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Spiritual Landmarks in French History: How the country came to be so secular; The boundaries of Free Speech and Prayer Initiatives for France

According to the Eurobarometer Poll conducted in 2010 27% of French citizens responded that “they believe there is a God”, 33% answered that “they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force”, 40% answered that “they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force”.

Most other polls and surveys show at least one in three French people declaring themselves as atheists. This is a country God knows so well, but which is in great need of a new move of the Spirit.

A Few Landmarks:

At one point over fifty per cent of the French nobility were Protestant, either Calvinist or Huguenot. The 2,000,000 Calvinists were drawn from all social strata – but their movement was soon seen as a direct threat to the monarchy.

1562–1598 French Wars of Religion – which effectively continued throughout the sixteenth century in which between two and four million people were killed. These wars continued throughout the 16th century.

1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre: the worst depravity of all.

1598 The Edict of Nantes, issued by Henry IV. For the first time, Huguenots were considered by the state as more than mere schismatics and heretics.

For the first time, Huguenots were considered by the state as more than mere schismatics and heretics. The Edict of Nantes thus opened a path for secularism and tolerance. In offering general freedom of conscience to individuals, the edict offered many specific concessions to the Protestants: amnesty, the reinstatement of their civil rights, including the right to work in any field or for the State and to bring grievances directly to the king. For background on the Huguenots click here.

1681 The persecution of the Huguenots resumed under Louis XIV, the so-called “Sun King,” using in particular the tactic of billeting ill-disicplined dragonnades, (dragoons) in Protestant households, who abused and intimidated these families.

1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. As a result, a large number of Protestants – estimates range from 200,000 to 500,000 – left France during the following two decades, seeking asylum in England, the United Provinces, Denmark, in the Protestant states of the Holy Roman Empire (Hesse, Brandenburg-Prussia, etc.) and European colonies in North America and South Africa.

January 1686 Louis XIV himself claimed that out of a Huguenot population of 800,000 to 900,000, only 1,000 to 1,500 had remained in France.

1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes
This created a state of affairs in France similar to that of virtually every other European country of the period, leaving only the majority state religion tolerated. The experiment of religious toleration in Europe was effectively ended for the time being. In practice, the revocation caused France to suffer a brain drain, as it lost a large number of skilled artisans and craftsmen. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edict_of_Fontainebleau

October 1685 The Edict of Potsdam
Frederick Wilhelm of Brandenburg offered asylum to Huguenots, for whom France had become too dangerous.

1790-1793  The Catholic Church was put under state control during the French Revolution. During these deeply turbulent years, church lands were confiscated often with extreme violence. The Cult of Reason and the Supreme Being were inaugurated as a specific replacement for Christianity, celebrating the goddess Reason.

Under threat of death, imprisonment, military conscription, and loss of income, about twenty thousand priests were forced to abdicate, and a further six to nine thousand to get married. Many abandoned their pastoral duties altogether. Some of those who had abdicated, however,  continued to minister covertly.

By the end of the decade, approximately thirty thousand priests had been forced to leave France, and others who did not leave were executed. Most French parishes were left without the services of a priest and deprived of the sacraments. Any non-juring priest faced the guillotine or deportation to French Guiana. By Easter 1794, few of France’s forty thousand churches remained open; many had been closed, sold, destroyed, or converted to other uses.

Victims of revolutionary violence, whether religious or not, were popularly treated as Christian martyrs, and the places where they were killed became pilgrimage destinations. Catechising in the home, folk religion, syncretic and heterodox practices all became more common. The long-term effects on religious practice in France were significant. Many who were dissuaded from their traditional religious practices never resumed them. See: Dechristianisation of France during the French Revolution.

The split between the French government and the Catholic Church nominally came to an end with the Concordat of 1801, but Napoleon strategically ensured that the balance between Church-State relationships remained firmly loaded in favour of the State! Napoleon had wanted the Pope to make him Emperor – but he ended up having to crown himself!

Bourbon Restoration (1814-1830)

When the Bourbons were restored to power, Roman Catholicism became the undeniable state religion of France. Under Villèle’s ultra-royalist government, the Chamber voted for the extreme Anti-Sacrilege Act of 1830, which was mercifully repealed shortly afterwards when Charles X was overthrown in the violent uprising of July 1830.

The Third Republic (1870-1940)
History buffs will get a small sense here of the ongoing tensions between Church and State.

The Modern Day Secular State

1905 A very significant law on the separating Church and State and establishing France as a firmly secular society.

1995 The French National Assembly, the lower house of the Parliament of France, set up a Parliamentary Commission about Cults in France. Whilst this has exposed and moved against genuine cults, pray for house churches and genuine works of God not to be falsely identified as cults.

Early in his Presidency, left-leaning President Hollande accused his predecessor, Nicholas Sarkozy, of pandering too much to Catholics. He has been at pains to enshrine the 1905 principle of laïcité into a secularist constitution. This has been reflected in a raft of secularist measures being pushed through, as well as an attempt to abolish three of the country’s six public holidays because of their Christian associations: Ascension, Pentecost and Assumption. 17% of French schools are run by Catholics. There are reports of funding being cut to these schools.

Further attempts are under way to reinforce the secularist republican agenda in France as it struggles to express its national identity.

Catholicism has been on the decline for a long time – but don’t write off what God is doing amongst Catholics: there are signs of renewal. When I was involved in the mid 1970s with the Spirit-filled Emmanuel community at St Sulpice in Paris, a church that was so on fire that people used to take to the streets regularly to witness.

See too this recent article in The Week, which, if you haven’t discovered it before, is an excellent synopsis of world news. See especially the last couple of paragraphs, in which the author suggests that whilst people assume the future of France must lie either in secular irreligiosity of with rampant Islam, few have considered that old-time religion may have a vital role to play in shaping France’s future!

Many of us have felt uneasy that such a precious thing as free speech in France has come to revolve around such a controversial issue as cartoons from now highly lucratively buttressed satirists. John Weston points out that there is a gulf between the Miltonic ideal of rational free speech, or even the Regency tradition of vulgar cartooning, and the naked scattergun atheism of Charlie Hebdo, which lies behind the emotion of the present “Je suis Charlie” manifestations.

Sensitive to the negative effect the Charlie Hebdo approach has on the Muslim world, Terence Ascott, founder of the excellent satellite television network that broadcasts the gospel right across the Arab world, has published an article entitled “Just Because You Can, Does Not Mean You Should. Why I am [i] not Charlie”.

Here are edited highlights of the above article:

Dr. Terence Ascott, Founder and International Chief Executive of SAT-7

What is the point of making fun of someone’s religion? It might make some feel good. It might be genuinely funny and thought provoking. It might be designed to shock and embarrass specific individuals so that certain kinds of behaviour are discredited and eventually discontinued.

But if we consider the Muslim community in Europe, is giving offense going to help change the extremists or instead deepen their feelings of being marginalised and belittled? Will attacking their religion or prophet lead to them learning to better respect Western democratic values and open debate on personal and press freedoms? Or will it create stronger resentment and rejection of the perceived excesses of liberty – a liberty that appears to have thrown away any sense of decency, respectfulness or personal and civic responsibility for minorities in our society?

When SAT-7 was creating its founding documents and programming policies some 20 years ago, we recognised that satellite television presented us, for the first time in history, with the opportunity to go into millions of homes across the Arab World and to say what we like! We were able to by-pass all the usual censorship that is imposed on the press, radio and television in the Middle East!

But, did this mean that we should then use this to attack other people’s faith, in order to promote our own and thereby win converts? For sure, some have since chosen this path but, from the beginning, we recognised that not only would such a strategy provoke a backlash on local “soft target” Christian communities but it would also be unproductive!

The power of television and radio to change lives lies in their ability to build long-term relationships with audiences, to be “invited” into closed homes in closed countries day after day, to share positive messages – to present the wonderful and good news of the Gospel. Attacking someone else’s beliefs, in any way, simply offends them and helps ensure that they do not again tune in to your channel, or allow their family to tune in – even by accident!

As we look at our measured audience today, we find that it is the countries with virtually no churches that are the most responsive and are tuning into SAT-7 in huge numbers! Why? Because we are able to offer hope, help and the good news without causing unnecessary offense or turning people away from our message by insulting or belittling what they have believed and held sacred for generations.

So, just because we have the right to free speech, does not mean that we have a licence to pointlessly offend religious and moral sensitivities or incite others to hatred. Freedom of the media is a precious commodity and should be fiercely protected, but so that it can act as salt and light in our society, always seeking the greater good for that society.

Concerning this unease that so many of us feel that free speech in France has come to revolve around such a controversial issue as satirical cartoons, a French media lawyer Mathieu Davy tried to clarify issues by saying, “I have the right to criticize an idea, a concept, or a religion,” but not to attack people and to incite hate.” Most Muslims would see that explanation as inherently contradictory: a distinction without a difference. See France has alienated Muslims.

Writing in this edition of Stratfor, Jay Ogilvy, one time professor of philosophy at Yale, writes of a link between the “left behind” phenomenon so many feel so acutely today and the rise of the ultra-right in Europe.

“As the number of unemployed, disaffected, hopeless youth grows, so also does the appeal of extremist rhetoric — to both sides. On the Muslim side, there is more talk from the Islamic State about slaying the infidels. On the ultra-right, more talk about Islamic extremists. Like a crowded restaurant, the louder the voices get, the louder the voices get.”

He records the Hobson’s choice dilemma so many Asian intellectuals face “between recoiling into the embrace of their ancient cultures or adopting Western ways precisely to gain the strength to resist the West. This is their paradox: Either accept the Trojan horse of Western culture to master its “secrets” — technology, organization, bureaucracy and the power that accrues to a nation-state — or accept the role of underpaid extras in a movie.”
Read more: Mind the Gap Stratfor

Mind the Gap is republished with permission of Stratfor

Spare a thought in prayer too for committed Christians who are working for the Lord in the French Parliament and elsewhere. They may not be numerous but they are there for the Lord and we must pray for Him to greatly bless these modern day Obadiahs!

Prayer Initiatives

A group from South Africa of Huguenot descendants have returned to France to pray for the nation – and over two million people have subsequently taken up the call to prayer. See prayforfrance.org/partners

Operation World is realistic about the challenges facing missionary work in France. “Fruit is hard-won, discouragements many and the missionary dropout-rate high.”

Many of you will remember John and Laura Madan, who used to minister to youth at our conferences. They have long been based in Nice and continue to reach out right across the French speaking world.

Let’s join them and many others in praying for a new generation to grow up who are passionately in love with Jesus and able to handle the Word of God aright.

See also this article by Linda Entwistle – France – Let’s pray for the Lord’s creativity in reaching France!