Religion & the state of Laïcité

The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting article on the rise of evangelical Protestantism among French Gyspies, and how that differentiates them from eastern European Roma in their anti-social tendencies:

The Gypsy Evangelicals in Chaumont, France counter any stereotype. They park some 6,000 white trailers in neat rows on the grassy runway of a World War I air base. It is a “city” brought from “the north, the south, the east, and the west,” as signs replete with biblical language affirm, anchored by a tent that holds 6,000 and atop of which flutter the flags of France, Belgium, the US, the EU, Germany, and the UK.

The gathering joins these Evangelicals, whose numbers and faith have swelled to some 145,000 of the 425,000 Gypsies in France. Their tight organization, work and family ethic, regard for civil law, and stress on education has made them the “go-to” Gypsy group for French authorities, and a point of pride in a larger Gypsy community that has long suffered a stigma of criminality, drugs, and brawls. Beyond that, they help stabilize and keep a vanishing Gypsy identity intact, analysts say, as economic and legal pressures in post-industrial Europe are atomizing a nomadic life.

Much of what is described reminded me of religion as depicted in Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, especially the section on Nigeria. In societies and cultures where “post-materialist” values have not become embedded background conditions religion serves as a critical social glue. Additionally, in a striking parallel with the French Gypsies non-Muslims in Africa and non-Muslims Southeast Asia have both taken to Christianity in large part because it is viewed as a way to align a community with an international order, and, preserve their ethnic identity in the face of assimilative pressures from the more established ethno-religious majority (e.g., Hausa, Malays, etc.).

Certainly the impact of evangelical Christianity on Gypsy culture seems analogous to the effect of Christianity and Islam among Third World migrants in Europe as a whole. Without religious foundations or assimilation into the broader secular national order these subcultures often become the seeds of broader social anomie without the strict moral framework which religion provides. But in some ways this is a “lesser of two evils proposition,” with reformist Muslim communities in a culturally Christian Europe being the most striking reminders that though religion may sharpen within group élan, it can also foster division across groups. At the end of the day do Europeans really want Roma to maintain their independence and distinctiveness as a subculture, even if some of their anti-social tendencies are mitigated through Protestant evangelicalism?

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