Professor Gaston Espinosa Returns from European Speaking Engagements

You’re headed to Europe for 11 days and you have seven speaking engagementsone of them as a keynote at France’s premier political science institute specializing in foreign policy. What do you make sure to bring? Well, if you are Professor Gast?n Espinosa, the answer can be as simple as: a cheerful attitude, written presentations, powerpoints, suits, laptop, wool coat, and snacks.

In October, CMC’s Arthur V. Stoughton Associate Professor of Religious Studies, headlined his own European tour with a remarkable lineup of speaking engagements in France and Sweden. Speaking seven times, and at five universities over a period of just eight days, Espinosa’s itinerary was an imposing schedule of events shifting from plane flights across Europe and Scandinavia to lunches and dinners with university faculty and foreign dignitaries, and presentations on the role of religion in U.S. politicsmost specifically, the 2008 election of President Barack Obama.

That was the subject of Espinosa’s keynote presentation on Oct. 13 at CERI Sciences Po, France’s premier political science institute (see flyer). Espinosa says CERI Sciences Po University faculty and foreign dignitaries were particularly interested in President Obama’s Cairo speech to the Muslim world, “so a good part of my presentation dealt with foreign policy,” says the CMC professor, who spoke alongside French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Joseph Ma?la, director of religious affairs, French Foreign Ministry.

Between Oct. 9 and Oct. 20, Espinosa’s time in Europe was also split between universities and institutions, including the University of Paris VII (“Religion, Barack Obama & the 2008 Election”), the University of Paris XII (“Selena and the Politics of Cultural Redemption”), Uppsala University (“Religion, Evangelicals, Barack Obama, and the 2008 Election”), and Link?ping Universitet (“Pentecostalization of Latin American and U.S. Latino Christianity” and “Religion, Evangelicals, Barack Obama, and the 2008 Election”).

Almost immediately following his trip to Europe, Espinosa then flew to Montreal, Canada, to present a paper on Nov. 7 at the American Academy of Religion on “Latino Evangelicals, Barack Obama, and the 2008 Election.” The discussion was part of a larger panel that he organized on “Barack Obama, Evangelicals, and the 2008 Election.”

(Below, Espinosa recounts the aspirations of his European itinerary, and the issues and contradictions that grabbed his attention mostincluding the growth of cultural and religious pluralism in France and Sweden, two countries known for their nationalism and secularism.

CMC: Describe the amount of energy that goes into organizing an 11-day itinerary to Europe that includes 7 presentations.

Espinosa: Quite a bit. Each presentation normally requires extensive prep time because I always write it in light of my host institution and audience. However, given that I’ve already written extensively about the topics I was invited to lecture on in Europe, the preparation process was very smooth and natural. The tricky part was making sure the modifications to my paper presentation were also reflected in each of the PowerPoint presentations.

CMC: Are there favored news sources that you rely on for breaking news about your areas of interest and research?

Espinosa: I don’t rely on newspapers. I conduct original, national survey research and draw on other scholarly research in the field. From October 1-7, 2009, I directed the Latino Religions and Politics (LRAP) national survey in cooperation with a number of other institutes and organizations. It surveyed the political attitudes of 1,104 Latinos nationwide, including 700 Latino registered voters. It was the largest and the last national Latino-focused political science survey prior to the 2008 election. The LRAP survey built on the Hispanic Churches in American Public Life (HCAPL) national survey (n = 2,310) that I managed and fielded right before the 2000 election.
The HCAPL study was funded by a $1.3 million grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts. The findings regarding how Americans voted in 2008 came from the National Election Pool (NEP) exit poll, which surveyed the attitudes of 17,836 Americans on Election Day. I also occasionally draw on the findings of The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and The Pew Hispanic Center, both of which regularly field national random-sample surveys.

CMC: Was there anything about the culture, customs or news of the hour in Europe that intrigued you?

Espinosa: The inherent contradiction in what they mean by “secularism.” Sweden and France both pride themselves in being very secular, much more so than the U.S. Many of their scholars criticize the United States for injecting religion into national politics in general, and into presidential races, in particular. The 2008 Election was no exception.
However, Professor Denis Lacorne, my host in Paris and Director of Centre d’?tudes et de recherches internationales (CERI) at Sciences Po ( ), and Professor Isabelle Richet at the University of Paris VII, were also quick to point out their own church-state contradictions in France. For despite claiming to hold to a strict secularism, the French government uses taxpayer funds to finance the reconstruction, repair, and maintenance of all religious buildings more than 100 years old (largely Catholic) and fund Catholic-run schools, which make up about one-third of French public primary schools.

This approach also adroitly enables them to avoid funding any new religious imports like Algerian immigrant-built Mosques, West African C?te d’Ivoire and French Caribbean immigrant-built Pentecostal churches, and other new religious imports from their former colonies and the USA.

This creates a certain social and cultural dissonance with their immigrant populations, who see the inherent contradiction in claiming to be secular and religiously neutral on the one hand, but then funding and functionally giving what amounts to special privileges and subsidies to the Catholic Church and Catholic community on the other, which is overwhelmingly ethnic French. This has led to conflict and will continue to do so in the future.

France’s secularism is increasingly coming into direct conflict with its growing ethnic and religious pluralism. Some of the racial-ethnic minority scholars and graduate students I spoke with pointed out that some French elites and academics are still largely unwilling to address the massive demographic shifts taking place in France and their ethnocentrism, racism, and the social marginalization of immigrants in society.

This is a problem not only with the influx of some 2 million Algerians, but also with an even larger number of Sub-Saharan black Africans, both of which see no problem with mixing religion and politics. The racial politics of Africans and Afro-Caribbean immigrants appears to be largely ignored or submerged (for the time being) under the more politically mobilized and visible Algerian and North African struggles for acceptance, tolerance, and complete equalityreligious included.

The French respond by saying that citizenship rather than race, ethnicity, or religion should define all French citizens, including immigrants. In essence, they ask immigrants to submit, submerge, and subjectat the broadest leveltheir race and religious identities to the long-standing French cultural nationalism and way of life.

However, I don’t see all of the immigrants willing to embrace this largely Western European secular mindset because they recognize that talk about citizenship and secularism masks an unequal power structure and a normative ethnic French framework that relegates their communities, religions, and cultures to the margins of society, all the while this same society is claiming to be tolerant, open-minded, and culturally and religiously pluralistic. While many immigrants have embraced French values, secularism, and society, a growing number of others will not. At best, they will live hyphenated lives.

It may take three or four generations for this hyphenated existence to cycle out of French society, if this is even possible. However, the constant stream of immigrants from their home countries along with their close proximity (just across the Mediterranean) keeps these ethnic identities alive and well and will continue to do so for some time. Most will adopt something of a half-way covenant with French society, embracing some but not all of its secular values provided that a growing level of accommodation be afforded their cultures, traditions, and religious expressions.

All of this will continue to result in debates about what constitutes French citizenship, culture, and identity. However, the danger is that if the French cannot effectively address these issues, it may also lead to racial-ethnic conflicts in the future driven by poverty, social marginalization, and religion. As a result, many have and will continue to turn to their religious leaders and traditions to provide meaning, hope, and solace in their cultural exile in their day-to-day lives. Immigrant religions and traditions may also serve in the future as a practical and symbolic rallying point and resource for political activism.

Given their high immigration and birth rates and thus growing share of French society, this will only become a greater problem in the future unless France can find some way to concretely address their concerns and negotiate and modify what they mean by citizenship, secularism, and French identity.

CMC: What stood out to you in Sweden? Do they face some of the same problems?

Espinosa: By contrast, the Swedish are concerned but not sure what to do about the demographic and religious shifts taking place in their country.

This growth is largely the result of providing sanctuary to refugees, asylum seekers, and people in search of employment from Chile, Poland, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Bosnia, Nigeria, Somalia, Thailand, Lebanon, and other parts of Africa. Swedes often joke that there are now more Muslims and Middle Easterners visible in Malm?, Sweden’s third largest city, than native Swedes.

Swedes are unsure how to respond to the growth of Islam, Buddhism, Pentecostalism, Mormonism, and other non-Lutheran imports from around the world. Their hope is that all of them will embrace their secular values, but many scholars and students conceded privately that this was unlikely because these ethnic and immigrant groups tend to be housed in densely populated sectors (i.e., ghettos) of their largest cities, thus creating something of a new underclass that only reinforces their ethnic and religious identities and solidarity.

Their socio-ethnic location is particularly difficult and frustrating for their Swedish born children, who live hyphenated lives as Chilean-Swedes, Iraqi-Swedes, Nigerian-Swedes, etc. While almost all Swedes are willing to open their arms to assist people from war-torn countries for humanitarian reasons, they are less comfortable with these immigrants when they hold on to their religious traditions and customs and when they refuse to completely embrace and assimilate Sweden’s secular values and views on religion and gender roles.

This, as in France, may lead to serious tensions and problems in the future, although perhaps not to the same degree because they do not have the trans-ethnic solidarity, unity, and large numbers (as in France) needed for major social change.

I see Sweden becoming more, not less, religious in future in large part due to the massive levels of immigration, high birth rates of these immigrant populations, and post-modernity, all which have created a greater openness to all expressions of spirituality, especially alternative.

The fact that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and other American presidential candidates placed a high premium on religion and religious discourse in the 2008 election was not only fascinating to Swedes, but also a potential foreshadow of a new kind of political and cultural Swedish liberalism in the future. This is due to the influence of American television and liberal political culture, which they watch in English with Swedish subtitles. This may contribute not only to greater religious tolerance, but also pluralism and a revival of religion (better yet “spirituality”) in a country often hailed as a bastion of secularism.

This is evident not only in the growth of metaphysical traditions, the occult, Neo-Paganism, and even a small but growing fascination with and revival of the old Norse religions, but also in more traditional manifestations of religion brought into Sweden by its 1.6 million (out of 9.2 million or 17.9 percent) immigrants and non-ethnic Swedes. This growth along with ecumenical cooperation between Catholics, Protestants, Pentecostals, and Orthodox, and a desire to understand and accommodate Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions at home and abroad, all lead me to believe that religion will become a greater social, cultural, and political force in the future.

Despite this openness, the growth of cultural, racial, and religious diversity has not gone uncontested, as the country has witnessed the rise of not only anti-immigrant quasi Neo-Nazi and skinhead groups, but also the emergence of a new conservative nationalist political party called the Swedish Democrats (1988). Their strongest support, perhaps not surprisingly, is based in the south near Malm? and other parts of southern and central Sweden.

CMC: Your travels included visits with family in Stockholm. Did they take you sightseeing? If yes, where?

Espinosa: Yes, I visited Stockholm, Uppsala, and other picture-book towns, with my wife’s family. Sweden, like France, is a beautiful country with a bright and complex future.