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Better to die on your feet than pray on your knees… or something like that

21 March 2012

AMLO issued a press statement today to say he would attend a Mass presided over by Pope Benedict XIV later this week.  However, he won’t kneel to the Pope, recognizing him only as  a foreign head of state.

The last papal visit (subject of the very first Mex Files post) was from the ailing John-Paul II in May 2002.  Vicente Fox was President then, and had just married his long-time live-in girlfriend Marta Sahagun — herself a power in the pro-clerical wing of PAN.

2002 was not an election year, John-Paul II was extremely popular and other than the left, no one really got too bent out of shape when Fox was photographed kissing the Pope’s hand.  Fox himself was an observant Catholic (more or less) and Mexico has (more or less) come to tolerate public displays of religiosity by public figures.

2012 IS an election year.  Benedict XVI is not well-regarded, and while the PAN candidate is from the pro-clerical wing of her party, and the PRI front-runner has also gotten right with the church by marrying HIS live-in girlfriend, but public religiosity has again become a contentious social issue.

Especially with Mexico City’s approval of various reforms that the Church strongly opposes (same-gender marriage, legal abortion, etc.), and clerics clamoring to enter the public debate, the symbolism surrounding deference to the Pope could be an important factor in the upcoming election.  That the right (and a good part of the PRI) is looking to change the constitutional restrictions on clerical involvement in political discourse (and, incidentally, to allow religious instruction in public schools) puts the candidates in a tricky position.

In 2006, López Obrador — then Jefe de Goberniero of the Federal District, the second most powerful elective office in the country — did not enter the Basilica when John-Paul II said a Mass attended by the President and much of the political elite.  He wasn’t yet a candidate for the Presidency, and could afford the … um… Jesuitical (definition #2) gesture of sitting outside the Basilica doors, thus preserving his hard-line Juarisista credentials and avoiding even the appearance of favoritism to one or another religious sect, while observing the niceties of protocol surrounding a visit by an important and popular foreign leader.

This year, it’s much harder for López Obrador, who is trying to convince not just the Mexican public, but the nervous U.S. foreign policy wonks, that a leftist is not a radical.  And, while it probably played a minor role in the 2006 election, one claim made against AMLO was that he was a “secret” Presbyterian.  Not that there is a religious test for the presidency, but like Mitt Romney — whose Mormonism is an important factor in his party’s primaries — or Barack Obama — who has faced continuous sniping from people claiming he is secretly a Muslim — non-standard belief can be an issue with voters.

Protestantism is a minority belief, and López Obrador, while ostensively Catholic, did work as a young social worker with Presbyterian social groups, and did attend Presbyterian services, while working in an indigenous community which had adopted that particular sect as their own.   That López Obrador also has said he is a regular Bible reader (something usually not associated with Roman Catholic practices) has contributed to the under-the-radar speculation about his private beliefs.

Going to Mass is probably good politics, if nothing else.  Not kneeling to the Pope, while preserving, and probably strengthening, the candidate’s anti-clerical and secular voter credentials, may be used by the pro-clerical voters as an opening for another round of sniping at AMLO, based on supposed religious beliefs, including some who might otherwise vote for the left, out of weariness of the two major parties and the need for change in the direction of public policy.  Not that they will vote for one of the other candidates, but that they will simply not vote.


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