When I first met what was to become my family by marriage here in France, I was rather startled to be questioned closely about my religious beliefs. Since I had the impression that France was very much a secular country, it never occurred to me that religion would be an issue. It was and it turned out to be the first point of convergence between my country of birth and my adopted country.
I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and at least part of my education was in religious schools. When I first arrived at a large public university in Seattle and asked my first question in class, I addressed the professor as "Father." This comes as a big surprise to my French friends who assume that because I'm an American that I must be a Protestant Christian. I think there is a great deal of misunderstanding on both sides about the cultural space religion occupies in both worlds.
To understand religion in the U.S. one has to think "diversity." There is no one sect that has a majority and there is a little bit of everything and something for just about anyone. My own family in the U.S. is a collection of Catholic and Protestant Christians, Mormons and other faiths. My friends in Seattle were, in no particular order, Christians, Mormons, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists and so on. Most of my American friends and quite a few members of my family are converts to a religion other than the one they were born into. Religion is important in the U.S but I will go out on a limb here and say that I have the impression that the particular creed one follows is not so significant. It is having a faith and being part of a community of believers that matters. There is no one faith that can claim to be more culturally American than any other (the era of the WASP was over long ago).
Since this was all I had ever known, imagine my shock when I arrived in France and discovered that, for the very first time in my life, I was in the religious majority. My family by marriage is Roman Catholic as well as the majority of my friends who were baptized in the Church even though relatively few of them actually attend services.
Every day I live here I am struck by how that religion is an integral part of French culture. It is so much a part of everyday life that the average French person doesn't even notice how it manifests itself. From the church bells that ring on the hour in my mother-in-law's village in the Limousin to the weather report that gives not only the chance of precipitation but also the Saint's Day. At my daughter's public school in Paris, the school handed out a flyer from the local church which said that someone from the church would be present after class one day a week to take the children to Catechism classes if their parents wished. All Saints Day (la Toussaint) is a public holiday as are Good Friday, Easter, Whit Monday, and the Ascension. Catholic schools in France are educating over 2 million students in 2010/2011.
Most of my friends do not go to church but almost all of them have had their children baptized. When I asked them why, the reply was revealing: "It's tradition," they said. It's the ritual: choosing the god-parents, going to the church with the extended family and the big party after the ceremony with special candies given out to the guests.
Of my friends who are practicing Catholics, the questions I get when they discover I was also raised Catholic are quite interesting. Having only experienced the Church in France they are genuinely surprised to discover, for example, that American Catholics also baptize their children, go to Confession, get Confirmed, attend Mass on Sunday and so on and that the rituals are exactly the same. Members of my family who have attended church here in Paris have no trouble following the Mass even though they don't speak a word of French. The only differences I've noticed are, of course, the language (unless the Mass is in Latin), sitting versus kneeling, and the presence of a national flag - in U.S. Catholic churches I've visited there is usually an American flag prominently displayed somewhere.
One more difference and I think this one is key. Roman Catholicism came to America relatively recently through Irish, French, Spanish, Mexican, and German immigrants and so American Catholics are keenly aware that the Church is international.
Most of my French friends seem less aware of the global nature of the Catholic Church and perceive the French Church as being something very unique. That is both true and untrue. It is unique, I think, in the sense that it has traditionally been so deeply embedded in the culture and has had enormous influence in shaping that culture. I contend that you can not erase a thousand years of influence by proclaiming one day the separation of church, state and culture.
That influence can be seen even today in ways that are immediately obvious to someone coming from another country. But the core rituals, the beliefs, the structure are exactly the same and do not differ from the U.S. or any other country where Roman Catholics live their faith.
Welcome to globalization!