Kelly Sans Culotte

Letter From Paris

Jesus Over France
Immigrant evangelicals stake their claim to France.
By Kelly Cogswell

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PARIS, JUNE 3, 2005. Fashion and food and art may have put Paris on the map, but for me the city is all about demonstrations. Students throw the biggest and best, but on any given day you may run across nurses, biotechnologists, truck drivers and farmers holding their own on the street.

I was strolling down Avenue Richard Lenoir on a recent Saturday afternoon trying to picture in which house Simenon's fictional Inspector Maigret lived when I noticed a crowd at a corner listening to live music coming from the back of a truck. It was part of a group waiting for the "March For Jesus."

The crowd held signs in French announcing "Jesus Reigns" and "Jesus Is Lord," and sang along to a kind of tepid Christian rock. There was a whole tent city in the distance at the Place de la République that I figured was part of the rally, but before I could get there, I saw another group moving down the street with Jesus signs, and decided to follow them.

I felt almost at home. More than once in New York I've been one of the marshals with armbands trying to hurry marchers along and keep them in the traffic lane that cops had assigned them. As usual, the front marchers here were barely moving, while the ones in back scurried to catch up.

I also recognized their joy that probably had less to do with religious fervor, than with taking over the street. There's always a moment when each body and voice amplifies yours, and you suddenly feel like your existence is large enough for the world to notice.

The more invisible and powerless you are in daily life, the more exhilarating it is to step into the street with a group. Most of the protesters that Saturday were immigrants and cultural minorities that don't have much of a voice in French politics.

The first couple of groups were mostly black with a couple of white faces mixed in. After them came a South Asian group, then a contingent that was almost exclusively black and had the best music of the parade. Marchers jogged up and down in slow motion like in the tapes I'd seen of South African demos against apartheid. They were so happy.

There were a lot more Africans after that, a handful of Middle Eastern Christians, and a group that may have been Brazilian, or from Portuguese Africa. At any rate, the woman pressing the march's tiny yellow mimeographed sheet on me was brown-skinned and spoke only Portuguese.

White and Arab passersby glanced in embarrassment at the signs telling them how wonderful Jesus was. More than a few were disconcerted by the signs declaring "Jesus Reigns Over France" and "One God for All Peoples," which after a while began to seem almost like a threat.

Although as a career demonstrator I really wanted to share the joy of the marchers, I was a little shaken. The upsurge of fundamentalism in the United States, from the Bible Belt to the White House was a part of the reason I'd decided to stay a while in France.

A recent New York Times article, "On a Christian Mission to the Top," details how evangelical Christianity in the United States, once the province of the poor and disenfranchised, has become a staple of the elite at "golf resorts and in boardrooms," not to mention the U.S. government. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft quickly became known for his mandatory prayer breakfasts, and President George W. Bush briefly framed the war in Iraq as a religious imperative before the spin doctors went to work.

One new fundamentalist group, The Christian Union, has set its sights on recruiting students at elite Ivy League campuses. The founder, Matt Bennett, salivated at the rich quarry: "Seven of the nine Supreme Court justices are Ivy League grads; four of the seven Massachusetts Supreme Court justices; Christian ministry leaders; so many presidents, as you know; leaders of business — they are everywhere," he told the Times.

Evangelical Christianity isn't strong today in France, but it could develop among non-Muslim minorities as it has among low-income Hispanic New Yorkers and the Brazilian poor, two groups that used to be a Catholic strongholds. And if it does, they won't stick to their prayers. Hispanic fundamentalists now lead the anti-gay charge in New York, attracting thousands to rallies against same-sex marriage.

Evangelical Protestantism is especially attractive to the powerless, including immigrants and the poor, because it is based on the idea that each person has the awesome power of direct communication with God. When you don't have any economic leverage and you're on the cultural margins of your own, or someone else's country, what could be nicer than having an all powerful deity in your pocket?

This is reinforced by the potent emotional component of evangelical services in which people are encouraged to feel God directly and celebrate that presence during preaching, music and prayer. As a young Southern Baptist, that ecstasy went a long way to shield me from teenage hell.

In France, that emphasis on emotion and blind belief could become an attractive counterpoint to a traditional society in which a flair for analysis and linguistic proficiency mediate social participation. Among fundamentalists of all persuasions, passion is often enough.

I had a look at the following day's newspapers to see if anyone thought the "March For Jesus" was important enough to cover. After all, there were thousands there. None of the three major national dailies mentioned it, though one had a snide article about the tent city I'd seen around the Amazonian statue of the République.

By contrast with the youthful, single-minded, and exuberant "March For Jesus" crowd, this was a largely white, middle-aged, middle-class, politically fragmented group temporarily united to vote "no" on the upcoming European Constitution referendum. Each booth was stocked with a variety of posters, pamphlets and hawkers of a dozen disparate issues who engaged passersby, each other, and it seemed, all of history, ever.

It was what I longed for in the U.S.: argument and discussion instead of the "We're right because we say so," the reign of reason instead of the Bushian sneer. The only problem is that not everyone here has access to "The Word." While the République rally was only moderately covered by the press, their opinions certainly were.

Prior to last Sunday's massive rejection of the European Constitution by French voters, the national papers featured an endless series of articulate, persuasive articles by both "yes" and "no" proponents. No wonder most passersby stared with amazement at the Jesus crowd, whose single yellow flyer began with the rationalist question, "Why March For Jesus?" but quickly answered it with a statement of faith, not an argument: "We believe..." It just took a couple of sentences to express. Most of the flyer was a list of the thirty-nine participating evangelical churches.

That phrase, "we believe," is more powerful than the French know. It brooks no argument, at least on the evangelical side of things, and leaves one in a position of power against those that have all the words and all the reason. Without it, there would have been no gay rights movement, no illusory America in which a person might actually believe that all men are created equal.

Faith is often the only place for the powerless to begin. The problems come later, when conviction, not reason, holds the reins of state and industry, and the faithful cloak their ambitions in the language of sacrifice, and bludgeon their opponents with God.

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