Fall 2000, Vol. 3, No. 3

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 3


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Taking Stock

Preacher Joe

Cult Fighting in Massachusetts

Rome, Relativism, and Reaction

Waco Redux: Trial and Error

Tibet I: Lama on the Lam

Tibet II: Monastic Spinmeister

The Never Ending Story

The Mexican Election:
Bringing the Church Back In

by Oscar Aguilar Ascenciofox_gif.gif (125353 bytes)

It was an historic moment when Vicente Fox took the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, from two of his children a few days before accepting the presidential nomination of the conservative National Action Party (PAN). In a victorious campaign that on July 2 sent the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) down to defeat after 71 years in power, religion would play a more prominent role than ever before in a Mexican presidential election.

Fox blithely ignored the cultural taboo—as well as the legal prohibition—against using religious symbols in political campaigns. Before the third presidential debate in May, for example, he made a show of praying at the Basilica of Guadalupe. Nor did he seek merely to capitalize on his Catholic devotion to present himself as a candidate with strong moral values. For the first time in Mexican history, a presidential candidate explicitly formulated a religion policy to ease restrictions on the activities of the Catholic Church.

For its part, the Church had never before been so visible during a presidential campaign, organizing religious events to express its views on the political situation of the country. For the first time since 1924, it held a National Eucharistic Congress, which culminated with an in-your-face open air mass outside the cathedral in Mexico City’s main plaza. Ceremonies were mounted for the canonization of 27 martyrs from the anti-government Cristero War of the late 1920s. And bishops began holding regular press conferences, at which they commented regularly on campaign developments.

In March, the Mexican bishops issued "From the Encounter with Jesus Christ to Solidarity with All," a pastoral letter that was the most comprehensive document on social and political issues that the Mexican Church had issued in three decades. In it, the bishops asserted that "a full democratic culture is [only] compatible with the real possibility of alternation in power." This was a clear sign to politicians, the media, and the intelligentsia that the Church was ready to accept a PRI defeat and therefore also a sign of support for Fox.

Outsiders might imagine it to be utterly unremarkable that, in the second largest Roman Catholic country in the world, the Church should make its views known in a presidential campaign and that a candidate, portraying himself as a devout Catholic, should attend Sunday Mass and take communion. But Mexicans have been ruled by one of the most anticlerical political elites of the Western Hemisphere, thanks to a highly conflictual national history of church and state.

The conflict has its roots in the independence movement of the 1810s, when the Church opposed the insurrection against the Spanish Crown; continued during the Reform War of the 1860s, in which liberals triumphed over conservative forces opposed to separation of the Church from the Mexican state; and crystallized after the Revolution of 1910, when a liberal and profoundly anticlerical Congress drafted a new Constitution (1917) that responded to the Church’s support for counterrevolutionary forces by stripping it of its juridical personality. This constitutional provision—the infamous Article 130—was a political weapon meant to prevent the Church from ever questioning the legitimacy of a regime that would not tolerate any competition in popular organizing. (At the time, the Church was influential in the labor movement and had the capacity to influence the vast illiterate masses against the new state.)

The Cristero War, in which an estimated 250,000 people died, was a civil insurrection inspired by what was seen by the bishops as religious intolerance on the part of the Plutarco Elas Calles presidential administration (1924-1928). The war firmly established anticlericalism as a fundamental characteristic of the Mexican state for the rest of the century. Indeed, no other Latin American country has a record of civil conflict in which the Catholic Church was the protagonist.

Even today, after Constitutional reforms and legislation in 1991 and 1992 accorded "religious associations" a legal personality and gave the clergy the right to vote, the former are still prohibited from owning their own media and the latter may not openly criticize public institutions or public policy. All in all, religious issues in Mexico are discussed not, as in the United States, as abstract questions of "free exercise" and "establishment," but in terms of how much political power the Catholic Church can muster to recover the privileges it lost in its ancient battles against the state. Of the issues on the agenda of religious conservatives in the United States—abortion, gay rights, prayer in public schools, public funding for religious schools—only abortion can be found in Mexico’s political arena. And in the presidential campaign, abortion was a nonissue, despite efforts by the Left to make it one. Not until after the election, when the legislature of Fox’s home state of Guanajuato voted to eliminate all restrictions on abortion, did a public debate on the subject take place. (Under intense political pressure, the governor finally vetoed the legislation.)

For decades, the strict exclusion of religion from the public schools, the restrictions on the Church’s political activities, and the ban on Church-owned media have been considered a treasured legacy of 19th-century liberalism by the Mexican political, intellectual, and media elite. Among this elite, it is a widely shared view that the Church must limit itself to the "spiritual sphere"—that it should not even express public views on social issues, much less political ones.

This anticlerical posture has, in fact, left most journalists poorly prepared to report on the Church’s religious and political concerns. Many, indeed, are ignorant of the basic facts of Church organization. For example, the Archbishop of Mexico City is often portrayed as the "boss" of the Catholic Church in Mexico, as if he wielded power over the country’s 14 other archbishops. In Mexico, religious liberty is understood merely as freedom of belief. Journalists have little appreciation of the rights of people to behave religiously, including through organized religious bodies.

Lacking the North American tradition of investigative journalism, Mexican reporters focus their attention on searching for what is known as la nota—a statement that provokes controversy. Thus, reporters on the religion beat see their job as eliciting statements from bishops and other well-known clergy that will have sufficient impact to make other public actors (public officials, political party leaders, other bishops) respond in kind. During federal elections, and especially during presidential campaigns, a favorite journalistic game is to get a bishop to comment on politics or public policy. So much the better if he displays support for a particular party or candidate, because this would violate the law and therefore put pressure on the government (i.e., the Undersecretary for Religious Affairs) to enforce the prohibition.

When Cuauhtmoc Crdenas, the presidential candidate of the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD)—who is well known for his self-professed atheism—visited Cardinal Norberto Rivera at Mexico City’s cathedral, even so competent a religion reporter as Jos Antonio Romn of La Jornada, the leading newspaper among Mexican intellectuals, contented himself with asking the cardinal if he had blessed the candidate. "It is of public knowledge that Mr. Crdenas does not practice our religion," the cardinal declared. "Hence, a sign so that we can all live together in Mexico is tolerance. There is a profound respect and admiration for Mr. Crdenas; I wish him well during his campaign for the presidency."

The most notorious example of this modus operandi during the campaign came in a telephone interview that a reporter for Reforma (a Mexico City daily that actually does investigative journalism) had with Genaro Alamilla, the bishop emeritus of Papantla who became well known in the 1980s for making public statements defying the law against political criticism. This happened a month before the election, amid accusations that the PRI was making political support a condition of assistance to flood victims in Chalco, a municipality famous as the symbol of the social policy of former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Bishop Alamilla told Reforma that the victims should accept assistance from the government but asked that they preserve their dignity as citizens by voting for any party other than the PRI. The Interior Ministry proceeded to ask the Bishop "to explain" his statement, then announced that the affair was over after an exchange of letters "clarifying" the "misunderstanding." This trivial episode was front-page news in La Jornada. El Universal, another Mexico City daily, reported that the bishop said that he was ready to go to jail if necessary.

The event that most clearly disclosed the press’s view of religion and politics was Fox’s release in May of a 10-point "religion platform" in which he supported: (1) the sanctity of life from conception; (2) the integrity of the family; (3) the right of parents to decide the best kind of education for their children-which in Mexico is read as supporting religious education; (4) spiritual assistance in public institutions such as hospitals; (5) a clear definition of "religious liberty;" (6) reform of Article 130 to guarantee freedom of religious practice; (7) allowing religious institutions to own mass media; (8) a clear definition of the tax status of religious institutions; (9) an end to official discretion in granting permission for foreign clergy to enter or exit the country; and (10) official recognition by state educational authorities of secular subjects studied by clergy in seminaries.

Notwithstanding the fact that most of these positions are accepted as normal and customary throughout the Catholic world, media reaction in Mexico was swift to condemn them. Among commentators the consensus was that Fox’s Decalogue (as it was called) was a strategy to gain additional privileges for the Church. It was also seen as a "great mistake" on Fox’s part—likely to alienate moderate citizens who wanted change but not at the price of granting more privileges to the Catholic Church. PAN had simply become the Church’s political instrument.

"Fox is offering the Church the Republican tradition forged over the last 150 years, in a silver chalice," wrote Carlos Marn in the tabloid Milenio. In Reforma, Humberto Musacchio warned that the proposals "will unleash the activity of the moral terrorists, the persecution of the unfaithful and the lynching of homosexuals." For El Universal’s Cesreo Morales (a former adviser to sometime PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio), the Decalogue was a "threat to the climate of tolerance in which we live."

Intensely criticized for his association with the Catholic Church, Fox responded by meeting with the evangelical Protestant and Jewish communities. On those occasions, he emphatically declared his support for religious pluralism, inviting religious people outside the Catholic fold to join his campaign. The media, however, focused almost exclusively on the Catholic connection.

Fox’s strategy of playing the religion card, along with the political activism of the bishops, forced the other two candidates, Crdenas and the PRI’s Francisco Labastida, to take a stand on religious issues. Crdenas, despite his support for the use of condoms and abortion rights in a country where more than half a million women die in clandestine abortions every year, proposed expanding the political rights of the clergy to include the right to run for public office. Interestingly, although not even Fox went that far, this provoked no negative reaction in the press. For his part, Labastida declared himself a Catholic and a guadalupano (devotee of the Virgin of Guadalupe), but declined to take a stance on abortion or the other issues of concern to the churches such as media ownership. In a post-election interview with the weekly magazine Proceso, he said that "stating his position on religious matters during the campaign process was the worst moment"—but in fact the media took little note of what he had to say on the subject.

Notwithstanding his discomfort with religious issues, the PRI candidate did not refrain from looking for political support from the Church. As Carlos Fazio pointed out in La Jornada in June, Labastida’s contacts with bishops were "pragmatic, and were a result of personal favors from those who had supported the political system in the past…. [T]he contacts were established through the municipal structures. The economic donations were well received from the bishops for the restoration of the churches, and to cover additional earthly needs." By the end of the campaign, the Mexican media were full of stories reporting warnings by bishops and priests from around the country to prevent the usual electoral chicanery by which the PRI had been able to ensure previous triumphs at the ballot box.

The religious dimension of the Mexican election did not go unnoticed by the U.S. news media, although they tended to overlook the events that ignited the debate on the Church’s role in politics, including Fox’s Decalogue. Instead, American newspapers repeatedly served up the information that Fox and his party were rightist and pro-Catholic in a country where a large majority of the population is Catholic—which was true enough, but hardly gave a clear picture of the campaign’s religious dimension. Nor were imprecisions and distortions lacking.

Mary Beth Sheridan of the Los Angeles Times wrote that "many Mexicans were outraged when Fox used his Catholic faith as a theme in the campaign"—when it was merely the anticlerical elite that was outraged. David Gaddis Smith of the San Diego Tribune wrote that "Fox angered the faithful because he told Protestants they face the same kind of barrier from the Catholic Church in gaining converts that he faces from the long-ruling PRI in trying to win voters"—when this neither bothered Fox’s lay Catholic constituency nor elicited significant concern from the bishops.

Molly Moore of the Washington Post wrote that Mexico was "ultra-Catholic" when referring to Labastida’s acknowledgement that he had fathered a daughter out of wedlock—as if that mattered in terms of popular opinion. In fact, Mexico has a rooted tradition, common in Latin political culture, of not according as much importance as North Americans do to the private sexual behavior of politicians.

Among the grosser inaccuracies, Rene Villegas of Reuters put the Catholic population of Mexico at 98 per-cent, a figure long out of date. Today, the Church itself estimates the Mexican Catholic population at only 80 percent, and in states such as Tabasco and Chiapas Catholics and non-Catholics are evenly divided. In a profile of Fox, Roger Fontaine of UPI said, "He’s a Norteno, and northern Mexicans are more ruggedly individualistic; less trusting in government, thus, less centralist, more entrepreneurial in nature and more Catholic"—but Fox’s home state of Guanjuato is actually located in (less Catholic) central Mexico.

Chris Mooney, writing in the liberal journal of opinion The American Prospect, was very critical of U.S. media because it had under-reported Fox’s conservative side (on abortion, homosexuality, religious education on public schools), and because he used a slogan associated with the "extreme right" Cristero rebels: "If I advance, follow me!! If I hold back, push me! If I retreat, kill me!" Although this observation was correct, the main issue of the presidential campaign was not Fox’s conservatism but change versus continued PRI dominance of Mexican society.

In any case, electoral results fell short of the landslide proportions that both the Mexican and the American media suggested in reporting the PAN’s historic victory. For although Fox defeated Labastida by 2.5 million votes, the PAN did not achieve a majority in Congress. As a result, Fox’s government is not going to be able to achieve any of its goals without negotiating with the PRI. Anticlerical fears will thus be eased in light of ongoing opposition from the PRI and a general lack of consensus in the country on implementing Fox’s religious policy.

This, of course, does not mean that the Church will not try to take advantage of its ideological affinity with the new president. The irony is that Fox’s economic agenda—no different from the neoliberal policies that the PRI’s technocrats have implemented since 1982, and that have been heavily criticized by the Church—will run up against the traditional stance of an institution that does not see the market economy in friendly terms. As long as Fox’s promises on reducing poverty are not fulfilled, his government will not have the Church as an ally.

However Fox proceeds, for the foreseeable future the question of allowing religion more social space to exercise its pastoral and political activities will continue to be framed in terms of the power of the Catholic Church to get more privileges. This will make further constitutional reform all the more difficult, but Mexico will not come of age as a modern state until it finally accepts religious institutions as public actors subject to the normal and customary rules of Western civil society.