First Amendment in the USA and 1905 Law in France : What continuity and what common future ?

Christian Eyschen, General Secretary of the FreeThought
Tuesday 25 November 2008
popularity : 1%

Ladies and Gentlemen Dear friends, Dear Comrades,

The National Federation of the Free Thought first wishes to thank the University of Paris Sorbonne, our friends from the United Americans who fight against the separation of Church and State in the USA, the Atheist Alliance International, our friends from French and English Canada, our German friends, and of course, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) for organizing in common with us this conference which will be a great event.

At a time when the whole world is summoned to position themselves as pro- or anti-American, our debates clearly show that above and beyond government issues and political, economical and often military interests, we may and we must confront our ideas in the peoples’ and nations’ interests.

If we compare the situation from the point of view of secularism in the USA and in France, there are things that demand debate and others that are beyond discussion.

Undeniably, the American revolution is the mother of the French revolution. There is indisputably a relationship. The enthusiasm of the peoples for each other on both sides of the Atlantic, taking arms to fight oppression and establish democracy is obvious. France cheered the Yorktown victory like the Valmy victory thrilled the hearts of the USA .

In the Old Continent, like in the New World, people from the Enlightenment took hold of the ideas of democracy, republic and freedom of conscience to make them real facts. Philosophers from the Enlightenment in Europe showed the way, our peoples went along the path. Some of them knew how to become the Spirit, others were Matter. The German philosopher Schelling said : "Once dawn is there, the Sun will not be missing. All ideas have to be realized first in the sphere of knowledge before they become facts in History."

Fundamentally, the French revolution went further by the irruption of the popular masses on the scene of History where their destiny was settled. Formally, the American revolution went further in its formal conquest of democratic institutions.

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the USA formulated and realized the fundamental principles that have brought humanity out of the dark night of the ancient monarchical and clerical regimes. Once more, let’s read again the first article of the Bill of Rights of December 1791 : "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances".

In a few words, the program for democracy is written. It will stir up peoples and nations in the following centuries. It is not American nor French, it is the patrimony of Mankind as a whole. Therefore, there will not be a rebellion, or a revolution, or an act of decolonization that will not draw from this program the theoretical weapons to move forward along the path of complete emancipation.

We can find the political formulations of the First Amendment in the work of the French revolution, in the 1793 Table of Human Rights and in the great laws of liberty of the Third Republic. One by one, the French people, calling the whole world to witness, will conquer the right to petition, the right to assemble, universal franchise, the freedom of the press, the freedom to establish free political parties and the intangible right to establish independent Labor unions to fight for the workers’ rights.

The revolutionary 1793 French Table of Human Rights will go further by ending its 35th article, the last one, proclaiming an ultimate democratic principle : " When the Government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people, and for each section of the people, the most sacred of their rights and the most necessary of their duties".

Each step forward of a people leads another people to proceed further along the path. That article of the 1793 French Table of Human Rights was continuing the American Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776 that proclaimed "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" and that, in the case, the social contract was not respected, and that justified for the colonials the right to dissolve the political bonds, thence the need "to throw off such government", "to alter or to abolish it".

As it is stressed in the work "The conquest of Human Rights", published by the French Federation of the UNESCO clubs and the League for Human Rights : "This text shows that armed resistance represents the ultimate stage in the dispute of the English domination over the thirteen colonies in America. That principle of the right to resist an oppressor will justify the struggle of the oppressed and dominated peoples in the 19th and 20th centuries".

It took fifteen years to go from the 1776 American Declaration of Independence to the 1791 Bill of Rights; it will take nearly a whole century to achieve the same path in France. 1789, 1830, 1848, 1871, 1882, 1884, 1886, 1901, 1905 are the fundamental dates in History in our country. Each time, the people stood up and often built barricades to achieve those rights and liberty. Insurrection was consubstantial with the conquest of Liberty; that was right in former days, it is still right nowadays.

"This is a long road, Savannah" as you say in the New World, but the road has enriched the content of Liberty by striking more strongly, faster and further in France. For now on, the greatest democratic laws are part of inalienable rights and live in the citizens’ conscience, even if, here and there, there are currently attempts to repeal them. Can’t we see in this country where we meet today, a repeated attempt to use the offense of blasphemy, to repeal the freedom of political parties, to eliminate the right for independent Labor unions not to sacrifice the workers’ established rights on the altar of the demands of liberalism and its supra-national institutions incarnated in the IMF, the World Bank and the European Union ?

If we compare the path we’ve been following in the USA and in France, we have to observe that the original aims were the same. But the results are different because we lived different histories.

The American First Amendment and the French 1905 law both decreed the separation of Church and State. That is beyond question, but the reasons and the concepts are not the same. The New World was constituted by people who fled, notably, from persecution by the states and dominating religions. The point was then to protect minority religions coming from Europe from state interference. It was the claim of the demand to believe in whatever they liked and in whatever manner in complete freedom. That explains why in North America, there is at the same time, separation together with a very important seizure of religious facts over society in every sphere. Partisans of the separation of Church and State, atheists and free thinkers have to struggle endlessly in defense of their right to remain citizens.

In France, since Clovis, State and society were under the control of the Roman Apostolic Catholic Church. From the Renaissance to 1905, with this capital event, the French revolution, which consequences were universal, it was the untiring struggle to protect State and society from Catholic interference. That was the fight to defeat clericalism and make a triumph for the freedom of conscience. The practical consequences of the French separation are that there is no difference of treatment between a free thinker and a believer. From the point of view of public institutions, being or not being part of a church is not a question and not a problem at all. Free thinkers are equal to all citizens. Whereas in the USA and in those countries that do not recognize such a separation of Churches and State, secularists, atheists and free thinkers have to organize a real struggle to make their rights be acknowledged. But that does not make sense in France.

Last week, I was attending a meeting of German atheists and I was asked a question: "How can you get out of a religion ?". In Germany, you are "officially" a member of a religious confession. A free thinker who refuses to pay Church taxes (9 % of his taxes) must achieve a legal act of getting out of a church. Sometimes, that may have some important consequences on everyday life since there are, in that country, what some people will like to see in France, i.e. taxes withheld directly on you pay-bill. The employer therefore knows about the religious belonging or non religious belonging of his employees. It is a real interference in private rights. In France, "getting out" of a religion is as simple as getting into or getting out of a cinema. The separation of Churches and State is therefore not a formal question, it is the foundation of the citizens’ liberties and it guarantees the equality of rights. The separation in France is also in a more important manner, the freedom of non-belief.

Let us examine some other aspects of this question. The Catholic church, the dominant religion in France, fought the French revolution since it started. That was deeply anti-Christian, independently of the actors’ conscience at that time. It was anti-Christian on the religious level, as it was showed in the attempt of a substitution religion in the worship of Reason. It was anti-Christian on the institutional level with the secular constitution of the clergy. It was anti-Christian on a political level the Vatican being allied to the Coblentz émigrés. It was anti-Christian culturally. When they established the départements, the chosen names were all place names (rivers mountains, etc…) they never referred to religion. It was not the time when they will have established the Seine-Saint-Denis département.

Since the Vatican wanted to re-establish the "ancient régime", the religious question will take an essential dimension and the anticlerical and anti-religious struggle will be a fundamental idea in the political, economical, and cultural struggle that is going to be launched. The fight for freedom of conscience will get a violent anti-clerical turn for decades until 1905. Anti-clericalism is secularism, that is the separation of Churches and State. That is different from the fight against religion.

But we had to push the Catholic church back in its claim to rule forever bodies and consciences. Anticlericalism in France was therefore filled with a strong anti-religious dimension. Although one has to make a careful distinction between secularism respecting the State (a political system of institutions granting neutrality of the State, the public school system, and public services) and anti-religious fight respecting citizens (atheism and free thought as philosophical doctrines) we have to note that anti-clericalism in France took a strong anti-religious dimension.

By the way, we’d like to recall that the Free Thought position has always been to demand a strict neutrality of the State in metaphysical matters, neither in favor nor in disfavor of religions or of free thought. Public institutions should be secular, citizens are free to be atheists or believers. There is a strict separation between public sphere and private sphere. That separation guarantees absolute freedom of conscience that is to believe or not to believe in the private sphere.

We also have to note that the dawning labor movement in France, then in later times, seized the democratic claim of separation of churches and State to push thing as far as they could. This interest dates as early as the Bras-Nus [Naked Arms] rebellion at the time of the 1792-1794 de-christianisation. In the 19th century, there was an objective alliance between the democratic movement and the Labor movement to achieve institutional secularism. The republican majority that came into existence in 1877 and that will build the secular school system and establish separation has a program focussed on two points: secularism and amnesty for the Communards.

Those were great times in our History. We shall not repudiate them in the least. There was a brief provisional conjunction of interests between the Labor movement and the republican movement. But all those operations which took place ever since in the decaying stage of the bourgeoisie have all collided with social reality. No force will ever "transcend" social reality which we call class struggle.

Much later, when the bourgeoisie, in order to preserve its dominating interests, moves towards an alliance with the Church, the Labor movement will be completely in charge of the secular struggle. In the beginning of the 1890’s the Catholic church updated its social doctrine with Rerum Novarum in order to comply with capitalism and at the same time, "rallied" the republic to offer its services to the grandees of the world in those days.

After some hesitation, the bourgeoisie broke off with the secular demand and that is realized at the time of WWI, notably with the "Sacred Union". That-is-to say at the time of the coming of imperialism and the end of the "peaceful" sharing of the world. Since then "capitalism bears war like clouds bear the storm" Jaurès said. And war is a social war in the first place.

The fight for economical emancipation (the end of exploitation of Man by Man) becomes consubstantial with that of political emancipation ( equality of citizens respecting laws) and to achieve absolute freedom of conscience (secularism). Today it is the same and only struggle, that of complete emancipation of Mankind.

In the United States of America, because of the "anticipated" victory realized in the First Amendment, the global democratic confrontation between religions and the modern State didn’t take place. Radicalization like in France didn’t take hold to express itself, even if, of course, important conflicts happened. One must also underline that the Labor movement in the United States during the 19th and the 20th centuries, yet had to cope with anti-religious struggle, notably against Christian corporatism forms that came to existence then to oppose the rise of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and of industrial organization (CIO). In the dark years when totalitarianism was triumphing in Europe, the American Catholic Church was advocating corporatism coming directly from the Christian social doctrine like the one that was triumphing in Vichy at the time of Collaboration. One of its branches openly claimed support to Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

But historically and politically, the political situation was not the same as in France. The action of the Catholic Church in favor of a return to the "Ancient Regime" forced the triumphing bourgeoisie to go further than they had wished in the struggle against the Church. That confrontation never occurred in the United States. The separation provided for in the First Amendment is not filled with any anticlerical and even less anti religious content. Nevertheless, a modern society cannot remain smothered by religion. There is no real democracy if there is no true secularism. We can witness the beginning of the growth of secular, atheists and free thinkers’ organizations in the USA.

However, protestant fundamentalism which came to existence in the USA in 1912, far from being the result of a new evangelization, is rather the sign of a backward movement of religion. Fundamentalism is a puckering answer to a threat and not a religious spring. Fundamentalism is always the result of a crisis, it is never the result of a development. There is never fundamentalism when society is completely under religious rule, because religion covers all society then.

There is a true contradiction in the United States. Separation does exist and yet it shows very weakly, that is why one cannot say it is a country where secularism would really exist, but like Galileo said "And yet it does moves", because separation exists . The different legal actions, where atheists’ and free thinkers’ organizations fighting for the enforcement of separation, based on the First Amendment, obtained legal ruling claiming separation, show real facts today. That is not enough for the final triumph, but if there are legal roots for a secular fight, there must be indisputable political elements for separation. "Men have ever asked themselves the only questions they can solve" Marx said.

There are differences and they is likeness in France and in the USA. From this point of view, the struggle of the French Free Thought to bring forth the 1905 law and using administrative court of justice to pass judgments against public local communities that subsidize the Pope’s visits or subsidies to religious associations is of the same nature as the struggle of secular, atheists’ and free thinkers’ organizations in North America to enforce the First Amendment. Legal action is above all and in the first place a political fight for us, on either side of the Atlantic, to achieve the principle of separation of Church and State.

In the USA, the secular issue is also a democratic conquest to be broadened and established in a complete manner. In a more important way than in France, where the fundamental base remains separation, even if it is seriously threatened, there is a double culture and a double legislation in the USA. One is separation, the other is oppressive clericalism. That double aspect is obvious on the one-dollar bill. On the left, the freemasons’ triangle with the luminous delta and the motto "For a secular order" (i.e. a secular society) and in the middle the motto "In God we trust", which, let us bear in mind, is not the traditional motto of the United States which used to be "E Pluribus Unum" ("many are one") displaying thus the unity of the social body in Rousseau’s meaning, which imposes to leave aside the religious issue which cannot but divide. This motto "In God we trust" has been official only since the 1950’s, with the triumph of McCarthyism. One mustn’t confuse a tree and a forest, not any more than History and events.

When there are two cultures so different and so contradictory, there is one too many. Confrontation will take place sooner or later, the American people will decide themselves, but we are convinced that it will occur. The Labor movement which try to resist and which begins to find some political representation will not leave aside this question. For the religious question is not a question of belief, it is a social and political question. Monotheistic religions stand all for the upholding of social oppression and the Labor movement cannot but fight against them. The absence of the American Labor movement in the secular fight, in this historical perspective, cannot be but temporary. Even if sometimes temporary situations may last long.

We can always find a priest or a minister who likes workers, there were some in the past and there will be in the future; a rabbi who loves non-circumcised is more uncommon; a tolerant imam is always a possibility. It is their contradiction, not ours. You may sing Averroes in Cordova and Avicenne in Hamadhan, all that is very good, but individuals in their characteristics are unable to change the laws of History. Hitler also had his "good Jew", but that proves nothing. Only social and political reality is a valid criterion to understand things.

But the real question is that all monotheistic religions stand for the upholding of social oppression. No one can sweep that fact away with a back-handed blow. And the struggle for complete emancipation will not exempt the Labor movement to worry about the religious question which is, above all and in the first place, a question of the upholding of social oppression. You cannot dissociate the struggle against the cause from that against consequences. And vice versa as well. That is called dialectics. There is no lasting digression in the struggle for emancipation.

The question of the separation of church and State is a fundamental democratic demand. No people, no revolution have been able to avoid this debate and this problem. How can’t we see that American, French, Mexican, Russian revolutions, from 1776 to 1918, have always faced this problem ?

How can’ t we see that, under different aspects at different times, Thomas Jefferson, Ferdinand Buisson, Emilio Zapata, and Vladimir Illitch Oulianov called Lenin all went along the same path to claim the separation of churches and State ? There cannot be a real democracy without established clericalism.

We are ruled with a rod of iron by what is called globalization. Therefore, nobody can reasonably think any longer that they can stand up for their own rights and their interests to the detriment and against all the others. The question of the struggle for the separation of churches and State becomes a question on an international level, because all the fundamental questions can only be debated and solved on an international level.

Therefore we are delighted to notice that the problems of an international cooperation between atheists and free thinkers become the concern of a great number of organizations worldwide. The convergence between different organizations is so vital to achieve the separation of Church and State everywhere.

That is why the French Federation of the Free Thought is proud of having initiated with American atheists and the Atheists’ Union to constitute, in friendly and brotherly connection with the IHEU, the International Liaison Committee of Atheists and Freethinkers to work for an international grouping of all the partisans of a real Atheist humanist fighting for the complete separation of Churches and States throughout the world.

Uniting in the same international structure those who imagined the separation (the United States of America) and those who realized it in the most possible way (France) is a token for success. Turning away from this demand of a common work would be turning away from a real efficient struggle. Secularism is not declined in the same manner everywhere because of the different situations in every country, but above all it imposes that the fundamental aims should be the actual separation of the churches and the States.

How couldn’t we work together when in all continents, in all countries, we are facing the same problems ? Religions are determined opponents of democracy and of freedom of conscience. Everywhere, they may be Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim or Hindu, they want to impose their dogma and their obscurantism.

In the Old Continent, at the time when the European Union is being built on purely economical demand, where the Catholic church is working in order to make it a Vatican and reactionary Europe, secularism, is still refused to a majority of nations. Even in France, the achievements of a secular School and State is seriously threatened, notably on behalf of the European building.

Defending secularism everywhere it exists, to achieve it everywhere it is not established, that is what we fight for. And it is not only in Europe, but in the whole world. There cannot be a lasting democracy without civil peace. Separation of Churches and State is one of the necessary conditions to establish a real concord between all, in every people and between every people.

For us, the heart of the problem is not to limit ourselves to equal right for secularists, atheists and free thinkers and for believers and that our associations were granted the same rights and the same privileges as the churches. We have to strike at the heart of clericalism and demand a complete separation of churches and states. We do not demand that partisans of separation, atheists and free thinkers should be a community beside churches and religions.

We want the complete separation of the churches and the States, which alone can grant equal rights for all. We refuse the philosophical apartheid with a "separate development" for us and for the believers. We fight for absolute equality which imposes secularism of public school and State. What do we have to do with public subsidies like the churches, we want complete freedom guaranteed by the metaphysical neutrality of the States.

There are a great number of secular, atheist and free thinkers organizations throughout the world. It is the result of History and of different histories in the countries. Every people, every organization has their own path in the struggle. But we think that nowadays we can overcome this dispersion and coordinate our actions in order to make religions move back again. We need an International of Atheists and Free Thinkers because we cannot remain isolated everyone in their country.

The positive answers that we have been receiving from the American continent, from Africa, from the Pacific Ocean and from Europe are a token for the future of our democratic fight. The world congress of free thinkers and atheists, in Paris in 2005, for the hundredth anniversary of the 1905 separation law is already a reality. The world congress in Rome in 1904 was the prelude of the achievement of the 1905 law of separation of the churches and the State in France. Let’s hope the one in 2005 will be the one of the achievements of separation in many countries.

And as we say in France : Neither God, nor Master ! Down with the clergy! And long live a social republic!

Thank you .


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