As a college sophomore, I studied in France; one of the better decisions I made in my life. Visiting religious services helped me grow my vocabulary, so I haunted Assemblies of God, an InterVarsity group and a Sephardic synagogue in Strasbourg; Baptist congregations in Toulouse and Catholic charismatic groups in Paris.
Which is why I was interested in a piece on French evangelicals, written by veteran religion reporter Tom Heneghan — who has been based overseas for as long as I can remember. Back in the ‘70s when I was in college, evangelical Protestants were a tiny minority in France, as basically everyone was Roman Catholic. But the latter was facing lots of empty churches, whereas the former was taking the long view in terms of growing their presence in Europe.
Forty years later, evangelical flocks are much stronger. And, thanks to African immigrants (who have bolstered Protestant churches all over Europe), they’re more black than white. The photo that runs with this piece shows a crowd of mainly African-origin folks.
PARIS (RNS) — When evangelical voters cheer on President Trump in the United States or newly elected leader Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, probably the last thing on their minds is that they might be creating problems for fellow evangelicals elsewhere in the world.
It’s one of the first things that evangelicals in France think about, however, because many other French people instinctively link the small but growing evangelical presence here with large political movements abroad that they don’t like…
Hostile local officials can refuse permission to rent a hall, sponsor a gospel concert or distribute Bibles at a farmers market. Strictly secularist politicians can propose tighter controls on religion in public.
France has a radically different religious history than the United States. The French Revolution was all about freedom from religion; the American experiment was about freedom of religion. So there’s an undercurrent of animosity against religion in France that one doesn’t pick up here across the pond. For many, the true faith is a blend of national pride and secularism.
Plus, their view of evangelicals is tainted by politics. In 2004, Le Nouvel Observateur, a French magazine, called them “the sect that wants to conquer the world.” Its article ran alongside a photo of President George W. Bush standing next to a cross.