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What Messiah for the Tropical Messiah?

13 July 2018

I had been meaning to write on AMLO’s religion, but Andrew Chesnut (Patheos Global Catholic Review) and Jan-Albert Hootsen (Americas Magazine) beat me to it.   Both writing in Catholic publications, they both take it as given that AMLO is a Catholic, noting that he mentions that he was an altar-boy, and that he carries a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe in his wallet.  Of course, as Chesnut notes, AMLO has described himself as “Christian”… a term generally used in Mexico to mean Protestant, and both authors not that his coalition included the Evangelical Christian PES (Social Encounter Party, for its initials in Spanish), and he has campaigned with a Bible in hand, a rather un-Catholic practice.  Neither seems to note that AMLO spent several years working and living in a predominantly Presbyterian Chontal community, and had close ties to that denomination early in his career.  During his 2006 campaign, a whispering campaign (this was pre-Twitter days) suggested as much.  During his 2012 campaign, he was photographed receiving a laying on of hands by Evangelical pastors.

But, “once a Catholic, always a Catholic” … we’ll say he’s a Catholic.   But what kind of Catholic is he?

His 2012 Presidential campaign’s coalition had the clunky name “For The Good of All, But First The Poor”.  That’s very much in the tradition of Liberation Theology, which has been criticized for its references to Marx… but then, as a Socialist, one assumes AMLO is a Maxist.  And a Catholic… or did he go off the reservation for a time, perhaps dabbling with Evangelicalism?  Or perhaps he’s been influenced by the Charismatic Renewal movement within Catholicism, which adopts some Pentacostal and Evangelical practices?

I think the latter is possible, but consider where AMLO comes from, both politically and geographically.  AMLO has said often enough that he is a political heir to Benito Juárez… a nationalist always, anti-clerical by necessity.  Juárez, remained a believing Catholic even after his excommunication, but saw his excommunication as a worth-while price to pay to guarantee the state’s independence from unsought outside influence.  Coupled with the traditional anti-clericalism that reached its zenith in the aftermath of the Revolution (especially under Calles, the founder of the PRI), it was taboo in Mexican politics until recently to even talk about religion.  There was an assumption that to be Mexican meant to be Guadalupian, and Catholic by default, but until very recently, it would be national news if a President or Governor (or Mayor of Mexico City) went to Mass, or was even seen in the company of an ecclesiastic.  It was something of a national scandal when Vicente Fox kissed the Pope’s ring during a state visit.  And Fox, after all, was from a party that had its roots in Catholic anti-revolutionary reaction.  Fox and the Pope were the subject of the very first Mexfile I wrote, by the way.

AMLO emerged on the national scene as one of the left-wing PRI politicians who rejected the party’s rightward (and capitalist) drift.  Ironically, the party of Plutarco Elias Calles was the party to open relations with the Vatican, and to embrace the anti-Liberationist Bishops who came to prominence during John-Paul II’s long papacy.  Tolerance for the clergy, or rather the Catholic hierarchy, was a threat to the Protestant minority, and it has been at times amusing as one raised in the United States, to see Evangelicals openly backing the most radical leftist parties seeing them as the least likely to undo the protections they enjoyed in a state which openly opposed the Catholic Church.  One of my favorite moments in Mexico was talking to a confused tourist who couldn’t fathom indigenous people selling religious art under a banner featuring those saints… Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Emiliano Zapata.  In a country where one of the last of the revolutionary guerilla leaders… Ruben Jaramillo… was a protestant pastor… it’s a mistake to presume social conservatism and socialism are antitheses. Among other things, this would account for AMLO’s willingness to bring in the PES to his successful coalition.

And, AMLO is very much a son of Tabasco, the setting of Graham Greene’s “Power and the Glory”.  AMLO was born in 1953, about a generation too late to be part of the openly anti-catholic Red Shirt youth movement under the leadership of Tomás Garrido Canabal. Even in rural Tepetitán, smashing up churches and beating up priests had been a popular sport in the not so distant past, and altar-boy or not, to be a Catholic in Tabasco was not something to be paraded about, nor was it a place where the clergy were likely to expect one to show the outward and visible signs of one’s faith in public.  It has to be said, as well, that Tabasco is one state where Protestants are a much larger percentage of the population than in the most parts of Mexico, and too close an identification with any particular sect would be politically unwise:  less a matter of broad tolerance, than of being a member of a community.  In Tabasco, a small community might be entirely Jehovahs’ Witnesses, while the next is Seventh Day Adventists, and the next Roman Catholic.  Catholics in the JW town might find their electricity cut off, or their pigs killed, as would Adventists in the Catholic town.  If one is going to practice politics at anything beyond the village level, it wouldn’t do to identify one’s self completely with one or another sect.

AMLO’s generation of Catholics is the Vatican II generation.  His was the generation of Catholics who went through the “Revolution” and were exposed to experimentation and upheavals in expressions of faith.  His two mainstream opponents, both of whom made mention of their Catholicism during the campaign, were enough younger to have been raised in a Church that had come to some sort of consensus on what Catholicism was, and how it was practiced.  In a way, it was like the difference between politicians of the Revolutionary era… willing to think “outside the box” when it came to governance, and the post-Revolutionary PRI… with its incongruent factions left over from the Revolution, but a set way of governing.    Both of those opponents were from the upper middle class, for whom Catholicism  is as much a matter of proper behavior and doing the expected thing than anything else.  For a rural Tabascan of the lower middle class, a shopkeeper’s son sent out to find his own way in the world (AMLO had to leave home when he was 17, after being blamed by his father for an accident that killed a younger brother), a believer at a time when how to believe and how to express that belief was a question that could be asked, it is probably enough to say AMLO is a believer, who also believes in power to the people, the masses, whether or not he attends Mass.


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