Your one-stop shop for everything related to the Peace of Westphalia

I get an alert email from Google whenever “Peace of Westphalia” pops up on a new site. These generally fall into one of two categories. First, there are those in the “Executive Intelligence Review,” a publication put out by the LaRouche movement. If you aren’t old enough to have lived through the 1980’s, you probably don’t remember Lyndon LaRouche and his crazy ideas. You didn’t miss much. Suffice to say that they are still around and active under the leadership of his widow, Helga Zepp-LaRouche. They seem to love the Peace of Westphalia, and somehow their web page on it ranks higher in Google than mine does. Second, there are web sites from third world countries, often written by current or former diplomats or scholars. These are often hard to read because the author is not a native English speaker, and the site does not have great editing, probably because it has minimal funding.

As you can imagine, neither of these sorts of references excites much interest for me, and probably also not for my audience. I therefore treasure the occasional references in articles written by articulate writers without radical views. One of the best of these I’ve ever seen came this year in “Bitter Winter,” a publication about religious liberty (originally specific to China, but now broadened to include other areas). This was actually a series of 4 articles called “Why Secularism Is Dangerous”; I will focus specifically on the second part, “French “Laïcité” as a Source of Major Injustice,” although all of them are interesting. I am not so much interested in pursuing the question of secularism and its dangers, as of addressing the problem that secularism presents in the real world.

The author, Marco Respinti, points out that France disestablished its state religion in a 1905 law. Not having a state-supported church is hardly a novel concept to Americans, but it appears that France has gone quite a bit further toward making the government explicitly secular and even anti-religious. In part one, he notes how French authorities viewed (Muslim) school children’s lunchtime prayers as a dangerous event in 2023. In part two, he notes a new French law passed in 2021 that prohibits “separatism.” It establishes December 9 (date of the 1905 disestablishment law) as a “Day of Secularism” and creates a new penalty for organizations that apply threats to officials to obtain exemptions from public rules.

There is nothing overtly wrong with such a law in principle, although Respinti argues that it has been applied in ways that are deterimental to religiou groups. I am more concerned with the implication that France is trying to break down private organizations, including religious ones, in support of national unity. It is the nature of governments to prefer to deal with individuals rather than groups, because individuals are so much more vulnerable than when they are bound together. The ancien régime was constructed out of interest groups — nobility, clergy, towns — in a way that was detrimental to individual liberty. In the modern period, family, religion, and civic institutions have protected individuals against the state, and when these are removed, the state is at liberty to impose whatever restrictions it wants. I can’t fault France for being afraid of Muslims who want to alter French administration in favour of their religious beliefs; but I also find the government’s actions problematic. What this underlines is the fact that it is difficult to have a coherent society when members have different fundamental beliefs. It was a struggle in 16th and 17th century Europe, and it is a struggle today. This is true among competing religious beliefs, but equally among competing religious and non-religious beliefs, or competing non-religious beliefs. Religion is not the complicating factor; sincerely held beliefs about how society should be organized are.

In part 3, Respinti discusses the curious case of Bangladesh, whose constitution establishes Islam as the “state religion of the republic,” but whose constitution also contains a prohibition against “the granting by the State of political status in favour of any religion.” The Peace of Westphalia contained some equally contradictory clauses, and it is somehow reassuring to think that we are still capable of holding two contradictory ideals in the 21st century.

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