A Theology If Insurrection? Religion and Politics in Mexico

Article excerpt

My children: A new dispensation comes to us today. Will you receive it? Will you free yourselves? Will you recover the lands stolen three hundred years ago from your forefathers by the hated Spaniards? ... Will you not defend your religion and your rights as true patriots? Long live our Lady of Guadalupe! Death to bad government!

Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla

16 September 1810(1)

Chiapas, one of the three poorest states in Mexico, has been called a "rich land with a poor people."(2) Hydroelectric stations in Chiapas produce 55 to 60 percent of the country's electricity, yet 35 percent of the people living in Chiapas do not have access to electricity. Twenty-one percent of Mexico's oil and 47 percent of its natural gas comes from Chiapas. The southernmost state in Mexico, Chiapas yields more than half of Mexico's coffee crop. It is a rich land, yet 42 percent of its inhabitants do not have running water. Sixty-two percent of the people of Chiapas have not finished primary school.(3)

Early in the morning on 1 January 1994, some of the poor people of this rich land, calling themselves Zapatistas (after the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata) and covering their faces with ski masks or bandannas, entered four cities in Chiapas and posted a manifesto which proclaimed, "Today we say enough is enough..."(4) When Mexico's president Carlos Salinas de Gortari received a message about the uprising in Chiapas, his plans for Mexico's economic, social and political transformation were rudely interrupted. The Zapatista uprising in Chiapas radically reshaped the political and economic reality of Mexico. How did indigenous revolutionaries fit into the political and economic framework of a country striving toward parity with two first-world trading partners, Canada and the United States?

In their urgency to locate the source of the uprising and stabilize the political and economic situation, the government and economic elite in Chiapas accused the Catholic Church of inciting the rebellion.(5) One of the bishops of Chiapas, Samuel Ruiz Garcia, and "his" catequistas, or lay preachers, were identified as responsible. Luis Pazos, well-known Mexican academic and author of the bestseller, [??]Por que Chiapas? (Why Chiapas?) put it this way:

[T]he declarations of the indigenous members of the frente zapatista, (Zapatista front) who explained that they were persuaded to participate in the struggle by the catequistas, cause us to conclude that there are activists shielded in religion behind this insurrection.(6)

The rapidity with which the church was declared culpable raises a number of questions regarding the relationship of religion and politics in Mexico.(7) This was not the first time the church was linked to the political process in Mexico. What are the historical roots of the relationship between religion and politics in Mexico? What is the nature of the work of the Catholic Church in Chiapas which made this accusation possible? Is the accusation plausible?

Historical Roots

Given the breadth and depth with which social scientists have studied the relationship of the Catholic Church to political development in Latin America, the dearth of work focusing on Mexico is striking. Staunch anti-clericalism, adopted as official state policy in 1857 and later underscored and strengthened in 1917, has reinforced the notion that the church has played little or no important role in Mexico's political development. Perhaps giving more weight than is merited to official policy and constitutional mandates, most observers ignore the church and examine other institutions and forces in their study of the Mexican political system. Yet the importance of Catholicism in Mexico should not be underestimated. Between 89 and 95 percent of the Mexican people consider themselves Catholic.(8) Catholicism is a key component of Mexican national identity and has been for almost 500 years. …