
Directeur de recherche, Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales

Date: February 23, 2004

Event Recap

Addressing an audience of French and American scholars, Denis Lacorne, the Director of Research at the Center for International Studies in Paris, spoke at the Boisi Center on February 23rd on the perceptions and misperceptions that French have of American religion. The French are, in general, continually astonished by the frequent references that Americans make to God in their political rhetoric. This rhetoric reinforces the popular image the French have of Americans as 17th century Puritans, ascetic and prudish in their attitudes towards sex and morality. The average French person, Lacorne argued, has very little understanding of mainstream American religion and its variants.

Lacorne compared attitudes in France, where a strict separation of Church and State is taken much more seriously than in the United States. During the French Revolution, the Church was seen as the primary institution supporting the political legitimacy of the monarchy and its divine right to rule. Against this history, subsequent leaders have been extremely wary of permitting religion to have too much power within the Republic. This is a contrast to the United States, in which the founders felt that religion offered a necessary constraint against the base self-interests that could potentially be released in a popular democracy. In this context, many of the symbols and materials of Protestant culture were absorbed as part of the secular culture in order to provide moral safeguards and mechanisms of social control.

During a lively discussion period, many issues were discussed, including the recent vote in France on whether Muslim girls would be allowed to wear headscarves to school. An American scholar of French-Muslim descent argued that constitutional guarantees of freedom of conscience were worthless unless citizens were allowed to act upon their freedom by displaying and exhibiting their religious beliefs. LaCorne acknowledged this and added that there is no “First Amendment Culture” in France the way there is in the United States, and that the fears that the French people have of radical Islam might be exaggerated.