Published 13 January 2021 in Le Monde, under "Aux Etats Unis, les personnes qui affichent des croyances religieuses ne sont pas exclues de la vie publique." Full text en français available here.
Raphael Warnock’s election to the United States Senate is remarkable for many reasons. He is a man of the Democratic Party, in a Southern state that for years has voted for Republicans. He is, in fact, the first Black person to be elected to the Senate from the Democratic Party from a state in the American South.
But Warnock’s election is remarkable for another reason. It could never have happened in France. Not because he is from a party of the left, and not because he is a Black man; but because he is an ordained Christian minister, who is—and who will remain—the senior pastor of a church.
He is, formally, The Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock. Since 2005, from the relatively young age of 35, he has served as the senior pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Few churches of the American Black church have the prominence of Ebenezer; it was the church led by Martin Luther King, Sr., and the setting for some of the most important sermons preached by his son—The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. Warnock’s church has national prominence in the United States. Throughout its history it has spoken in a prophetic voice, holding the United States to account for its failure to live up to its promise of equality and inclusion for Black Americans.
But it has not done this from a position of abstract moral reasoning. The high pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist Church has reliably made the argument for the equality of all Americans based on its commitment to the radical equality of all people—a commitment deeply grounded in its Christian faith.
The people of Georgia have just elected a religious minister to one of the highest offices in the federal government. He will not insist that the United States become a religious country; he will not disregard the opinions of either his colleagues or his constituents who have beliefs different from his own—or faith at all.
But he will bring to his work in developing and shaping the laws a moral perspective shaped by the Christian faith. There is nothing hidden about this; his thinking on issues of equality, economic justice, the death penalty, and systemic racism in the United States are publicly known through his preaching and speaking.
As an American living in France, as I have listened to the recent discussions about the place of läicité in French life I have reflected on how differently our two nations understand not just religion, but the place of moral formation, in our respective public discourse. France has a deep and long history of bitter and bloody religious conflict, and of incursions by the church into matters of governance. As an immigrant, I respect and honor the intention of läicité to assure the equality of all citizens by insisting on an absolutist separation between state authority and religious belief.
But there is an aspect to läicité that is perhaps more obvious to a foreigner than it is to one formed by the culture and values of the Republic. It is that the consequence of läicité is to give to the state a monopoly power over moral formation—over determining the values of the state and teaching them to a new generation.
America has never experienced such historic conflicts in religion; indeed, our nation was settled by those who sought to escape them, and who arrived willing to accord to each other the mutual tolerance they had not found at home. So, too, since its independence, no church has had a governing role in the development of the American republic.
What this means is that those of religious beliefs are not excluded from high office or from participating in public life; and they are not expected to separate themselves from the moral commitments formed by those beliefs, whatever they may be.
There are two consequences of this. One is that the breadth of public discourse is enriched by the ability of all citizens to participate fully, as both political and spiritual beings. The ability to bring the whole of one’s self into the responsibilities of citizenship—one’s political, spiritual, economic, ethnic, or racial identities—is the essence of what we understand to be integrity—the integration of the whole person as a citizen.
The second is that the state does not have a monopoly claim on either articulating or teaching values in society. Said in different terms, the work of mediating values in society is seen as having such great importance that it is not entrusted to the state, but rather distributed among many institutions that proclaim and teach an ethical vision—churches, yes, but schools, universities, even different cultures.
In the American context, all of these different moral visions—those grounded in religion, and those grounded on systems other than faith—are offered a chance to make their case for how society should be organized, and how individuals should relate to the state and to each other. The role of the state is merely limited to setting the rules by which this discourse happens; no tradition receives favor, and no tradition is singled out for restriction. As a citizen, one has the right to consider those possibilities, and align one’s own commitments to the set of ideas that seems most compelling.
A majority of the people in Georgia just made clear that they find Raphael Warnock’s vision of a just society—one deeply grounded in his Christian faith, as shaped by the Baptist tradition—to be compelling. It is an outcome consistent with, not in conflict with, an American understanding of the role of religious commitment in public life—a clear separation, but not an estrangement. Reverend Warnock—soon to be Senator Warnock—will be an example of the good that can come from this possibility.