Secularism in South America

Thursday 17 April 2014

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Secularism in South America
Jacques Lafouge, 2014-04-17

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In Europe, the French, to mention only them, consider secularism in relation to their history. If today all political tendencies, even the ones which are far from it, admit secularism is established in France and belongs in a way to their history, each one has obviously its own interpretation of it. It is to forget that it took three attempts for this concept to become a law, and more since some strive hard to empty it of its substance. Indeed, beyond the freedom of belief or non belief, we too often forget the 1905 law article 2 “the Republic does not recognize, employ or subsidize any religion.”

The South American History at the scale of the continent is very different from the European one which explains why the walk to secularism is so special compared with other countries.

The meeting between Europe and America was brutal. This is due to the fact that the Spanish and Portuguese who landed there exclusively aimed at getting rich as fast as possible. The indigenous population was so cruelly brutalized that they almost went extinct as Batolomé de las Casas denounced it. At the same time Europeans with various religious beliefs streamed in.

Nevertheless the ancient native religions didn’t disappear and managed to survive mixed with African beliefs since the decimated American natives had to turn to slavery. Therefore it led to a triple interbreeding which was on the one hand ethnic and on the other hand cultural.

For various reasons America was considered as a new world, a promised land close to heaven. Was a new evil-free world to be created? The Franciscans for the most definitely considered it as their millenarism come true. This dream was also Las Casas’s then the Jesuit Missions’ then the theology of liberation’s which were joined by the Messianic Evangelists. All of them expected to create an ideal Christendom.

At the same time and because a conquest was at stake the sabre allied with the aspersoriumin an efficient and ferocious way. This characteristics is still to be found today when the Clergy sides with dictatorial regimes.

The budding American society was originally built on a single-minded approach imposed by the Spanish Catholic Church which promised both social order and eternal life. From that point onward a relentless struggle from the colonial and religious powers against any external and thus ill-fated influence took place for more than three centuries.

When in the 19th century Columbia discussed the separation of churches and states the fact of belonging to the Liberal Party which promoted the freedom of religion was considered as a mortal sin by the Clergy. In the 20th century the Columbian President called Protestantism enemy of the nation.

South America has witnessed the development of an original Christianism which has become a key element of the society’s identity through a system of imposed values. When the “colonial theocracies,” as Guillermo Uribe calls them, turned into independent Republics Catholicism became naturally the state religion.

That way Europe and France wrongly consider South America as a continent culturally close to them because of the language and the social and religious systems and because it would have been shaped by European models.

This is definitely wrong. The South American societies are totally unique as for their political construction in which the armies play an often unexpected role and where religious of all kinds influence the political life along with diverse forms of Protestantism.

It took a long time to Catholicism to settle in Europe and to get rid of the last pockets of paganism.

The European Conquistadors came with priests whose mission was to root idolatry out using any means including parents given away by their children.

The Inquisition or Holly Office settled down very rapidly in Mexico, Lima and Cartagena de India. If it was basically in charge of heresy cases it quickly focused on the ones who kept on revering secretly their former gods, on the Jews, Protestants and foreigners mainly sailors who were suspected of being protestant or of smuggling in banned books, especially the Enlightment ones.

This shows how hard it was for secularism to emerge at at what price.

As for the separation of Churches and State G. Uribe claims that Columbia became a secular state in 1863 but that during the first years of the Republic it experienced 7 constitutions and 5 civil wars until the Catholic Church was given back its supremacy through the 1886 Constitution and the 1887 Concordat. This is all the more surprising that Columbia was the first South American country to translate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish as soon as 1794.

Nevertheless the new states which were created at the beginning of the 19th century didn’t paradoxically enough break off with Catholicism which had been brought by the conquerors. It is due to the fact that the Church was in charge of the postal services, hospitals, education, registry offices etc.... At the time of independence no secular administration was able to take over.

In addition the Church was often clever enough to support the independence movements.

The Dominicans for example donated money to Bolivar. Some priests were behind the riots : Hidalgo, Morelos, Matamoros in Mexico, Delgado, Arce in Salvador, some Franciscans in Uruguay where the Church allied with Freemasons against the conservatives.

As time went on, state secularism became a priority in Mexico with Benito Juarez, in Guatemala, Columbia, Uruguay. This fueled bloody conflicts between on the one hand liberal free thinkers, rationalists, anticlerical, advocates of the freedom of religion and of the separation between Churches and states and on the other hand authoritarian conservatives who promoted the traditions and privileges and called upon moral order.

Whatever the most constitutionally secular state is Mexico. Its 1917 Constitution is fiercely anticlerical and separates Church from State. In addition all political organizations mustn’t allude to any religious reference. However the recent evolution of the presidents’ policy could lead to think that the relationship between the Church and the State are warming up.

As a consequence more than half the states are today very kind with the Catholic religion in their constitutions: Costa Rica, Paraguay, Peru, Panama, Argentina, Guatemala, Salvador, Uruguay. The Central American States nevertheless ban ministers from any public office.

Specific features are teeming given the circumstances. For example in Uruguay the 1807 British occupation allowed basically Catholic Freemasons and Protestants to quickly develop their structures. Thus the Masonic lodges welcomed civilians and Catholic priests and Franciscans. They were the Lautaro lodges.

When the Spanish colonies became independent there wasn’t any religious pluralism in South America. The new states had to face the following dilemma: either the State was submitted to the Church or this one was banned from political and temporal activities.

On top of that the Church gradually moved away from what was the daily reality of populations enduring poverty, exclusion and a more and more ferocious exploitation.

This is mostly for this reason that Protestant and evangelic sects have become more and more popular. They indeed bring in new rites some of whose remind of ancient cults which were believed forever forgotten. In some respects Pentecost cults could bring to mind shamanism or elements coming from Africa. The population’s old indigenous base is sensitive to these rites.

The populations are definitely looking for solidarity when it comes to work, housing, and health which is met neither by the public authorities nor by the church in countries where there is almost no healthcare and no unemployment benefits.

The solution I experienced in Equator lies in reciprocity or family or group solidarity when a so-called protective state has vanished giving way to an uncertain future. The global outrageously liberal policy has led to both mass denationalizations. At the same time the IMF and the World Bank have strengthened their hold on the states’ policy which has put into question the workers’ rights and their social benefits.

As a response Evangelists offer solidarity and inner peace even if this is partly irrational. Indeed as they deny the social and economic problems they suggest individual and spiritual solutions: men and women are victims who must be helped.

It can be interestingly enough noticed that Protestantism as a whole is not the result of European or North American initiatives as it is commonly believed.

As they were perfectly aware that the populations’ condition could be improved only through education the governments called on various Protestants sects a couple of years ago: Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers…. A network of primary, secondary, training, technical and theological schools was built up.

It was obviously the best way to settle Protestantism on a land where the Catholic apostolate was losing momentum. Columbian Molina said “primary schooling is man’s second christening”, as long as it is secular.

A non-Catholic education became as a result a liberation argument. Molina wrote: ”The human being is free when he has access to the controversy of ideas because he can fight against those which are regressive or alienating.” Ignorance must thus be fought against. It remains to be established if Protestantism is less alienating than Catholicism. All the more that we must take into account there are more and more agnostic, atheist and religion-less even if during the dictatorships the different churches could be used as shelters at least spiritually since in reality the church/power and dictatorial power collusion was often obvious.

There has in fact been a move from a unique belief to a multiple one which includes atheism.

The role played by women mustn’t be neglected either. They are most of the time head of the family as I could notice since many men attempt to run away from the household because they don’t care, are alcoholic or seek other adventures. In these circumstances women are challenging the minor role attributed to them by the Catholic Church. Brazilian Ivonne Gebara writes: “being a woman is already an evil.”

Protestantism does have a very different approach concerning women who play a major role in the community where they can also become minister and are seen in a very different way by men.

A growing indifference towards the Catholic religion is in any case to be noticed just like in Europe and without excluding the other religions. The different South American governments have had to compromise with a very powerful and long established Catholic church and to take into account the populations’ religious habits even if it had more to do with an ancestral habit than with a genuine faith.

What can be said about secularism today in South America? Two tendencies seem to emerge.

The first one addresses first the population’s educated circles where both active and multifaceted associations promote either the separation of Churches and States or atheism.

Representatives of Chile and Argentina took part to the Founding Congress of the International Association of Free Thought organized in 2011 in Oslo by the French Federation of Free Thought. The year after in mar del Plata, Argentina, besides Argentina and Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Equator were also represented. Other representatives from many other countries who couldn’t afford the trip sent support messages as Mexican great revolutionary Emiliano Zapata’s grand daughter did.

The second tendency is the Indigenous one.

They have realized that the missionaries of all kinds attempted to eradicate the ancient local beliefs and customs through their conversations and sermons. Various international conferences which gathered various peoples from various nations claimed the respect of indigenous spirituality. They also claimed that the religious heritage and objects be given back to their legitimate owners.

They asserted that the religious missions had imposed foreign patterns to dominated indigenous societies. An economic and human exploitation of the aboriginal societies are to be found under a religious guise. As a consequence they demand any missionary activity to be terminated. These claims have been expressed several times.

These basic movements find their achievement when secular-looking constitutions are voted. Equator’s latest constitution asserts the state’s secularism while alluding to God and the Pachamama. The churches obviously fight against such phrases and try to have them modified.

Just like in Europe there is still a long walk to achieve secular states.

This situation makes of the International Association of Free Thought Congress which will take place in London on August 11th 2014 a very special moment. Representatives of South American countries have already confirmed their presence despite the economic hardships to testify how vivid this movement which goes global is. Free thinkers from all sides rise up to testify how vivid the fight is.

Let’s go to London!

I fraternally salute all the friends and comrades from South America and all over the world.

Many thanks to Guillermo Uribe whose books have confirmed and shed light on the meaning of many points of views on a little known continent to the Europeans.

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