Pope Benedict’s outrageous attack on the UK’s equality bill and sexual orientation regulations requires a vigorous, uncompromising counter-attack from the serious left, the forces of secularism and all those who support equality and enlightenment. We must certainly support the National Secular Society’s call for protests against the Pope’s planned visit to the UK in September (subsidised by UK taxpayers to the tune of £20 million, by the way).
Sadly, however, much of the British “left” shies away from fighting religion, or defending enlightenment values like the separation of church and state, or proclaiming secularism and atheism (yes, I know: they’re not the same thing, but Marxists should be both). The SWP, to its eternal shame, has in recent years promoted the idea that opposition to religion is an optional extra for Marxists and that Marx himself wasn’t all that militant about atheism in the first place.
Against the background of much of the UK “left”‘s present softness on religion, and in the light of the Pope’s attempt to interfere in UK legislation, I thought it would be a good idea to republish the great American Trotskyist James P. Cannon’s 1951 article (from the US Militant), entitled Church and State.
The occasion for Cannon’s empassioned but reasoned article was The Truman government’s breach of the First Amendment (of the US Constitution) by proposing to send an ambassador to the Vatican. This wasn’t a passing whim on Cannon’s part: he wrote no less than three articles in the The Militant in 1951 denouncing Truman’s proposal as (for instance) a “concession to reactionary clericalism.” Noticeably, he even proposed making common cause with the Protestant clergy on this issue: “the Protestant leaders don’t go all the way, but as far as they go it is in the right direction and their fight on this issue is the people’s fight too.” No such alliance is possible in the UK these days, of course, as the craven C of E cowers before the Pope, even when he tries to poach their clergymen.
Anyway, here’s Cannon’s article Church and State:
IT’S A FAIRLY safe bet that President Truman didn’t know exactly what he was doing when he announced his decision to send a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, nominating General Mark W. Clark to the post. Inhibited by training and constitutional disposition from seeing anything more important or farther in the future than the next election, he probably thought he was just firing off a cap pistol to attract the Catholic vote in 1952. He didn’t know it was loaded.
But the recoil of the gun and the noise of the explosion leave no doubt about it. The shot heard ’round the country has had results undreamt of in the philosophy of the Pendergastian politico in the White House. A bitter controversy, long smoldering, has burst into a flame that brings both heat and light into American politics. Sides are being chosen for a fight. In my opinion, it’s a good fight worth joining in.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” So reads the first clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted under the pressure of the people to protect their rights and freedoms. The meaning of this constitutional provision is quite claer to all who have no interest in muddling it. It is the doctrine of “the separation of church and state”.
It means that all religions must operate on their own; that no church is entitled to a privileged position so far as the state is concerned, and has no right to financial support from public funds. Congress is specifically enjoined from “making any law” which infringes this principle. That is how the people of this country have understood the first article of the Bill of Rights; and that is how the highest courts have interpreted it up to now.
All religions claim to operate under the sanction of the Almighty; and with this unlimited power on their side they should have no need of material reinforcement from human institutions, such as the state, in their business of saving souls. The authors of the First Amendment, however, claerly indicated that the people could not trust any church to limit itself to spiritual pursuits and rely entirely on supernatural favor. They all had to be restrained by constitutional fiat from seeking mundane advantages at the expense of rival claimants to the devine certificate of authority. Hence the amendment requiring the separation of church and state.
This doctrine has been subject to persistant encroachment in recent years by one institution in this country which doesn’t believe a word of it. The Roman Catholic Church, here and now, as everywhere and always, wants temporal as well as spiritual power. They claim the exclusive reservation of all places in heaven, but they want the real estate and money of this world too. By various devices and subterfuges they have been trying, with unwavering persistence and increasing boldness, to get into a preferred position to regulate public morals by police methods and to dip into public funds to support their religious schools.
Their campaign for special privileges has recieved a tremendous impetus from the President’s decision. The constitutional doctrine of the separation of church and state is directly under attack in this proposal. Some protest by the Protestant clergy was no doubt expected by Truman and his advisors. But the unanimity, the fervor, and even the fury of this Protestant counter-attack has upset the apple cart. Frozen with fear over the political implications of the Catholic aggression and the Protesatnt uproar, Congress adjourned without acting on the appointment of General Clark as America’s ambassador to the Pope. The issue remains in doubt as the controversy rages from one end of the country to the other.
In some respects the conflict has the aspects of a religious war which can have profound consequences for good and evil. But it is more than that. All the people of this country who cherish the freedoms they have inherited have a stake in the controversy. The leadership of this fight belongs by right to the labor movement, for the trade unions cannot live and breathe without freedom from the control of both church and state. They will not escape eventual involvement, although the entire leadership is trying to evade the issue in craven silence. The simple truth is that the labor skates are afraid of the Catholic Church, whose cardinals and bishops are already reaching out for control of the unions. Woe to the American labor movement if they succeed!
We Marxists are by definition alien and hostile to each and every form of religious superstition. We believe with Marx that religion is the opium of the people; and we are not Marxists, not genuine socialists, if we do not say so openly, regardless of whether our opinion is popular or not. Our business is not to save souls for another world, but to tell the truth about this one. What, then, have revolutionary socialists to do with this controversy between the churches? Plenty.
The U.S. Constitution in some of its sections sanctifies private property in the means of production. This must be abolished for the good and welfare of the people, and the future Workers’ Government will make the necessary constitutional changes. But in my opinion, one part of the present Constitution will stand: that is, the first ten amendments (the Bill of Rights) in general, and the First Amendment in particular. The revolutionary people will have no reason to strike or alter that. On the contrary, believing in and needing democracy and freedom, they will treasure it and guard it.
The First Amedment of the Constitution is our amendment: and we must defend it tooth and nail against all aggressions, whether secular or religious. It seems to me not accidental that all the authors of the Amendment linked freedom of worship with free speech and free press in the same sentence. Thereby they clearly indicated that religion is to be considered a matter of opinion, in which each individual is free to choose, and by no means a revelation binding upon everybody. Moreover, “freedom of worship” implies also freedom of non-worship. That’s the freedom I am exercising and I would surely hate to lose it.
Under this interpretation of the First Amendment, free thinkers and atheists, heathens and public sinners, who are very numerous in this country, have a chance to breathe and spread enlightenment without fear of the dungeon and the rack. The First Amendment has been a protecting shield for the Childen of Light and has enabled them to make their great contributions to literature, art and science. A breach in this provision of the Constitution, leading to its eventual repeal, would be an unspeakable calamity aiding and strrengthening the forces of reaction and obscurantism here and all over the world.
The Protestant clergymen are “on the side of the angels” in this dispute, and all friends of enlightement and progress owe them unstinting support.