East-West Travelblog: A wake-up call in Washington

WASHINGTON, D.C. (RNS) As a religion reporter, I figure I know what secularism is. But Akram Elias made me see it anew in an almost throw-away line in a presentation he gave on federalism I thought would surely be a snoozefest. Joke's on me!

Travelblog is a series of occasional posts by RNS national correspondent Kimberly Winston, who is on the road in Washington, D.C., Nashville, Tenn., Honolulu, Kuala Lumpur, Lahore and Islamabad, Pakistan with the 2015 Senior Journalists Seminar, sponsored by the East-West Center in conjunction with the U.S. State Department.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (RNS) As a religion reporter, I figure I know what secularism is.

But after an information-packed day of briefings on the separation of powers, civil religion, religious rhetoric in politics, religious demographics and religion in the arts (whew!), one thing that really jumped out at me. It was an almost throw-away line by the day’s first speaker, Akram Elias.

Elias, an expert on public diplomacy and international relations at the Capital Communications Group, gave us a very animated talk on federalism and the separation of church and state here in the U.S. You remember this from high school — three branches of government, checks and balances, blah blah blah. The talk was aimed primarily at the 12 foreign journalists in our fellowship group who may not be experts on U.S. government. I think the American journalists expected to sleep through this.


Akram Elias getting all passionate about federalism

That would have been a mistake. Elias was a delight. At one point he got so excited about the separation of powers he stood up and did what looked like a little dance. Hands gesturing, arms waving, tie swinging, he outlined America’s “four freedoms” — of speech, of the press, of association and of religion.

“Right here in this room we could found our own religion of Lalala,” he said, hands going one direction, feet going another. “We register it with the government but not for approval. There is no approval, we do not need approval, it is automatic. We just need to identify our religion so the government can say, ‘Welcome to the United States and here is your tax identification number.’ It is all about taxes, my friends.”

But it was what he said next that gave me pause. “Secularism in the U.S. is the opposite of European and French secularism. In Europe and France, secularism protects the state from religion. In America, secularism protects religion from interference by the government. It is the opposite.”


Some of the 18 fellows listening to Akram Elias

True, yes, and common knowledge for many but I had never heard it put quite that way. Later, I asked Elias to explain why, if America was founded by Europeans we ended up with opposite ideas of secularism. And again, while I knew the facts he outlined, I had never connected the dots between them before.

France’s idea of secularism — which they call “laicite” — was born out of the French Revolution in 1789. Citizens were sick of the monarchy and the church being “in bed together,” Elias said. So when they threw the ruling bums out, they demanded a secular tradition that is almost anti-clerical. The government is thereby protected from religion.

But America was settled by religious people persecuted in their home countries. But once they got here, they became intolerant of religious groups that were different from them: Maryland was founded by and for Catholics and the Puritans of Massachusetts were always expelling members who weren’t Puritan enough.

“So the Founding Fathers said we have seen that religious groups can be intolerant of each other so we are not going to allow the government to define religion,” he said. Thus, the wall of separation was designed to protect religion from government.


And then he gave a great example. Remember that Abercrombie & Fitch case before the Supreme Court earlier this year? A&F said they could not hire a young Muslim woman because she wore a hijab and that conflicted with their dress code. The court ruled 8-1 (Clarence Thomas) that she had a right to wear that hijab in on the job. But in France, when Muslim schoolgirls want to wear the hijab to public school, they cannot — it is against the law.

I just thought it was a great illustration of something I already knew. It made me think about it in a different way. I wonder what secularism in the U.S. would be like if the French Revolution had happened 15 years earlier, before the Declaration of Independence. Would we have an American laicite?

For another view, read Kim Lawton’s fellowship blog at Religion & Ethics Newsweekly








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