Balance sheet of the struggle for the separation of Churches and the State

By Christian Eyschen, General Secretary of the FreeThought
Saturday 17 March 2007
by  cilalp_france
popularity : 100%

Ladies and Gentlemen

Dear friends,

Dear Comrades,

The issue of Separation of religions and the States is a fundamental democratic demand, for freedom of conscience is the first liberty. It is the foundation of human being as a free person with all their political and social rights.

I’ll try to address this issue through a few examples from some countries. Today is the 4th of July, Independence Day in the USA, it is natural to begin with the United States of North America. I’ll continue with France, because the 3rd of July is the day when the Separation law was passed at the first hearing at the National Assembly in Paris. Here like everywhere else, this is a symbol.

Undoubtedly, the American revolution is the mother of the French revolution. Indisputably, there is a relationship. The mutual enthusiasm of peoples for each other beyond the Atlantic, taking arms to fight oppression and establish democracy is obvious. France cheered the victory of Yorktown like the Valmy victory thrilled the hearts of the USA .

On 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 became 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 de-colonization 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. Since then, the greatest democratic laws have been 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. . 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 as well as 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.

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 economic emancipation (the end of exploitation of Man by Man) becomes consubstantial with that of political emancipation (equality of citizens before the law) and to achieve absolute freedom of conscience (secularism). Today it is the same and only struggle, that of complete emancipation of humankind.

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 such as the one 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, had yet 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 move", 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 are able to solve" Marx said.

The confrontation will take place sooner or later under the forms that the American people will decide, but we are convinced that it will take place. The labor movement that is trying to resist and that is starting to seek for a form of political representation, will not ignore this issue. For the religious issue is not a question of belief, it is a social and political question. Monotheist religions are all in favor of the maintenance of social oppression and the labor movement cannot but fight against it. The absence of the American labor movement in the secular struggle, in this historical prospect, can only be temporary. Even if temporary situations may last long.

Now, let us examine the case of Mexico. In the 19th century, this country was under a Concordat with the Vatican. The Roman Catholic clergy had very large land properties and controlled the government and local administrations. But in 1856, the Federalist Party seized power. They proceeded to an important land reform and Church properties (one third of arable land) were given to the farmers. Religious congregations were banned, religious buildings were nationalized, there was a breaking off with the Vatican.

The same story as during the French revolution took place. The Church supported the Conservatives who called Napoleon III for help. But Juarez won. On September 14, 1874, the strict and firm separation between the Church and the State was passed. Civil authorities were prohibited to take part in religious ceremony. Priests were not allowed to wear their cassocks outside religious buildings. Monasteries were banned. Like in France some years late, the separation was supported by a very deep popular movement that has been living up to now, even if it is put to question in a very important manner.

Another country where there was a strong mobilization in favor of separation : the USSR. The thesis was raised by Lenin himself : "The complete separation of the Church and the State, such is the demand of the socialist proletariat. This is an integrating and necessary part of political freedom…We have to fight through propaganda and instruction." Lenin refused any repression.

The Bolsheviks took the same path as the insurgent Mexicans. They made a great land reform in order to give the land to the farmers and consequently the nationalized the Church properties. They secularized the State, the administration, the registry office. The Orthodox Church was deprived of all its privileges. The law of January 23, 1918 proclaimed and organized the separation. The legal personality of the Orthodox Church was suppressed : it had no right to possess property. All Soviet citizens were free to exercise the worship of their choice or to practice none.

The Church was not to accept and there too, it linked its fate to that of the ancient regime. It was to suffer the consequences. But under Stalin, it was repression against the whole of society and consequently against the clergy as well. Until 1941, when the Stalinist power got legally married with the popes. After the collapse of the USSR, the Church was able to maintain its privileges in violation of the law of separation of 1918. It is still one of the pillars of the regime.

You do not have to be a learned scholar on the subject of Portugal to recognize article 2 of the French law of December 9, 1905 "The republic does not recognize, does not subsidize, does not salary any worship" in article 4 of the Portuguese Law of "separation of the Church and the State" of April 20, 1911. It is the cornerstone of the work of the republican revolution of October 1910 in Portugal that our friends form "Republica & Laicidade" describe : "At the beginning of the century, the glorious revolution of October 5, 1910, established a freer, more egalitarian, more secular republican regime in Portugal (…) During the stage of consolidation of the Republic, the law of separation of the Church and the State would be one of the most lasting achievement of the republic. So much so that the conservative and Catholic reaction that was to send Salazar to power was unable to put this principle to question until the Concordat of 1940, that gave a status of an almost official State religion to the Catholic Church".

One of Salazar’s first acts was to make peace with the Church and give its privileged situation back to it. The Jesuits were allowed to come back. Except for very pious people, the new friendship between the Church and the State found little support among the Portuguese.

On April 25, 1974, hundreds of thousands of Portuguese rushed into the breach opened by a coup made by fraction of the army and took to the streets : the revolution broke out in Portugal. A fifty year-old corporatist, colonialist and clerical dictatorship collapsed.

In 1976, the Constituant Assembly adopted a Constitution, which even still in a limited way, inscribed in its provisions : the land reform, public, secular and compulsory schools, the separation of the Churches and the State, democratic rights and freedom of association, freedom of political parties and trade unions, the legal existence of "workers committees".

Article 41 of the Portuguese constitution safeguarded " the inviolable freedom of conscience, of religion and worship" and insured that "the Churches and other religious communities are separate from the State and free of their own organization". Paradoxically, after the 25 April, 1974 Revolution and the 1976 Constitution, the republican heritage was endangered again. The clerics were working hard under different labels, either Left or Right. After a long debate, a "law on religious liberty" was passed and enforced in 2001. It opened the way to a new Concordat between the Vatican and Portugal that was signed on May 18, 2004.

Let us examine the case of Turkey. Typically, the will for secularism came from the top, spurred on by Mustafa Kemal called Attaturk, supported by some popular mobilization. After he took power, Attaturk expelled the European colonizers. He founded what he called "a modern republic". He abolished the Khalifat and put Turkey on the road to the separation of the religious sphere from the State.

Public schools were deeply secularized. Up to now, religious signs and symbols are still banned from school. Mustafa Kemal’s model was undoubtedly that of the French revolution, as he transposed the Napoleonian Civil Code and his party has for model the French Radical Party. In this movement of secularization, Islam was no longer regarded as a "State religion" in 1928. His Republican People’s Party declared in its 1391 program : "Religious ideas belonging to the sphere of individual conscience, the Party considers that the exclusion of religious concepts from State affairs and from political life is a major factor that can insure our nation with success on the road towards progress". As we can see this issue is still very topical in this country and the subject all debates at stake.

The problem of the separation of religions and the State often raises the same questions through time and space and brings forth the same answers. A remark is necessary : the separation is the only model that can be applied in every society, whatever the history and the culture. It is the only democratic model in countries of Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Islamic and Hindu traditions. Another remark has to be made : when this separation is the result of a popular mobilization, it lasts a long time and it resists to the onslaught of time.

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, Emiliano Zapata, and Vladimir Illitch Ulyanov called Lenin all went along the same path to claim the separation of churches and State ? There cannot be a real democracy without established secularism.

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.

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. Separation of Churches and the 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.

At the end of the world congress of the Free Thought and Atheists, our friend Keith Porteous Wood will present our joint propositions on this subject; Undoubtedly, this day, July 4, 2005 will be a step forward toward the realization of our common ideals.

To end my speech, let me tell you as we say in France :

Neither God, nor Master !

Down with the clergy!

And long live the socialist revolution !

This is a program, but what program !

Thank you .


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