The First Religious War of the 21st Century (Sixth in a Friday Series on Liberation Theology)

That liberation theology dared from 1968 on to enter the arena of religion which the right had long dominated virtually without rival astounded and infuriated the keepers of empire. Peasants throughout the subjugated world found entirely empowering the new explanations of God, Jesus and the gospels which this Friday series of blog posts has reviewed. Everywhere throughout Latin America they formed biblical circles, and those circles issued in social movements for justice.

In response, the Rockefeller Report of 1969 already identified liberation theology as a threat to the national security of the United States. By 1987, the Latin American Military Chiefs of Staff meeting in conference in Mar del Plata, Argentina, devoted several pages of their final report to liberation theology and the threat it posed to regional stability.  In between, in 1979 the first Santa Fe Document advised the incoming Reagan administration that it had to do something decisive about the threat posed by liberation theology. The administration heeded the advice, and responded both militarily and ideologically.

Reagan’s military strategy against liberation theology issued in what Noam Chomsky describes as the first religious war of the 21st century. It was the war of the United States against the Catholic Church in Latin America whose bishops, as noted earlier, had together dared to affirm a “preferential option for the poor” as their official position. To combat that commitment, the U.S. did exactly what Rome had done in the first three centuries of our era – and for the same reason: faithfully following Jesus who called empire into question and motivated the poor to assert their rights in this world as children of the God of life.

And both the Roman response and the U.S. response to Jesus and his followers resulted in blood baths. Many of us are well acquainted with the best-known martyrs: Camilo Torres, Archbishop Romero, the Salvadoran team of liberation theologians killed at San Salvador’s Central American University in 1989, the U.S. women religious murdered years earlier in that same country, and Che Guevara. (Yes, Che. His spirituality was secular, but it was no less spiritual or liberationist than any of the others.) And then the unending list of martyrs in this war against the Catholic Church – 200,000 in Guatemala, more than 100,000 in Nicaragua, 90,000 in El Salvador, and literally untold killings and disappearances in Honduras. In every case, the carnage was a response to social movements inspired by liberation theology. Again, as Chomsky points out, official U.S. military documents show that liberation theology was a major target of those wars. In fact within those same official documents, the Army boasts specifically about defeating LT.

As for Reagan’s ideological response to liberation theology . . . .  On his accession to power, CIA psyops began funding conservative alternatives to liberation theology in Latin America and in the U.S. So did business concerns that saw the leftward drift of Latin America as a threat to their presence there. Domino’s Pizza and Coors Brewery were prominent among the cases in point. As a result, evangelicals throughout the region grew rapidly in number, and the recipients of those funds in the United States increasingly identified with Republicans, the “hand that fed them.” So the television programs of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Baker, Jimmy Swaggart, and others were beamed into every poor barrio, población, and favela. Right wing churches sprang up everywhere feeding and expanding an already robust evangelical presence in areas once completely dominated by the Catholic Church. The message was always the same – a depoliticized version of Christianity whose central commitment involved accepting Jesus as one’s personal savior and rejecting communism including the type allegedly represented by the theology of liberation.

All of this points up the extreme importance of LT. In effect liberation theology was not only responsible for spiritual and political awakening throughout Latin America, it was also indirectly responsible for the rise of the religious right in the United States, and ultimately for the Tea Party.  

In fact, the rise of evangelicalism as the dominant contingent in the Republican Party was the result of an offensive against a powerful U.S. form of liberation theology. According to Chip Bertlet, who has been researching right wing populism for the last 25 years and more, the energizing force behind the offensive was the political right’s project to capture and channel the angry reaction of large numbers of white Southern Christians against the Civil Rights Movement animated by a nascent form of black liberation theology closely identified with Martin Luther King. In that context, the Reagan administration’s offensive against LT (and the Civil Rights Movement) took on a particular U.S. embodiment paralleling the Latin American form just referenced. The U.S. form also involved assassinations, F.B.I. surveillance, and identification of civil rights leaders as “communists.” Since the zeitgeist following the legislative and social successes of the Civil Rights Movement made overtly anti-black campaigns impossible, the U.S. form could not simply call for a repeal civil rights legislation. It took on instead a campaign against “Big Government” seen as responsible for implementing those legislative reforms.

Just like the Latin American campaign against LT, the U.S. counterpart took off in 1979, and achieved real prominence over a brief period of 18 months. Since “Roe v. Wade” represented an instance of “Big Government’s” power, abortion was adopted as a trigger issue masking the racism just below the surface. The issue was adopted as pivotal even though prior to 1968 no protestant denomination had an official position on abortion. (See “Right Wing Populism in the U.S.A.: Understanding Social Movements of the Right in America Today,” Talk delivered at the Z Media Institute, Woods Hole, MA, June 8th, 2010. See also the PBS film “With God on our Side.”)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, so to speak, we currently have in the White House the first U.S. president directly influenced by liberation theology. For 20 years, Barack Obama was part of the congregation of Jeremiah Wright – identified by James Cone, the father of black liberation theology, as the black liberation theology’s foremost contemporary embodiment. LT’s importance was illustrated in the 2008 debate about Jeremiah Wright’s influence on Candidate Obama which nearly derailed his run for the presidency. 

In other words, liberation theology has been far more influential than most are willing to recognize. In a sense, it has shaped U.S.-Latin American relations for a half-century. It has changed the face of Protestantism in the United States.

In addition, Ronald Reagan’s ideological strategy against liberation theology changed the Catholic Church. Reagan’s offensive involved allying himself with a conservative anti-communist Polish pope, John Paul II, who proved to be an inveterate enemy of liberation theology. The apparent agreement between the two was that John Paul would be silent about the war against Latin American Catholics, if Reagan would help him in the pope’s campaign against communism in Poland. During his reign of over 20 years, John Paul was to gradually replace Latin America’s pro-liberation theology bishops with conservative pre-Vatican II types. He did this throughout the world – mostly in direct response to liberation theology.

Even more virulently set against liberation theology was John Paul’s lieutenant, Joseph Ratzinger, whom the pope appointed head of the Sacred Congregation for the Faith (formerly the Office of the Holy Inquisition). In that capacity, Ratzinger penned an official warning about liberation theology in 1985. Basically, it rejected the movement because of its association with Marxist analysis of third world poverty. Of course, Ratzinger succeeded John Paul II in the papacy. He’s now Pope Benedict XVI. So the onslaught against liberation theology continues with no end in sight.

Sadly, Reagan’s two-front strategy worked. Revolutionary gains in El Salvador, Guatemala, and most prominently, in Nicaragua were halted and reversed. Militarily, the “Guatemala Solution” was the template. It entailed using military and paramilitary death squads to kill everyone remotely connected with guerrilla movements. According to the Reagan strategy, that included priests, nuns, lay catechists and ministers of the word influenced by liberation theology. The theological strategy worked as well. The slogan promulgated by the Salvadoran military said it all, “Be a patriot; kill a priest.” 

But despite the carnage, and despite the claims of victory by the U.S. military, liberation theology remains alive and well in grass-roots movements for solidarity. And in general, social movements inspired by liberation theology bore fruit in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They continue to bear fruit today. More specifically, it is possible to say credibly that apart from the theology of liberation, it is impossible to explicate Allende’s rise to power in 1973 or the triumph of the Sandinistas in 1979, or the power the FMLN in El Salvador had and continues to enjoy today. The Zapatista movement in Mexico is also intimately connected with liberation theology. Even more, without reference to liberation theology, it’s impossible to fully understand the rise of new left governments throughout Latin America. All of them are indebted to liberation theology and its power to motivate the grassroots. (Evo Morales’ rise to power in Bolivia might be an exception. But even he used Andean myths of liberation to mobilize indigenous grassroots forces on his behalf).

That same power to motivate is evident in the ongoing “Arab spring.” There the power derives from the liberation currents undeniably present in Islam. In fact, as Gandhi saw in changing the face of India, similar currents are found in Hinduism. Again, it is possible to credibly assert that liberation theology has at its roots elements found at the center of all the religions of the world. In this light, the world-wide offensive against Islam represents the latest phase of the now Thirty Years War against liberation theology under wherever form it may appear.

Next Friday: Series Conclusion

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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