by Pedro C. Moreno
After two centuries in Latin America, church and state are no longer such cozy partners.
Church and state relations has been a controversial topic in Latin America, especially since the founding of the republics comprising this vast continent at the beginning of the 19th century. But an examination of the past and present of the issue will allow us a glimpse at the future for all people of faith in Latin America.
The Catholic Church resisted and even excommunicated many of the libertadores (liberators) for their support of church and state separation. In spite of the libertadores, most, if not all, of the new Latin American constitutions established the Roman Catholic Church as the "official church" of the state. This was due to the strong influence the Catholic Church exercised on the members of the various constitutional conventions, who for the most part professed the Catholic religion.
However, after almost 200 years, only a few countries still have an "official church" in Latin America-Argentina, Bolivia, and Costa Rica. The rest have been able to achieve a degree of separation, at least constitutionally, although in practice there is still a strong state bias toward the Roman Catholic Church.
Latin America is living in an age of profound transformations-spiritual and social. In fact, it has been said that the recent spiritual revival on the continent, due to the Protestant expansion, but also within Catholic circles, may well be one of the last hopes for the economic and social advancement of Latin America. Others doubt that the rise of evangelicalism will result in greater economic and social development.1 However, all admit that an enormous transference in religious affiliation is taking place as Latin Americans seek to have their spiritual needs satisfied.
According to recent statistics, in a region once considered a Catholic stronghold, Protestants are growing at a rate of 400 per hour. Demographers predict that Latin America will be evangelical before the end of the 21st century.2 Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo of Nicaragua, addressing the Vatican College of Cardinals in 1991, pointed out that "protestants in Latin America have grown surprisingly, from 4 million in 1967 to 30 million in 1985." Cardinal Ernesto C. Ahumada of Mexico stated that in the last 30 years "defections (from the Catholic church) to other religious groups have tripled in the Dominican Republic, have increased by 500% in El Salvador and Costa Rica, and have grown by 700% in Guatemala."3 No wonder an evangelical president was recently elected in Guatemala. Some 20 percent of all Latin Americans are believed to be Protestant.
Although some say the trend is something to worry about, others look with expectation and hope at what has been termed by Forbes magazine "quite literally revolutionary – more so than Fidel Castro or Che Guevara could ever be."4 Referring to Brazil, Forbes says that as a result of evangelical Protestantism having replaced Roman Catholicism as the country’s most widely practiced faith, "the old Brazilian order, based upon a rigid hierarchy and social immobility, has broken down. A new social atmosphere, one more compatible with capitalism and democracy, is emerging." Forbes continues: "Upwardly striving urban poor are encouraged by religious teachings and support groups that preach the power of individuals to change their lives through faith. This contrasts sharply with the old attitude of resignation to one’s fate and a glorification of poverty."
THE SEPARATION DEBATE
What are the reasons, causes, and motives for this spiritual transformation, which has gone beyond the religious realm to spill into economics, politics, law, and other areas? One is the "official" or "established" character of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin American countries – not only officially recognized as such, but also "sustained" with government subsidies to pay the salaries of the hierarchy, teachers of Catholicreligion (in the public schools), and subsidies for church schools, refurbishing of temples, and so on. This situation still applies to countries such as Argentina, Costa Rica, and Bolivia. While some supporters of the official church thought that a government-backed religion would be stronger and more lasting, history and reality are demonstrating the contrary.
In a recent study responding to the question, "Does it help or hinder religion…(to favor) some denominations at the expense of others?", Michael W. McConnell and Richard A. Posner answer that "it is not entirely true, as it might appear to be, that subsidizing religion must help (a specific) religion and taxing it must hurt it." They quote Enlightenment thinker David Hume (himself hostile to religion), who supported the establishment of an official church to dampen religious fervor. "He thought that clergymen on government payrolls, like other civil servants, would lose their zeal."5 This is exactly what has happened to the Catholic Church in Latin America.
Catholic author Richard Rodriguez puts it well: "My beloved Catholic Church has become an activist in the city, doing social work in plain clothes. Meanwhile Catholicism has deferred its rich prayer life – the rosaries, devotions, and novenas – to another age."6 In other words, the Catholic Church has become so involved with the state, and the social and political problems of Latin America, that it has lost sight of its primary goal, the ministry of satisfying the spiritual needs of the people. This spiritual ministry has now been taken over by the evangelical church. Interestingly, the evangelicals are also starting to go into the social, economic, and political realms. I hope they will not forget that their main task, as a church, is the spiritual ministry.
THE POSITION OF THE LIBERATORS
Discussing why he had not included any reference to religion in his 1826 project for a Bolivian constitution, Simon Bolivar, one of Latin America’s greatest thinkers and liberators, said, "The state cannot rule the conscience of the subjects, neither give an award or a punishment, because God is the only (higher) power." He further stated: "Religion is the law of conscience. Any law upon it nullifies it, because as it imposes the need for this duty, it takes away the merit of faith which is the basis of religion." "The sacred precepts and dogmas are useful, beautiful, and of metaphysic evidence, we all know how to profess them, but this duty is moral, not political." And Bolivar concluded: "Being all this (religion) of divine jurisdiction, at first sight it seems to me sacrilegious and profane to mix our ordinances with the commandments of the Lord. To prescribe religion, thus, does not belong to the legislators."7
Jos? Artigas, liberator of Uruguay, addressing the 1813 Constitutional Convention and openly favoring religious liberty for all, stated, ". . . we shall promote civil and religious liberty to its maximum imaginable extension."8 Francisco de Miranda in Venezuela, Francisco Moraz‡n in Central America, Bernardo O’Higgins in Chile, Bernardino Rivadavia, Moreno, and Belgrano in Argentina, Vicente Rocafuerte in Mexico, and others took a similar position.
Vicente Rocafuerte, an Ecuador-born patriot and one of the "ideologists" for the national independence of the Latin American countries, himself a Catholic, recognized that in the United States the relationship between church and state had been remarkably solved by separating these two institutions. In 1831, in an age hostile to liberty of conscience and worship, Rocafuerte wrote his book Essay on Religious Tolerance in which he stated that "a dominant religion is oppressive: That is why the early Christians were also persecuted." For him the separation of church and state was "The genius of the century."9
Paraguay. Paraguay is one of the latestLatin American countries to separate church and state. In a surprising but understandable move, the Paraguayan Catholic Bishops Conference joined a group of 14 Protestant churches in requesting the change. The Bishops Conference, citing the Vatican II Council, stated that "church and state relations must be based upon autonomy and mutual respect of both societies." Furthermore, the bishops’ document, entitled "A Constitution for Our People," noted that "if at other times this nation identified totally with the Catholic religion, it would have been logical to speak of an official religion. Today pluralism better characterizes our civil society, so that a church united to the state, which may offer an image of something imposed by force on the people, does not seem justified. The church does not want to confuse the people, nor be confused with the state."10 The new Paraguayan Constitution guarantees religious freedom and the separation of church and state. It also eliminates the requirement for the president of the republic to profess the Catholic religion.
Colombia. In June, 1991, with the participation of two evangelicals, and with the support of indigenous peoples and others, Colombia’s Constitutional Convention took away the official status of the Catholic Church and declared that "all religious confessions and churches are equally free before the law" (Article 19 of the new Constitution). In spite of the Catholic Church’s traditional influence in Colombian politics, the Congress agreed with the judgment of the attorney general and declared "unconstitutional" all the privileges enjoyed by the Catholic Church under a Concordat signed in 1973. The Colombian Congress is now discussing a religious liberty law which, according to its framers (evangelical lawyers), would further guarantee and detail the equality of all churches and their rights to freedom of worship.
Mexico. In Mexico, the lower chamber of Congress recently approved a "Law on Religious Associations and Public Worship" that attempts, at least partially, to restore religious liberties in that country. The new law recognizes the churches’ right to own property (Article 16), wear clerical clothing in public, have their legal status recognized by the government (Article 7), and have a separate legal existence from the state (Article 1). It also guarantees the individual the right "not to be compelled to contribute with money or goods to support an association, church or any religious group," nor be compelled to "participate or contribute in the same way in rites, ceremonies, festivals, services or acts of religious cult (Article 2(d)). In its sixth article the law establishes that "religious associations are equal before the law in rights and obligations." This means there are no special privileges for the Catholic Church.
However, this law still excretes the aftertaste of religious intolerance that took place as the state reacted to the predominance of the Catholic Church in the past century. The new law bans religious institutions from owning TV and radio stations or newspapers, allowing them to be used only under certain conditions and licences (Article 16). Likewise, public religious manifestations must have the consent of the state (Article 22). The new law hinders religious freedom and the liberty of association, movement, and speech that the Mexican Constitution recognize. For instance, it considers it a "punishable infringement" if a religious association "act as such" if it has not been registered with the government. Clearly, such a provision, besides being impracticable, is unconstitutional. The state attributions under the new law go as far as to make it the "arbiter" in conflicts between religious groups!
Despite these insufficiencies, the new regime of religious freedom in Mexico is clearly superior to the one in force previously. The new law amends several articles of the 1917 Mexican Constitution, especially Article 130. In its original form Article 130 established the "intervention" of federal powers in "worship matters and external discipline." Likewise, it did not recognize the legal status of any religious association; granted the state legislatures the right to establish the "top number" of ministers of cult; banned religious ministers from "criticizing" the government; and restrained severely the private property of churches.
Chile. Evangelicals in Chile are pressing the Congress to grant evangelical churches the legal status of "entity of public law." Currently the Catholic Church has such a status. Acquiring this status would relieve the evangelical churches from having to register with the government, provide some tax benefits, and, especially, improve their legal situation, which now places them on the same level as sports clubs, cultural associations, and the like.
Argentina. In Argentina, where the Catholic Church is still the "official" one, and where the president must be Catholic, has now started a process of debate on the topic. President Carlos Menem has manifested his desire to eliminate the "religious test" for his office, and he believes the Catholic hierarchy will not oppose this. There is also strong support for the separation of church and state.11 The Argentinian Congress is discussing a law on religious liberty which, due to its controversial and unclear provisions, is not expected to pass anytime soon.
Bolivia. Concerning Bolivia, the struggle for the separation of church and state continues, this time with the support from not only evangelical circles but even from some sectors of the Catholic Church. Some political parties have also expressed their desire to see a constitutional amendment to provide for church and state separation. At this moment, Article 3 of the Constitution establishes that "the State recognizes and sustains the Roman, Apostolic, Catholic church. It guarantees the freedom of worship."
Latin America has had one of the most extended experiences with the establishment of an "official" church. For the most part the results have been negative. Negative for the Catholic church, which not only has seen an accelerating decline in the number of its faithful, but also has suffered the impact of the abuses, mistakes, and shortcomings of the supposedly "Catholic" central governments. Negative for the country, because it did not allow the development of an environment of true pluralism in the religious realm, affecting even the political realm.
With the new constitutional reforms that most Latin American countries have undergone and are still undergoing, and the consolidation of the separation of church and state in most of them, there is hope that the religious climate will improve, thus providing a better environment not only for the evangelical churches that have long suffered discrimination, but even for the revitalization of the Catholic Church. As the wisdom of history and biblical principles has shown, it is better that the state perform its specific civil responsibilities, while the church dedicates itself to the satisfaction of the spiritual needs of the people.
Last but not least, we should never forget that the separation of church and state does not mean separating God or the Bible from public life. Christianity is relevant to all areas of life, and can impregnate them with biblical principles. But that work should be carried out by individuals and never by uniting the church and the state at an institutional level.
1. Timothy Goodman, "The Reformation of Latin America," The American Enterprise, July/August, 1991; Pedro C. Moreno, Latin American Evangelicals: A Critique.
2. Richard Rodriguez, "Losing Ground," Crisis, November, 1989, p. 40.
3. National and International Religion Report, April 22, 1991, p. 3.
4. Forbes, October 15, 1990, p. 57.
5. Michael W. McConnell, Richard A. Posner, "An Economic Approach to Issues of Religious Freedom," The University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 56, No.1, Winter 1989, pp. 54, 55.
6. Rodriguez, op. cit. at 42.
7. Luis D. Salem, El Dios de Nuestros Libertadores, 1977.
8. Arnoldo Canclini, La Libertad de Cultos, 1987, p. 75.
9. Alejandro Soto C‡rdenas, Influencia de la Independencia de los Estados Unidos en la Constituci—n de las Naciones Latinoamericanas, 1979, p. 159.
10. Conrado Pappalardo Zaldivar, Reforma Constitucional, 1992, pp. 540, 541.
11. La Naci—n, April 12, 1992.
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