(RNS) The likely trajectory of secularism is on full display on the beaches of France.
Images of police standing over Muslim women until they take off enough clothes to make society happy have outraged some. However, the furor has been remarkably muted in the West, considering police are literally requiring that women take off some clothes to stay on a public beach.
Three reasons might explain why.
First, few people want to stand up for Muslims in France (remember Nice?), or in much of the world right now. Even as we have been told we have nothing to fear, sometimes fear is exactly what keeps us silent.
Second, France has a policy of secularization. It bans outward religious symbols in public, including burkas and their swimwear cousins, burkinis (although it seems that nuns wearing their habits have escaped punishment).
Third, burkinis are, many would say, a symbol of marginalization, put in place to protect men from seeing women.
A culture that desires to empower women has encountered a bit of a paradox. Where is the oppression? Is the religion that states they must wear it in the wrong, or the government that forces them to remove it? Given the complexity of this conundrum, bystanders around the world often find it easier to just keep standing.
However, I believe a critical right is at stake here — the right to religious liberty.
That right is first in our Constitution — in the First Amendment — for a reason. But perhaps this fundamental right has lost its power in the French Constitution, which defines France as “secular” in its Article 1. (Our histories produced very different approaches to religion in our founding documents.)
Religious tolerance qualified by secularism is not religious tolerance at all (despite Article 1’s claim to “respect all beliefs”). It is religious tolerance as long as it conforms to the ideals of the secular state.
Do we really want to strip Muslim women of their religious rights by making them remove their clothes on the beaches of France? Having walked the beaches in the south of France, I can assure you, a few women in burkinis are not what is distracting so many.
The pretext that burkini bans were put in place to prevent violent reactions from those offended by the modest bathing attire is nonsensical. Its premise: If you are living according to your faith, and ignorant people who don’t like it act inappropriately, the person of faith is to blame. That’s the logic of the new French “religious police.”
So, why do I, an evangelical Christian, who wants to see women (and men) liberated from the oppression that the burkini represents and set free in Christ, write this article?
Because of religious liberty.
If we don’t speak out, Muslims in France will not be the only ones stripped of their religious liberty. We can’t stand idly by today because it is not “our” religious liberty that is being trampled upon. Next time, as secularism continues its march across the West, it very well might be us.
Religious liberty for some soon means religious liberty for none.
I don’t want Muslim women forced to strip off some of their clothes on the beaches of France under the watchful eye of the police.
Or Catholic adoption agencies stripped of their participation in Massachusetts’ adoption system because of their views of marriage.
Or a baker stripped of her business because she did not want to participate in a wedding with which she disagrees.
The beaches of France, once places that inspired thoughts of liberty, are now places where police strip Muslim women of their religiously inspired modesty.
This act on the shores of France is a beachhead of the new tolerance that threatens the liberty of all who do not march to the beat of the secularist drum.
Please consider joining me in voicing concern now because that stripping of liberty is coming — to a Christian college, a baker or florist, a public facility your church wants to rent and a military chaplain — near you.
But, first, they came for the Muslim women in the burkinis …
(Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission and Evangelism at Wheaton College and is executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism)