Although comparatively unknown, despite the many schools in France which are named after him, Buisson has exercised huge influence. As a young teacher, because of his republican convictions he refused to swear allegiance to the Napoleon III’s Second Empire, and lived in exile in Switzerland until 1870. He masterminded State primary education on the arrival of the France’s Third Republic in 1871. He was the principal ally and advisor of Jules Ferry in educational policy. In his writings and politics, Buisson was one of the main architects of the French secular State (“laïcité”) and the search to define French republican identity, even if French republicanism has not in fact preserved the spiritual dimension which Buisson thought essential. Elected a French MP in 1902, he chaired the parliamentary commission whose work culminated in the 1905 law of the complete separation of the churches and the State. A lifelong pacifist who argued unceasingly after the First World War for lasting peace between France and Germany, he was rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1927.
Buisson was a committed, militant liberal Protestant. He defended the liberal pastor Athanase Coquerel the younger when the largely traditionalist Consistoire (Protestant diocese) of Paris refused to renew his licence. During his Swiss exile, Buisson attempted to set up a liberal Protestant denomination in the Canton of Neuchâtel. His State higher doctorate of 1891 – still a major reference work today – was written on Sébastien Castellion and entitled “A Study on the Origins of French Liberal Protestantism”. As the years went by, he drew closer to free-thinking currents: in 1904 he became president of the national French society of free-thinkers. But he never renounced the liberal Protestantism which he considered compatible with, indeed close to, modern, idealist free-thinking. Whilst he was uneasy with the materialism of certain free-thinkers, he was far more suspicious of Roman Catholic clericalism and traditionalist Protestantism.
Vincent Peillon concentrates his book on the theory of laïcité which Buisson developed, a laïcité strongly hostile to the assumption of power by the clergy, but absolutely not hostile to religion itself. On the one hand, Buisson thought that Protestantism, assuming that it travelled all the way to its logical conclusion in rejecting the traditionalist Protestant orthodoxy which destroyed its very heart, offered a valid lay religion, open to social and political action. On the other hand, Buisson worked to give substance to a secularism which was itself religious: he wanted State education to favour an ethic of personal and collective responsibility and to aspire to an open human spirituality. He yearned for a Republican religion, a lay faith, able to align itself with true Christianity, a faith which defended liberal values and which based itself on the preaching of Jesus. In any event, Buisson was convinced that “humankind is still travelling towards its goal”, and was determined to make humanity free, worthy and truly human.
In spite of a few over-generalisations, Peillon ably demonstrates the extent to which Buisson was rooted in liberal Protestantism. He reveals and describes the religious dimension which runs through all of Buisson’s thought. His book has the additional merit of outlining the history of French republican philosophy – a sophisticated strand of thought, alas not widely known – and that philosophy’s analysis of religion during the 19th Century.
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