Elizabeth Sewell, associate director, International Center for Law and Religion Studies, BYU
In 1669, the French playwright Molière published Tartuffe, a classic portrait of a religious shyster. By pretending to be a holy man and spiritual guide, Tartuffe almost completely swindles a gullible man’s fortune and ruins his family. The poor target of Tartuffe’s wily charms, Orgon, recognizes the fraud too late, and is finally delivered by a representative of the King, who denounces and apprehends Tartuffe. Modern American critics have puzzled over this seemingly “forced” and “not convincing” resolution that is “so unexpected as to cast doubt upon the dramatic coherence of the entire comedy.”
In a move that was equally baffling to Americans, over three hundred years later, French legislators also attempted to protect their population from religious fraud. Reacting to fears of “dangerous cults,” following investigations prompted by events that occurred in the mid-1990s, the French Senate and National Assembly adopted a law on 30 May 2001 “to strengthen prevention and repression of sectarian groups liable to undermine human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The law criminalizes “mental manipulation,” fraud, and deceptive practices by purportedly religious actors.
Both of these visions of a strong state protecting citizens from religious fraud sit uncomfortably with Americans. For precisely that reason, however, they are particularly useful vehicles in an attempt to understand French legal and religious culture. The noted cultural historian Robert Darnton suggested that “[w]hen we cannot get a proverb, or a joke, or a ritual, or a poem, we know we are on to something. By picking at the document where it is most opaque, we may be able to unravel an alien system of meaning.”
In the texture of French legal and religious life, this opacity can be seen in French approaches to religious fraud, as illustrated in Tartuffe and the French anti-cult law. To most Americans, these seem overly paternalistic and prone to violate individual liberty. Instead of simply being content with labeling a foreign system of thought as condescending or paternalistic, it is worth thinking through why the French seem to expect the state to interfere in what seem like individual religious decisions, and why they view the state as having a role in protecting individuals from religion. Again, to quote Darnton: “When we run into something that seems unthinkable to us, we may have hit upon a valid point of entry into an alien mentality. And once we have puzzled through to the native’s point of view, we should be able to roam around in his symbolic world.”
The strong role of the state in protecting individuals from religion in France dates back to at least the French Revolution, when Enlightenment thinkers and Revolutionary leaders sought to disentangle the Roman Catholic Church from its privileges. The sense of rivalry between church and state in France has fostered a strong anti-clerical sentiment that has shaped modern French church-state relations. French views of a state active in social and religious life also stem from a different understanding of the role of the state and the nature of civil society and social life. In contrast to an American perspective, in which “we, the people” form a government and directly participate in civil society and social life, the French “understand the State as the first intermediary between society and citizens—the State is responsible for legal and practical civil society.” Drawing on Greek political thought, the French state saw itself as embodying the will of the citizens and historically positioned itself as the protector of individual rights vis-à-vis the monarchy. A French church-state scholar has explained that “[t]he true public sphere in France, for example, is the space where the State exerts its authority for the benefit of all and at the service of all. . . . The implicit tendency of the French State is to define first whether its religious partner is religious and only then to accept its entry into the public sphere if its actions are deemed useful.” Much more could be said about the role of religion and the state in French history and culture, but these points should illuminate why both Molière and a modern French legislature see it as the role of the state to protect individuals from religious fraud and hucksterism. Of course, understanding the cultural background of a legal system and law is only the first step in an analysis of a law. It does not necessarily mean that a particular law should be enacted, upheld by courts, or enforced—but it is a vital first step, one which allows for mutual comprehension and meaningful debate.
It is worth noting that cultural perceptions and concerns are not uniform across a culture, and may have significant overlaps and points of contact with vastly differing cultures. In the area of religious fraud, for example, France and the U.S. are not entirely opposites: the anti-cult law has been denounced by French religious leaders and human rights workers, and U.S. courts have attempted, albeit gingerly, to address cases of religious fraud. Still, however, the strikingly similar views of religious fraud in French literature and law over three hundred years reveal the lasting power of cultural norms, particularly in the deeply-felt arenas of religion and the role of the state.
Sources are available upon request.
Dodge Billingsley, producer/director, Combat Films & Research, Beyond the Border Series
For the last year and a half I have been in the midst of filming a program about globalization and the automobile industry—global supply chains to be exact; the networks of car parts traversing continents and oceans to be assembled into automobiles at all points of the globe. Two things have impressed me from the start. First, how tight-lipped the automobile manufacturers have been on the topic. (I work predominantly with the armed forces, and they have proven to be much more accommodating when it comes to sharing information—believe it or not.) Second, the varying role of nationalism when it comes to automobile manufacturers, and their global supply chains.
Nationalism has been a fundamental weapon in the struggle for companies to compete in the global marketplace and get home markets to buy their products over other, foreign, competitors. The plant manager at Modine Radiator in Tennessee told us there is “a certain sense of pride when you see a vehicle drive down the street that has a part it in made by us,” while Ford’s advertising campaigns constantly appeal to Americans to buy American. The CEO of Burke Limited in the UK worries that if automobile manufacturing jobs, like his company provides, don’t stay in the UK, “there won’t be enough people in the UK with money to buy the cars.” Yet the CEO of Sundram Fasteners in Chennai India, who sends radiator caps made at his facility all over the world, adamantly defends quality over nationalist sentiment, citing for example the dominance of Korean automobiles over Indian models.
And so it was true in Beijing, where our friend Jin Zhilin and his daughter had just purchased the family’s first car. It was Jin’s daughter who chose the Buick sedan, because she recalled, “It was made from all over the world.” In her mind, a global car was an indication of quality. She shopped for a car over the Internet—perhaps the greatest instrument available in facilitating globalization. For her, nationalism wasn’t a determinant—or was it? She did acknowledge that when the Korean car companies began to infiltrate the Chinese market years ago it was a bit hard to take. As she put it, “I expected a quality product from the Japanese, Germans, and Americans, nations with a strong automobile tradition, but felt ashamed that Korea would have better cars than China.” A very cultural response.
Dana S. Bourgerie, associate professor, Asian and Near Eastern languages and Chinese Flagship Program director
Culture shock is something anyone who has been abroad knows something about, yet it is usually associated with the initial experience with a culture. In the Chinese Flagship Program at BYU, we regularly work to prepare students for direct enrollment in Chinese universities and to fulfill internships within Chinese institutions. Most of our students have been to China at least once before and are rated at the highest level of Chinese-language proficiency. Many have been participants in rigorous, traditional study abroad programs. Still, they are often unprepared for the experience for which they are training.
As these students enter previously unexplored domains of the culture, they are often taken aback by what they find—that they are treated as natives not as honored foreigners. One student enrolled in a regular university course taught by the teacher she also had for a regular study abroad course, but this time it was if she was dealing with another person and a different educational system. There was no syllabus, no accessibility, no friendly conversations, and no special treatment. She was left bewildered to decipher her new environment with no handholding, and the much greater formality associated with the Chinese classroom.Culture shock is something anyone who has been abroad knows something about, yet it is usually associated with the initial experience with a culture. In the Chinese Flagship Program at BYU, we regularly work to prepare students for direct enrollment in Chinese universities and to fulfill internships within Chinese institutions. Most of our students have been to China at least once before and are rated at the highest level of Chinese-language proficiency. Many have been participants in rigorous, traditional study abroad programs. Still, they are often unprepared for the experience for which they are training.
Another student, anxious to be a team member in a law firm and to show his abilities, earnestly tried to contribute to group deliberations in company meetings, only to be reminded that it was his role as a junior person to listen. He felt underappreciated and even maltreated, but, in fact, he was being treated as a Chinese person–––something he had supposed he had wanted all along. He had discovered a truism of cultural assimilation: the better your language and cultural skills, the more you are treated as a member of the host culture—all of which brings greater opportunity but more challenges as well.
I have lived and traveled in China for nearly twenty-five years, but I still regularly encounter the mild disorientation associated with loss of control of my environment that we typically refer to as culture shock. As I tried to enroll my nine-year-old daughter in a Chinese school a couple of years ago, I was told that I could not be present for the first day and that they would make no accommodations for her. Furthermore, I was subtly but clearly told that it was their job to teach and mine to be a parent. A cultural adage I often share with my students is that the more things seem universal the more they are in fact deeply cultural. Through education and training one may begin to understand and anticipate this principle, but only through experience do we fully realize it.