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Breaking all the rules

29 April 2012

This photo (from last Wednesday’s el Universal) would be unremarkable in a U.S. election but is extremely unusual for Mexico.  Two reasons:

First, until this year, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photograph of a Mexican presidential candidate at a religious service.  Of any sort.

 Given the rancor that followed the separation of Church and State in 1854, the appearance of a legitimate Mexican leader at a Catholic Church service had been a taboo from the time of Benito Juarez until very recently.  While illegitimate leaders, hoping to benefit from the Church’s support (Maximiliano and Victoriano Huerta) were seen publically in the company of clerics, even acknowledged believers, like Manuel Avila Camacho went out of their way to insure that in public, the traditional avoidance of even the near occasion an appearance of clerical influence  was avoided.  If Avila Camacho attended Mass, it was privately and no photographs would have been allowed.

Carlos Salinas, who believed in Carlos Salinas,  met with the Pope John-Paul II  as head-of-state to head-of-state.  But somehow I don’t think John-Paul, misinformed as he was about Mexican Catholicism — seeing his own personal popularity as popularity for his office and the Vatican’s dictates — would have taken Salinas as a good Catholic.   Salinas, though,  certainly recognized the political advantage of better relations with the  Roman Catholic Church.

Of course, Mexican intellectuals and leftists were appalled, but there was little they could do when they were forced into the opposition.  Salinas counted on party loyalists (and the politically apathetic, who only supported the party because it was the only power in town) and openly courted the right, including the pro-clerical elements in PAN and the remaining synarchists.

Salinas having split his own party, left the door open for the PAN victory in 2000.  Vicente Fox, with his wife’s adherence to the “piety wing” of her party could, of course, greet John Paul II as Pope, and not just the reigning monarch of a European mini-state.  Still, it has to be pointed out that Fox wasn’t running for office, and was widely criticized.

Calderón, when running for the presidency in 2006 made little mention of his own piety in the campaign, but his campaign certainly encouraged support from the clergy and the overtly pious.

I thought it was newsworthy that all the candidates were at the Papal Mass last month, although none were expected to do anything more than suit up and show up.  While the hapless Gabriel Quadri has ignored religious issues altogether,  it is unusual to see the historically anti-clerical PRI challenging PAN for the piety vote, at least with Enrique Peña Nieto (so far sucessfully) giving the appearance of a believing Catholic in good standing.  AMLO, representing the left and the old anti-clerical tradition, also attended the Papal Mass and even met with the Pope, but the novelty of the event went largely unremarked.

That AMLO later attended an evangelical service (where he was blessed by the various ministers) is highly unusual.  In the 2006 campaign, besides the claims that AMLO was a “danger to Mexico” because of his leftist ideology, there was a quieter campaign to label him “unMexican” because of his rumored Prostantism.   Protestantism has been growing, exponentially since the 1980s, and — although only about 15 percent of Mexicans are other than Catholic — an even bigger taboo than being seen as overtly pious in Mexican politics would be to be seen as other than conventionally Catholic.

While Mexican Protestants, as in the U.S. range from socially liberal to extremely puritanical, they tend to be on the left politically, if only because the left is associated with Juarez  (who, by disestablishing the Catholic Church effectively legalized non-Catholic beliefs) and the high wall of separation between Church and State that is seen as protection against the tyranny of the majority.  If leftism can be painted as “a danger to Mexico,” then it would almost follow that Protestants were, as lefties, also likely to be a danger.

In the 2006 election, it was specifically claimed that AMLO was not only a Protestant, but a Presbyterian.  I suppose there is a theological irony in that a sect founded on the idea of individual salvation finds some of its most ardent members among communalists (but then, in the U.S. its not unusual to find ardent Catholics who supposedly believe in salvation by good works and humility admiring Ayn Rand).  At any rate, Presbyterianism is particularly popular in AMLO’s  native Tabasco, especially among  the indigenous communes among which the future candidate worked and lived as a young state social worker.  And whose clergy he often relied upon to assist with with providing social services.  That he acknowledges having attended Bible study groups  (something not usually done by Catholics) and that he speaks openly of the value of austerity only serves to further the presumption that he holds some sort of Protestant beliefs.

Which he may.  But having Evangelical ministers pray for him in some sort of “laying on of hands” service adds a new wrinkle.  Obviously, the taboo against appearing at a religious service has been broken.  But, with the two largest party candidates slugging it out for the Roman Catholic pro-clerical vote, appearing at a minority religion’s service (and perhaps being a believer in one of the minority religions) either underscores the seriousness of the candidate’s pledge to treat all beliefs equally — which may resonate with the large number of Mexicans who want religious issues left off the political table, or… perhaps… he finds such spiritual exercises of personal benefit… or, it’s a horrible mistake that the photo has become public.

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