Two years ago right now I was in Berlin at a law student conference on religious freedom in the European Union. For an entire week full of meetings and break-out sessions, I worked closely with the staffer of a French Parliamentarian in hearings and negotiations in our "working group" to draft a proposal for the separation of Church and State under the new EU Constitution and with a view toward further expansion of the EU eastward. At the end of the week, and after we presented our draft proposal to the body of the conference in the historic Berlin Senate building (perhaps my most exciting public speaking experience to date), I bid farewell to my new friend and someone snapped this photo. (I’m the taller one–the tweed should give me away.)
Matt Evans’s current post at T&S about the findings of a French parliamentary commission on the importance of the tripartite family (father, mother, and child) for the balanced development of the child reminded me of working with this parliamentary staffer and many other delegates from all over Europe. Specifically, it reminded me how great it was to work with them, particularly this French delegate.
I admit that I went into the situation with some apprehension once I discovered that the two of us — a Frenchman and an American — would be working together on the panel discussing the separation of Church and State. I wondered whether we could come to any conclusions and whether he would lead the rest of the delegates in our working group to marginalize my views as an American. At the beginning, there was indeed some tension, and I sensed that I had unwittingly become a leader of one faction in the working group supporting an American understanding of the accommodating separation of Church and State in opposition to his unquestioning support of the French view of laïcité, or the radical/hostile separation of Church and State. I was uncomfortable with the prospect of such a polarization from the beginning of our work and decided to step back a little and listen.
I realized very quickly that I had misjudged him. He was indeed starting from a strict position of French laïcité, but he was not closed to different views. In fact, I found that he was very much a leader among the delegates, but he led the group to communicate with each other orderly and rationally. He did not promote an artificial polarization based on nationality, to which I would have been particularly vulnerable since the other delegates, all from Europe and Great Britain and Ireland, arguably could have pretty much ignored my view as an American as irrelevant to the discussion of religious freedom in the European Union. Instead, our discussions led to compromise and to a very nice draft resolution that incorporated both views by creating and articulating a dual pronged approach to the separation of Church and State. Our resolution proposed that a total "social separation of church and state" was neither possible nor desirable as a goal in the EU. This was a concession to the more accommodating (i.e. non-hostile) American view of state neutrality toward religion that I was advocating. But our resolution also found that a total "institutional separation of church and state" was both possible and desirable, thus incorporating notions of laïcité that were important to him.
It was an amazing experience and one that I will never forget. I learned a lot about the benefits of working together with the French, and got better insight into the way they think and approach such issues in a parliamentary setting. It might be too much to judge the French National Assembly based on my interactions with this parliamentary staffer. And I still find it unfortunate that French parliamentary commissions have not treated the Church more favorably in their findings in the past. However, the experience taught me what is great and valuable about democracy, and it made me grateful for a powerful democracy such as France in which compromise and negotiation are par for the course in governance.
Perhaps the family values that I know the French to espouse, although in some different ways than our approach to these values here in the U.S. (think their secular social programs that are explicitly aimed at enabling more time to be spent with family versus our mainly religious promotion of the sanctity of the family in the U.S.), might indeed have a wider influence in Europe. First, however, it remains to be seen whether the National Assembly will adopt the findings of this commission.