Religion Unplugged

How Soccer Reveals Different Meanings of “Secular” in France and the US

Senior Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom
Kylian Mbappe celebrates his second goal for France on March 27, 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)
Kylian Mbappe celebrates his second goal for France on March 27, 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

Because of concerns over preserving the country's cramped view of "secularism," French authorities are denying Muslim soccer players accommodation for their religiously required Ramadan fasting. This reveals very different understandings of what is meant by the term "secular" and thereby the very meaning of the now much-debated "secular state.”

When academics and professionals have used a word, they have usually wanted it to have a meaning that is both precise and accurate so that, instead of frothy wordplay, real discussion and — perhaps more importantly — real argument can take place. But, when words enter the public realm, their meanings become plastic.

Hence, “secular” has now joined “political, “liberal,” “populist,” “fundamentalist” and the ever popular “fascist” as a term of vague praise or blame largely divorced from any substantive content. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted two centuries ago: “An abstract word is like a box with a false bottom; you can put in it what ideas you please and take them out again unobserved.”

“Secular” derives from the Latin saeculum, meaning “of the age,” and arose in medieval Christian discussions to refer to those living in the world rather than in a dedicated holy space. Hence a monk or nun who lived a cloistered life would be said to be “religious,” whereas a parish priest would be “secular.”

I remember years back picking up a Catholic magazine whose cover announced it as a “Special Religious Issue” and wondering why all their issues wouldn’t also be equally "religious." It was, of course, an issue focused specifically on religious orders. One could also ask a priest if he were “religious” and be replied, without irony, “no, I am secular.”

Later, “secular” came to mean the world outside the church itself. This did not mean that that the world was divorced from Christianity but that it was not the church itself. It did not imply that the world, the secular, was estranged from religion, since Christians are called by God to live as Christians precisely in the secular world. In common Protestant usage, they were following a godly secular vocation. In political usage, secular then came to mean something like a nonconfessional state, as distinct from one with a state church or religion, and one in which civil status did not differ depending on religious status.

Problems have arisen with more recent changes of meaning, originating in the 19th century, whereby “secular” has become used to refer not only to nonconfessional states but to advocate for something much more, for a state emptied of religious influence and, in some cases, for society itself to be emptied of religious influence. Religion was then said to be private — or else should be required to be private. This went far beyond how we might refer to a nongovernmental company, university, school, or charity as private, in the sense that General Motors or Harvard are private, but as something more akin to “personal” or “intimate,” something closed off that does not or should not impinge on public life.

This latter view has been growing in the United States, and more so in Canada and northern Europe. It can be illustrated by recent events in France, which often prides itself on its peculiar laïcité version of secularity.

These issues have come to a head during Ramadan, wherein observant Muslims are required to fast from dawn to dusk, except for drinking water. Many French soccer players are Muslims, and they are some of the best players in the country, including perhaps the greatest — one of the world's best, in Kylian Mbappe.

Ahead of March training camps, France’s soccer federation said that it would not change its meal times and practices to accommodate players who wanted to observe a Ramadan fast. Unlike those of Germany, England and the Netherlands, during evening games, French referees have not allowed Muslim players to end their fast with a quick snack and drink on the sidelines. After a demanding day of fasting, Muslims can't even take a small break to quench their hunger and thirst during a strenuous evening game.

Instead, as Samuel Petrequin notes, “The French soccer federation (FFF) says part of its mission is to defend the country’s strict adherence to secularism in public life.”

Of course, it all depends on what is meant by that weasel word “secularism.”

Despite current fevered assertions about burgeoning “Christian nationalism,” Americans across the political spectrum are still disposed to support what the law calls “reasonable accommodation” — meaning that in public and private, unless there is exceptional hardship, we should make as much room as we can for people to follow their religious precepts, at work and elsewhere. Hence, in line with this, the U.S.-based Major League Soccer introduced drink breaks last year for Muslims and, indeed, anyone else who wanted such a break.

Given these differing meanings, we should not easily equate a secular state with a religiously free state. Secularism can be its own repressive ideology, becoming if not an ideological then at least a functional atheism in political life. North Korea and China are both highly secular and highly repressive of religion — and pretty much everything else in human life.

We would better use “secular” to mean a political order in which there is no religious discrimination in political and social status, while at the same time seek to accommodate our society's diverse religious beliefs and practices both in public and private.

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