Winter 2007, Vol. 9, No. 3

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Articles in this issue

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Faith and Values Down the Tube

The GOP's Religion Problem

There's a Muslim in the House

Onward Christian Soldiers

Status Kuo

Warsaw Loses an Archbishop

The Pope Takes a Dive

The Gospel According to Hugo

Borat's Religious Provocations


The Gospel According to Hugo
by David Smilde

In his September 20 address to the United Nations General Assembly, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez made headlines by calling George W. Bush “the Devil” and joking that the podium—where the American president had given his own address the day before—smelled of sulfur.

Then, after his landslide reelection December 3, Chávez declared, “The Kingdom of Christ is the kingdom of love, of peace; the kingdom of justice, of solidarity, brotherhood, the kingdom of socialism. This is the kingdom of the future of Venezuela.”

“Hardly words of a hard core leftist, Chávez’s pronouncements were part of the increasingly religious flavor that he has given his ‘21st Century Socialism.’” wrote Miami Herald reporter Steven Dudley December 6. The next day, Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer expressed concern over “the growing political manipulation of religious fervor in the region”—not only by Chávez but also by the leftist president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, and by the recently elected Nicaraguan president, former revolutionary Daniel Ortega.

The claim that a politician’s use of religion is manipulative usually means little more than that the claimant doesn’t like what the politician is up to. What matters is knowing why religion is being brought to bear politically, what role it is playing, and whom it benefits.

On a personal level, Hugo Chávez’s religiosity largely conforms to that of the average Venezuelan, who has a vibrant belief in the supernatural but rarely practices religion within formal ecclesiastical institutions. Venezuelans tend to use words and images taken from Christian, Afro-Venezuelan, and indigenous traditions eclectically, as they are needed to meet concrete challenges.

Politically, Chávez’s use of religious language needs to be seen as part of a region-wide transition from a discourse of economics and social class to one focusing on ethnic identity, nationalism, and culture. This transition has been generated by a widespread dissatisfaction with the existing democratic order that has resulted both in the election of political outsiders and in enhanced political importance of the still highly esteemed Catholic church.

Contrary to the view presented in the North American press, the religious character of Chávez’s political project has not increased in recent years. Since his emergence on the Venezuelan political scene in the early 1990s, religious discourse and engaging religious leaders and organizations has been central to his efforts to transform a movement internal to the armed forces into a civilian political movement.

After making an unsuccessful coup attempt in February 1992, Chávez (a lieutenant colonel in the army) spent two years in jail where he and other coup-leaders were frequently visited by evangelical pastors. With a strategy of establishing a base among what they called “new social and political forces,” they set out to make alliances with nongovernmental organizations of  “recognized honesty and public morality,” including “Christian and evangelical churches with a progressive orientation.”

Pardoned by President Rafael Caldera in 1994, Chávez and company immediately began to mobilize support for their Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (named for the famed hero of Venezuelan independence, Simon Bolivar). They frequently used biblical imagery in combination with war rhetoric and nationalist slogans borrowed from Bolivar and other Venezuelan founding fathers in order to frame their cause as a historic struggle for the salvation of the country. This language struck a chord in a population disillusioned by two decades of political and economic decline and has been one important source of Chávez’s continuing popularity.

In the run-up to the 1998 presidential election, Chávez met with Catholic bishops several times, and the church responded to his overtures in an open and friendly if cautious manner. Although he did not at the time meet with leading evangelicals, he continually made positive remarks about their movement, earning himself enormous popularity among the evangelical laity and leading some to believe that he himself had become, or was becoming evangelical.

After winning the presidency, Chávez drew closer to the evangelicals, and farther away from the Catholics. Representatives of both groups were invited to participate in a constitutional assembly, but while the evangelicals accepted the invitation (putting up several candidates but winning no seats), the Catholic church demurred, saying it would act as a sympathetic critic external to the process. True to its word, the church raised its voice against the new government’s expansion of religious freedom, increased control of education, and refusal to prohibit abortion.

Chávez’s relations with the Catholics were also troubled by a series of moves that disfavored the church, beginning with a reduction of its state subsidy. (While it is difficult to know exactly how much the church receives annually, a reasonable estimate is $150 million.) In July 1999, the Chávez administration announced that, as part of across-the-board budget cuts, it would be cutting the church’s subsidy by 80 percent, a number later reduced to 50 percent. Since then, the size of the subsidy has been a point of almost continual conflict.

Meanwhile, Chávez made a number of policy moves that had the effect of enhancing the place of evangelicals in Venezuelan society. In 1999, he put into effect a law permitting evangelicals to provide religious education in the public schools—a role formerly reserved exclusively to the Catholic church. Although this law had been passed and signed during the Caldera administration, it had never really been put into effect.

The two years following the constitutional assembly saw increasing attempts on the part of the government to reduce the social dominance of the Catholic church in favor of evangelicals and other new religious movements, while bringing all religious bodies under state control. From November 2000 to May 2001, the administration’s Office of Human Rights attempted to organize a “Bolivarian Inter-religious Parliament” that would bring together representatives of all of the different religions with the goal of devolving governmental social projects and funds to them.

The Catholic hierarchy criticized this initiative, calling it an attempt to “make the church into an appendage of the government under the awning of social programs.” The main evangelical associations also rejected the initiative, bristling at being lumped together with Afro-Venezuelan and New Age groups as well as the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. The initiative survived but, without the participation of Venezuela’s main religious associations, has accomplished little.

All of these moves led to frequent speculation about Chávez’s personal religious commitments in the Venezuelan press. Not only is Venezuela officially Catholic, but the church is associated with civilization, integrity, and morality. In this context, for educated opinion to suggest that Chávez was an evangelical was tantamount to indicting him as ignorant, lacking in cultivation, and personally unstable.

In January 2002, just before traveling to Bolivia for a meeting of the Andean Community, Chávez himself told reporters he was “a proactive member of the Christian, Evangelical Church.”

“The [Catholic] church leadership was dumbfounded,” wrote El Universal columnist Nelson Bocaranda. “Knowing him well, they think perhaps it was not so much an error but a way of sidestepping a possible excommunication.”

Catholic officials later denied there was any discussion of excommunicating Chávez. But journalists kept the story alive, interviewing evangelical pastors to ask whether Chávez had ever attended their services. Upon his return to Venezuela, Chávez declared that while he strongly sympathized with evangelicals, he was in fact a practicing Catholic.

Even as Chávez’s first three years in office showed a growing division between Catholics and evangelicals with respect to his administration, 2002-04 demonstrated a good deal of internal diversity within each religious community.

The Catholic church gave its support to the oil workers’ strike that preceded the abortive coup of April 2002—and, indeed, appeared to have prior knowledge of the coup (though CIA documents suggest that initially church officials acted to discourage it). Some Catholic leaders, including the rector of the Catholic University, participated in several meetings of opposition groups that included eventual coup leaders, in which the groundwork was laid for a transition government. And the archbishop of Caracas, Cardinal Velasco Garcia, received several visits from the conspiring generals in the days before the coup.

In the early morning hours of April 12, the president of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference and the bishop of Barquisimeto met with the conspirators on a military base to receive Chávez when he was escorted out of the presidential palace. Cardinal Velasco himself was present and signed the decree naming business leader Pedro Carmona interim president (a position he occupied for two days, before the coup was put down).

Nevertheless, the Jesuit “Faith and Joy” radio network (Radio Fé y Alegr’a) refused to participate in the news blackout organized by the interim government, interviewing people in the street as well as Chávez cabinet ministers who insisted that Chávez had not resigned, as was claimed. This reporting was critical to the counter-movement that overturned the coup.

As for the evangelicals, on April 12, just before Carmona’s swearing in, the president of the Venezuelan Evangelical Council, Samuel Olson, participated in a nationally televised service for those who had died and been injured in the violence the day before. Although Olson denied that this signified his backing for the coup, the location of the service at a plaza where the anti-Chávez forces had mobilized, and the fact that TV coverage went directly from that service to Carmona’s swearing-in, gave that impression.

Yet when forces loyal to the Chávez government recaptured the state television station, evangelicals quickly responded to their call for religious leaders to come to the station to offer words of peace and reconciliation. One of the first to arrive, Bishop Jesús Pérez of the Renacer Church in downtown Caracas, said that “by divine intervention, today we live in a free Venezuela that belongs to all Venezuelans.” The government received particularly strong support from the evangelical movement’s “neopentecostal” wing, which emphasizes prosperity and a “dominion theology” that highlights the need for nations to prepare for Jesus’ return.

In the aftermath of the coup, attempts at reconciliation failed, and in early December the opposition called a general strike. This lasted almost two months and included numerous marches, protests, and acts of violence. For the duration of the strike, the Catholic hierarchy played a prominent public role, calling frequently for non-violent solutions while criticizing the government more than the opposition.

As the same time, 11 Catholic communities and organizations working in Caracas’s barrios pushed back with a letter entitled, “We, Christian Men and Women of Caracas, Also Exist!” The letter declared, in part: “We feel deeply hurt because the president of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference, along with the cardinal archbishop of Caracas, frequently speak and act in name of the Catholic church without consulting with us, and without taking into account, in any sense, the deepest sentiments of a good portion of its members.”

After the strike ended, Chávez’s opponents spent 18 months collecting enough signatures to force a recall election, which was scheduled for August 2004. At their annual meeting in July, the Catholic bishops urged Catholics to vote, suggesting that they remember that the “solutions to big and serious problems cannot be improvised, do not happen by chance, nor do they come from political messianism. The country demands authentic, responsible and forward-looking leadership.”

This was taken by members of the Chávez government as evidence of the church’s partiality for the opposition. Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel urged the bishops to back off, citing Pope John Paul II’s injunction that the Church stay out of “circumstantial politics.” Rangel argued that the hierarchy needed to respect the breadth and diversity of the Venezuelan church.

Meanwhile, at the end of July, several neopentecostal groups received $400,000 from the government to organize two large rallies—“Clamor for Venezuela” and “Million Prayers for Peace.” At the rallies, the organizers claimed to speak for the entire evangelical movement in throwing their support behind the Chávez government. Chávez himself gave a 40-minute speech in which he called Jesus the “original comandante” and referred to himself as a “soldier of Christ.”

In probably the clearest public demonstration of the division within the evangelical movement, the evangelical council released a statement insisting that it was officially apolitical and rejecting the attempt of the neopentecostal organizers to speak for all evangelicals. The organizers were accused by evangelical council president Olson of having forgotten the “healthy separation of church and state.”

In a public reply, one of the rally organizers, Apostle Elias Rincón, asserted that the council itself represented only a small percentage of the evangelical population, that it had no more right to speak in the name of evangelicals than he did, and that the Venezuelan evangelical church had never been apolitical.

In 2005, the relationship between the Chávez government and mainstream evangelicals grew tenser. In August, the American religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, speaking on his “700 Club” television program, called on the U.S. government to assassinate Chávez. Not surprisingly, this caused a sensation in the Venezuelan press, and evangelicals, Catholics, and representatives of other churches rushed to denounce Robertson. For its part, the Chávez government suggested that the United States indict Robertson for terrorism.

Robertson apologized and the issue seemed to die down. However, on October 12, 2005, the former Columbus Day now celebrated as the National Day of Indigenous Resistance, Chávez announced a decision to expel the “New Tribes” missionaries that have long worked with indigenous groups in Venezuela’s lightly populated Amazon region. These missionaries, he said, were spying and represented an “imperialist invasion.”

Such accusations against evangelical missionaries, which have been commonplace since the 1970s, are as a rule unaccompanied by convincing evidence, and this case was no exception. But the presence of such missionaries in an area where the Venezuelan state has little presence has long been a hot-button issue for both secular progressives (who look towards indigenous groups as a source of national identity) and Catholic conservatives (who see working with indigenous groups as their historical charge).

Catholics thus applauded Chávez’s action. The major evangelical associations, on the other hand, immediately condemned it. Even Chávez’s usual supporters in the neopentecostal churches expressed their concern.

During 2006, relations between the Chávez government and the Catholic church became calmer, thanks in no small part to new, less confrontational church leaders. After the election, however, the public sniping resumed when the hierarchy asked Chávez to clarify what he meant by “21st Century Socialism,” beyond his frequent suggestion that it had little to do with socialism in the 20th century. (Chávez then surprised even supporters by saying he would send them some books by Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.)

All told, the events of 2004 and 2005 led mainstream evangelical groups to distance themselves from Chávez. For example, the main evangelical newspaper, Truth and Life (Verdad y Vida), accentuated its oppositional editorial line, repeatedly criticizing the missionary expulsion and the government in general.

Later, in February and March 2006, the paper ran a series of interviews with evangelical leaders called “Christianity and Socialism” that came to conclusions generally critical of the Chávez project. Typical was evangelical journalist Jorely de Meza’s interview of pastor Modesto Rivero González, in which Rivero was quoted as saying that “although President Chávez has tried to present his ‘revolution’ as Christian, the demonstrations he has given of a lack of love, of discrimination, of poor application of  justice and authoritarianism, are characteristics that speak of a lack of love of God and of one’s neighbor which are the essences of Jesus Christ’s teachings.”

Then, during the run-up to the 2006 national elections, evangelical leaders received a nationally televised visit from opposition presidential candidate Manuel Rosales. While they continued to claim political neutrality, this sent a strong signal of sympathy for the opposition.

For their part, Chávez’s neopentecostal supporters, still smarting from the evangelical council’s public rebuke of their political participation, moderated their tone and stayed away from making political pronouncements. Nevertheless, they steadily increased their collaboration with the government.

The neopentecostals receive ample public funds for their many social projects and Apostle Rincón serves as the evangelical representative on the national communications review board that evaluates television—including news programs—for content and “veracity.” Bishop Jesús Pérez has multiple programs on several state television channels.

In sum, there is every reason to think that religious discourse and engagement with religious groups will continue to be a critical element of the “Chávez revolution.” It is central to the system of alliances and conflicts that the Chávez administration has created as it seeks to break down the power of traditional social and political elites (including the Catholic hierarchy), while building up new social political actors (including the evangelical churches).

Albeit mainstream evangelical associations have slowly but steadily moved from cautious collaboration to cautious opposition, Chávez is still wildly popular with the evangelical laity for his use of religious language and his readiness to take on the Catholic church. Neopentecostal associations have moved from enthusiastic public support to quiet but substantial collaboration.

As for the Catholic hierarchy, although new leaders in important positions (such as the archdiocese of Caracas) have been less confrontational than their predecessors, it continues its role as the most prestigious and substantial source of opposition to the Chávez government. No less important, lay members of the opposition have come to rely on Catholic practices and beliefs for fortitude and feelings of legitimacy at a time when they are being politically marginalized.


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