Sarkozy, Europe and Religion

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Sarkozy, Europe and Religion

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been making headlines in France of late with several statements about religion. This might not be a big deal in America where religion this year has been a major topic in the presidential primary. But in France, officially a secular country, when the president talks too much religion, people get upset.

Speaking to a group of foreign ambassadors on Jan. 18, President Sarkozy said the "return of religion in most of our societies" was a reality and that "only sectarians do not see it." He expressed concern that religious revival not come only in fundamentalist forms that were exclusive and closed.

Earlier in the week Mr. Sarkozy spoke in Saudi Arabia and said that religion should hold a bigger place in the social and political life of France. In this speech he mentioned God 21 times. He said Islam is "one of the greatest and most beautiful civilizations the world has known." He was especially effusive about Saudi leaders whom he described as those who "appeal to the basic values of Islam to combat the fundamentalism that negates them."

Before the pope

Perhaps the most interesting speech Mr. Sarkozy gave was on Dec. 20 in Rome before Pope Benedict XVI. President Sarkozy was there to be made a canon of the Church of Saint John Lateran, something done for French heads of state going back to the time of Henry IV.

Excerpts of the speech include praise for the Catholic Church, as well as a recognition that in these modern times there was a need for "religious convictions" to counter destructive trends caused by secularism. Speaking as a politician, Mr. Sarkozy expressed the need to be "enlightened by opinions that reference norms and convictions which are free from immediate contingencies."

President Sarkozy spoke directly of France's Catholic heritage, something Europe as a whole has been reluctant to do, at least officially. "My presence among you this evening is a testimony of France's faithfulness to her history and to one of the major sources of its civilization.

"Faced with the disappearance of values, and with the upheavals our societies are experiencing, I want to say by my presence that we need the contribution of the Catholic Church, as of the other great religious and spiritual doctrines, to enlighten our choices and construct our future."

He also said, "It is in the interests of the Republic that there exist also a moral reflection inspired by religious convictions. First because secular morality always runs the risk of wearing itself out or changing into fanaticism when it isn't backed up by hope that aspires to the infinite."

Uproar over remarks

Reaction to these recent speeches has been interesting. Some see them as a break with a French tradition and a law dating back to 1905 that officially separates the church and state in France. This has grown into a political taboo for leaders to speak publicly about religion.

One member of the National Assembly, socialist Jean Glavany, spoke critically of the speech in Saudi Arabia: "A speech citing God not only on every page, but on every line, creates a fundamental problem for the republic."

France's republican model of government recognizes the rights of the individual citizen over that of any religious or ethnic group. France has cultivated a doctrine called laïcité, a strict form of secularism that derives historically from the bitter rejection of the authoritarian Catholicism of the past. By this doctrine, all reference to religion must be excluded from the public sphere.

The issue is larger than Christianity. A debate is going on in France that involves ways to accommodate the growing numbers (over 5 million) and influence of Muslims. The Muslim community would welcome reforms in French law that would allow for funding of mosques and expand the training for imams. Some observers go so far as to say that Mr. Sarkozy's real motive with this talk is to pave the way for further Islamization within French society.

When President Sarkozy was interior minister, he negotiated with moderate Muslim leaders to create the French Muslim Council, a representative body of French Muslims recognized by the government. This council arranges Muslim chaplaincies in the army and prisons, secures Muslim cemeteries, certifies Muslim food laws and builds—with government financial support—new mosques and prayer halls.

Little wonder that his recent comments have stirred controversy. Mr. Sarkozy assumes there are moderate elements within Islam that can be accommodated within French society. And why should he not feel that Muslims can be assimilated into French society? After all, the French president himself is the son of a Hungarian immigrant with a Jewish lineage.

Role of religion

On the surface it might seem that such religious talk would be welcomed by the Catholic Church. Pope Bendedict has been a long and outspoken critic of Europe's slide into secularization. He has made the reversal of this trend a cornerstone of his papacy. But some believe church leaders are reserved about any reforms that could upset the status quo and create a backlash against the Roman Catholic Church.

For any major European leader, and especially the president of France, to begin making overt speeches on faith and religion is significant. Europe has gone so far to distance itself from its Christian roots that it excluded mention of Christianity in the preamble to the European Constitution. Yet Europe cannot ignore religion, Christian or otherwise. The growing numbers of Muslims within its borders alone will not allow this.

Religion continues to play a major role in world affairs. As much as some would like to see it disappear from the public square, it simply will not. In Europe, where many have proclaimed the culture to be "post-Christian," the story is mixed. Much has been made of Muslim immigration and its impact on culture and politics. Declining birthrates among native European populations has led to the conclusion that in a few years the Muslim population will be the largest on the continent. If present rates continue, this will be true.

But there could be more to the story than just birthrates. The large Muslim population, the desire for Muslim culture to be maintained and the need for mosques and training of imams highlights the role of religion. Religion has not disappeared from the continent. Though the term European Christianity might appear to be an oxymoron, there is still the legacy and historic memory of Christian culture waiting to reassert itself.

Revival to come

Religious sociologist Philip Jenkins is one who feels that Christianity may be about to revive its ancient roots, expand and grow into something quite dynamic. Writing in a recent book, God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis, he shows that a broad interest in religion and Christian spirituality still survives in Europe.

He writes: "From a grassroots level…the immense attention paid to religious concerns and Europe's heritage in the past few years probably will drive more Europeans to take a renewed interest in their Christian roots, to rediscover what it is that so many academic experts seem to be consigning to oblivion" (2008, p. 287).

Far from the death of Christianity, Dr. Jenkins sees a revival of Christian influence spreading from Europe to other world centers and sparking a time of revival similar to the great missionary and evangelical movements of the 19th century. The very thought of "death," he feels, could create a "resurrection" of Christianity that would become a major influence in the world.

Emergence of a dominant religious leader

Bible prophecy shows that out of the present religious strife and confusion that continues to confound the world will come a period of religious clarity. Revelation 13 describes the emergence of a dominant religious leader. He will bring an order to the scene through the use of miracles, something the modern world has not seen.

"Then I saw another beast coming up out of the earth, and he had two horns like a lamb and spoke like a dragon. And he exercises all the authority of the first beast in his presence, and causes the earth and those who dwell in it to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed. He performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men" (verses 11-13).

There is coming a time of religious revival and its impact on the world will be profound. Those who seek to worship God in spirit and in truth will find themselves the object of persecution when it occurs. Examine what you believe and test it according to Scripture. When this day arrives, you will know whether you have built on sand or on rock (Matthew 7:24-27). WNP

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