James P. Cannon on the separation of church and state

January 22, 2015 at 6:02 pm (atheism, Catholicism, Christianity, Civil liberties, class, Free Speech, From the archives, Human rights, James P. Cannon, Marxism, posted by JD, religion, socialism, trotskyism, United States)

In view of the craven capitulation of sections of the “left” before religion in recent years (and, notably, following the Charlie Hebdo murders), it seems timely to reproduce the views of the great US Trotskyist James P Cannon. This article, entitled ‘Church and State’ originally appeared in the Militant (paper of the US Socialist Workers Party) of November 19, 1951. It was later republished in Notebook Of An Agitator (Pathfinder Press, 1958).

James P Cannon

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 US. 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.

The First Amendment

“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 clear to all who have no special 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 as 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, clearly indicated that the people could not rust 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 divine certificate of authority. Hence the amendment requiring the separation of church and state.

Must Resist Encroachment

This doctrine has been subject to persistent encroachment in recent years by the one religious 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 received 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 advisers. 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 Protestant 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 this: 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!

Opium of the People

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 out or alter that. On the contrary, believing in and needing democracy and freedom, they will treasure it and guard it.

The first amendment to 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 at all that 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 nonworship. That’s the freedom I am exercising and I would surely hate to lose it.

Side of the Angels

Under this interpretation of the first amendment, free thinkers and atheists, heathens and public sinners, who are very numerous in this country, have had 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 Children 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 strengthening 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 enlightenment and progress owe them unstinting support.


  1. Matthew Thompson said,

    I think Cannon underplays the receding but still quite widespread anti-Catholicism/anti-Irish racism in the US in the 50’s and overplays the significance of sending an ambassador to the Vatican. The idea that Catholic politicians would always be under its sway was dealt a pretty decisive blow by JFK’s presidency a decade later and by his brother Ted’s voting record in Congress thereafter.

  2. David Ivester said,

    It bears noting that not only did all nine justices in the 1947 Everson case read the Constitution to call for separation of church and state, but indeed all of the parties and all of the amici curiae (including the National Council of Catholic Men and National Council of Catholic Women) did as well; no one disputed the principle, they differed only in how it should be applied in the circumstances of the case.

  3. Sue R said,

    There’s distinction to be drawn surely, between psychological explanations for events in society and political principles. Yes, maybe there was anti-Irish sentiment in 50s America (as there is anti-Muslim sentiment in France today), but philosophy is not rendered down to ‘let’s be nice to them, they’ve had a hard day.’. Just as a matter of interest, what was the result of this disagreement?

  4. Alan said,

    Well it’s interesting that this appeared just after the North Korean state had got going in 1950 – why no mention of their example to the world?. James P Cannon is a pink liberal, certainly in comparison with the Great and Dear Leaders who can work all kinds of miracles (save economic ones). North Korea, then and now – “atheists who have really meant it ,for the last 65 years”….

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