That French Protestants gave strong support to laïcité is by now well established. In recent work, Patrick Cabanel has even made a compelling case for the Protestant sources of laïcité, placing particular emphasis on the Protestant entourage of Jules Ferry (1832-1893) and stressing the inspiration provided by the pro-Protestant intellectual, Edgar Quinet (1803-1875.)
This article suggests that we look even earlier in time for the intellectual sources of laïcité. Seminal ideas can be found in the writings of two liberal Protestants, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Benjamin Constant (1767-1830.) Rousseau is usually counted among the opponents, and not the advocates, of laïcité. On the other hand, Benjamin Constant’s copious writings on religion and church-state relations tend to be ignored altogether. This helps to explain why it is sometimes incorrectly suggested that Tocqueville (1805-1859) was the first French liberal of note to believe in the separation of church and state. As this article will show, before the Third Republic, and even before both Tocqueville and Quinet, there was Benjamin Constant, who certainly deserves a place among the founding fathers of laïcité. Moreover, while existing scholarship tends to describe Constant’s relationship to Rousseau as adversarial, the perspective adopted here will show that their views converged and reinforced each other in interesting ways. Indeed, it is where their thought converges that one can identify a certain Protestant vein of thinking that went on to inform more modern notions of laïcité.