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Amid international trade discussions in mid-December 2019, Mexican senator María Soledad Luévano Cantú of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s MORENA party introduced a contentious new proposal to soften the relationship between Church and State in the country’s century-old constitution. The moved sparked controversy, particularly in the Twitter community. Many saw Luévano’s proposition as an attempt to break a revered part of political culture, the secular Mexican State, in efforts to “turn Mexico into the religious Venezuela of the north.”
Soon after, AMLO, who publicly reveres Benito Juárez’s ideals, came out against the proposal. “A Dios lo que es de Dios y a César lo que es del César” (Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's) he remarked, stating his firm belief in this touchstone of Juárez’s presidency, the separation of Church and State. “I think it’s a subject that shouldn’t be touched,” Lopez Obrador continued at a news conference at the National Palace in Mexico City. Catholic cardinal and the archbishop of Mexico City, Carlos Aguiar Retes, voiced support for the president, expressing respect for the lay nature of the state. The president of the National Brotherhood of Evangelical Christian Churches, Arturo Farela, also spoke out in support of AMLO. However, he also said he didn’t believe the bill would have ended the separation of church and state altogether.
Secularism has been a reigning principle in Mexican politics since Juárez was in power (1858-72), and Article 130 of the 1917 Constitution ramped up the state’s authority over the Church. Despite the lack of support by the president, Luévano’s proposal touches on many important issues as Mexico evaluates AMLO’s first year in office, especially considering this first year unfolded quite differently than many of AMLO’s supporters on the progressive and center-left—both in Mexico and the United States—had hoped. His approach has had the positive effect of prompting a reassessment of the most fundamental “rules” of Mexican politics. However, going into 2020, the president needs to demonstrate that the programs he has put forward can strengthen Mexico—especially as 2019 was the most violent year on record in Mexico, with more than 34,000 murders nationwide.
Luévano’s initiative proposed to reform the 1992 Ley de Asociaciones Religiosas y Culto Público (Law of Religious Associations and Public Worship) to give churches additional powers to perform philanthropic activities for the benefit of the community. Some measures within her proposal include increasing religious groups’ access to media, relaxing regulations on Church ownership of property, and permitting chaplains to perform spiritual work in government facilities, including on military bases. Additionally, amid turmoil in the Catholic Church regarding persistent accusations of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up scandals, her reform proposed requiring church officials to immediately report knowledge of wrongdoing to authorities. This directive could conceivably compromise a tenet of the Catholic priesthood, the vow of silence in the confessional. Despite bringing this proposal to the Morena-controlled Senate floor, it has little to no chance of moving forward without the express backing of the president.
The difficulty of maintaining the secular character of the state while guaranteeing freedom of religious practice and expression has been a defining tension in modern Mexican politics. From Benito Juarez to the architects of the 1917 Mexican Constitution, Mexican politicians hoped that their reforms would usher in a distinctly secular, peaceful era for the nation. Politicians conveyed the weight of this principle by placing it as one of the initial articles of the Constitution and sharply delimiting the bases of Church political and social power, particularly through secularizing state-education. This reduction of Church power culminated in the 1926-28 Cristero Rebellion, when Mexico’s bishops halted church services in protest of these new regulations. As a result, close to 50,000 religious peasants died during this conflict. Despite “solving” this religious question—or the place of the Church in a Catholic-majority country after a markedly anticlerical revolution—the issue frequently came into public discussion throughout the 20th century. However, it wasn’t until 1992 that religion’s place in secular Mexico was significantly reconsidered, producing the first major constitutional overhaul on the question.
Amid North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations in the early 1990s, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari promoted a constitutional reform to assuage internal political forces, including to garner Catholic support for Salinas’s neoliberal project. Prior to his administration, renewed religious sentiment developed as the Catholic Church became increasingly critical of the government’s authoritarianism. Salinas pushed forward an amendment to Article 1 of the Constitution by passing the enabling legislation, the Ley de Asociaciones Religiosas y Culto Público, on July 15, 1992. In essence, the reform granted legal status, or juridical personality, to legally registered religious associations that could demonstrate five years of religious activity and genuine community standing. It also allowed exceptional acts of religious worship to be celebrated in public, enabled the church to own indispensable properties, and suppressed restrictions on the founding of religious congregations. Two months following the amendment’s passing, Mexico and the Holy See exchanged diplomatic notes, reestablishing diplomatic ties, for the first time since breaking formal relations in 1862.
Though the 1992 reform navigated Congress rapidly, it earned criticism and lasting disgruntlement in religious circles because it strengthened the idea that the government only needed to deal with Rome and then the Mexican church would fall in line, but did not reflect Mexican pastoral reality. Its legalistic, classical liberal language describing where and under what circumstances acts of worship might be celebrated also departed from what the Conference for the Episcopate of Mexico, the reigning body of the Catholic Church, deemed the much broader human right of religious liberty. Moreover, critics disagreed with the failure to reform Article 5, which continued to uphold the exclusively lay character of public education. In general, too, it could be said that the law gave more, not less, power to the state, which could in theory regulate religious associations like small businesses. Most divisive was the fact that the 1992 reform seemed to reflect the kind of European agenda associated with Pope John Paul II more than it responded to the actual needs of Mexican Catholics.
Nonetheless, since 1992, religion in Mexico, legally, has been freer than at any other time during the 20th century. This has coincided with the expansion of Evangelical Protestant presence throughout Mexico. While Protestant congregations can date their presence in Latin America widely to the 19th century, there was a marked boom from the 1960s to 1980s. Mexico was no exception. From the reformist era of Benito Juárez to the progressive liberal governments during the early 20th century, Mexican politicians often created extensive relations with Protestant communities with the goal of breaking the social power of the Catholic Church. This Liberal-Evangelical alliance has continued to the present, and partially explains the paradoxical relationship of AMLO with Evangelical congregations.
Luévano’s proposal to reform Article 1 comes as the federal government has shown increasing religious inclusiveness, especially with regard to Evangelical groups, which have a growing followership throughout Mexico, Central, and South America. Her initiative would mostly benefit evangelicals and other religious minority groups in a country that remains around 81 percent Catholic. AMLO has notoriously cultivated a large base of Evangelical Protestant support, particularly through the Partido Encuentro Social (PES), a recently founded socially conservative party dominated by Evanglical Christians that formed part of AMLO’s coalition. By aligning with AMLO, PES has rapidly grown from a fringe party to the fourth largest faction in both chambers of Mexico Congress. Morena’s alliance of political parties won majorities in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, surpassing the political powerhouse of the PRI, the party of previous president Enrique Peña Nieto. Meanwhile, left critics questioned AMLO’s willingness forge an alliance with such a conservative political force and raised concerns about how this would shape his policy.
Like many Latin American populists, he put neoliberalism and corrupt, privileged elites at the center of his critique of the policy path Mexico has followed over the past three decades. Now that he’s in office, AMLO’s campaign promises to put an end to neoliberalism have given way to language of moral renewal and social reconciliation that has profoundly conservative undertones. Recently, Evangelical groups have debuted in mass media, in businesses, and particularly in the real estate sector. This is an unprecedented move, particularly as previous presidents favored alliances with Catholic factions. Additionally, AMLO has invited religious associations to join interior ministry working groups to co-design social policies aimed at restoring the social fabric. This move has included the president tapping religious groups to help distribute a government-published book on morals and citizenship through their churches and proposing television and radio concessions to religious movements in order to “strengthen values.” In mid-December, during a meeting in the president’s office, the National Confraternity of Evangelical Churches announced that several thousand youths enrolled in a federal scholarship program will also be tutored in biblical precepts.
Though the government maintains that Church and State are separate entities, this partnership between conservative religious associations and the Federal Government, particularly in carrying out AMLO’s so-called “Fourth Transformation” (4T)—founded on eradicating corruption, alleviating poverty, and work for social justice and equality—challenges the president’s secular political function. This 4T is billed as far-reaching regime change that, through a combination of radical government austerity, honesty, and the president’s sheer personal magnetism, will usher in a new era. Fulfilling everything promised in these reforms will be no small accomplishment, given Mexico’s previous three transformations were the seminal events in Mexican history: independence from Spain (1810-1821), the 1850s War of Reform that led to Benito Juárez’s rise, and the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
AMLO speaks starkly about morality and the “conservatives” and “neoliberals” he claims seek to destroy Mexico and bring down his presidency. Many, though, have criticized him for failing to follow through on lofty promises: While he has proven successful in talking about transforming Mexico, he has been less adept at crafting actionable policy. This is compounded by the disillusion with his support for the new NAFTA, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). When NAFTA passed in the United States in 1993, AMLO led a protest of peasants and fishermen in Mexico City’s main plaza against the state-owned oil company Pemex. Nevertheless, AMLO still commands a 71 percent approval rating, a phenomenon scholars attributes to dissatisfaction with prior governments, notably the scandal-ridden term of AMLO’s predecessor.
As for the senator with whom he disagreed on religious reform, Luévano justified her proposal saying the 1992 law was obsolete and outdated. “With respect, tolerance and without taboos, we can work together so that thousands of religious associations in our country can help Mexico become a country where we all live better-off,” Luévano wrote on Twitter. Reflecting early critics when the Law of Religious Associations and Public Worship first passed in 1992, she argued that outside major cities, the secular state must coexist with the enormous capacity of religious organizations that can assist the government in carrying out social work—including the administration of orphanages, asylums, community canteens—and participating in peace strategies through the diffusion of ethical, moral, and religious values. This is interesting as many have critiqued the government in not responding well to high rates of crime and violence, pervasive corruption, and declining rural communities.
This instrumentalization of churches is a significant turnabout and a flagrant violation of laicist principles enshrined in the 1992 Law, but it does makes sense in the historical relationship between Church and State prior to the Juárez years when Church and State were united—only Protestants are likely to be the dominant partner now. Despite this proposal having little to no chance of passing—Morena dominates both houses of Congress and the party would not push legislation without the president’s support—it nevertheless highlights an important trend that is forming under AMLO.
Given the disappointments in his first year in office, particularly in failing to adequately develop and undertake actionable work to solve Mexico’s rising rates of violence, unemployment, and public health crises, leaning on religious organizations is one of many strategies AMLO has employed to distract from actually carrying out the transformative work he has promised. By doing so, is AMLO admitting that the government cannot carry out all of his promises and slowing giving these duties over to religious organizations?
Madeleine Olson is a Ph.D. Candidate in History with a Latin American focus at The University of Texas at Austin. She is currently conducting research between Mexico City and Vatican City, examining interreligious violence and Church-State relations in Mexico during the twentieth century. email@example.com | Twitter: @maddieohhhh