Melissa Wilde’s Comments

Melissa Wilde commented on my argument that although France and Quebec try to define an officially “neutral” policy toward religion, in practice their policies do not seem neutral. To extend my argument in the book, I argue that the state cannot be neutral towards religion any more than the state can be neutral to the good. Neutrality among religions is possible, at least more possible, than neutrality towards religion in general. State enforcement of non-expression of religion in the public sphere over allowing religious expressions in the public sphere, the general aim of French laicite and Quebec’s open secularism, is not neutrality toward religion: is it privileging non-religion, and that privilege of non-religion needs to be justified on some kind of legitimate moral grounds. Thus, how religion is included or excluded from public sphere is part of a larger debate about the moral legitimacy of the state and about how non-state actors formulate moral criticism of state power and actions. Melissa questioned why, if second generation Haitians in Montreal and Paris are becoming more secular, I still think that religious communities will be important for their assimilation. Although I am saying that, in comparative perspective, more Haitians in Montreal or Paris will decline in religious practice, but at least some will retain their faith and practice. I’m not saying that faith based services should be the only kind of social services, but they are part of the picture and should be acknowledged for their contributions. Although I’m not trying to say that the US model is perfect, I am trying to say that the French and Quebec model marginalizes one important way that immigrants traditionally have found mobility. Religion alone does not determine any particular assimilation outcome, but it interacts with just about every other thing that influences how immigrants adapt: where people settle, education, family, job hunting, community building, and political advocacy. The narrative of hope provided by religion can help people take advantage of opportunities that are there, rather than turn away from them. For immigrants like many Haitians who are poor, black, not highly educated, and not very welcomed, religion is an extra social support. Religion can moderate the effect of good state policies, that is, make those state policies work better. Religion can also mediate between individuals and the state and market—people can find opportunities for mobility through their religious community. I am not trying to argue that religious communities by themselves can achieve immigrant assimilation, but I am saying that the French and Quebec model weaken one community resource among Haitians–their religious faith–and that the greater secular environment of Montreal and Paris has negative consequences for immigrant assimilation because immigrants there do feel excluded yet they have fewer symbolic and material resources with which to be agents in their own assimilation.

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