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Church and State in Latin American Constitutions

By Pedro C. Moreno
Published November 1, 1993

LATIN AMERICA IS LIVING IN AN AGE OF profound transformations. Both spiritually and socially. In fact, it has been said that the recent spiritual revival that is taking place in the continent, due to the Protestant expansion, but also within Catholic circles, may well be one of the last hopes for the economic and social advancement of Latin America. Others doubt that the rise of evangelicalism will result in greater economic and social development in the region.1 However, all admit that an enormous transference in religious affiliation is taking place as Latin Americans seek to have their spiritual needs satisfied.

According to recent statistics, in a region once considered a Catholic stronghold, Protestants are growing at a rate of 400 per hour, which leads demographers to predict that Latin America will be evangelical before the end of the twenty-first century. 2 Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo from Nicaragua, addressing the Vatican College of Cardinals in 1991 pointed out that “protestants in Latin America have grown surprisingly, from 4 million in 1967 to 30 million in 1985.”

On his part, Cardinal Ernesto C. Ahumada from Mexico stated that in the last 30 years “defections from the Catholic church) to other religious groups have tripled in the Dominican Republic, have increased by 500% in El Salvador and Costa Rica, and have grown by 700% in Guatemala.“3 No wonder an evangelical president was recently elected in this latter country. In general, it is estimated that 20% of all Latin Americans are Protestant.

One could ask, what the reason, the causes, the motives for this spiritual transformation that has gone beyond the religious realm to spill into economics, politics, law, and other related areas. Some would say it is something to worry about. Others may look with expectation and hope at what has been termed by FORBES magazine a situation “quite literally revolutionary – more so than Fidel Castro or Che Guevara could ever be.” Referring to the specific Brazilian case, FORBES goes on to say that as a result of evangelical Protestantism having replaced Roman Catholicism as the country’s most widely practiced faith, “the old Brazilian order, based upon a rigid hierarchy and social immobility, has broken down. A new social atmosphere, one more compatible with capitalism and democracy is emerging.” FORBES continues: “Upwardly striving urban poor are encouraged by religious teachings and support groups that preach the power of individuals to change their lives through faith. This contrasts sharply with the old attitude of resignation to one’s fate and a glorification of poverty.“4

The Separation Debate

One of the reasons that contributed to the above-mentioned protestant expansion is the “official” or “established” character of the Roman Catholic church in countries of Latin America. Countries that have had the Catholic church as the official one, not only recognized it as such, but “sustained” it with government subsidies to pay for the salaries of the hierarchy, salaries for teachers of Catholic religion (in the public schools), and subsidies for church schools, refurbishing of temples, etc. This situation still applies to countries such as Argentina, Costa Rica and Bolivia. While some supporters of the official church thought that a government-backed religion would be stronger and more lasting than the others, history and reality are demonstrating the contrary.

Michael W. McConnel and Richard A. Posner in a recent study and in response to the question, “Does it help or hinder religion … (to favor) some denominations at the expense of others?” answer that “it is not entirely true, as it might appear to be, that subsidizing religion must help (a specific) religion and taxing it must hurt it.” These writers quote Enlightenment thinker David Hume (himself hostile to religion) who supported the establishment of an official church with the purpose of dampening religious fervor. “He thought that clergymen on government payrolls, like other civil servants, would lose their zeal.“5 This is exactly what has happened to the Catholic church in Latin America.

Catholic author Richard Rodriguez, puts it well: “My beloved Catholic Church has become an activist in the city, doing social work in plain clothes. Meanwhile Catholicism has deferred its rich prayer life – the rosaries, devotions, and novenas – to another age.“6 In other words, the Catholic church became so involved with the state, and the social and political problems of Latin America that it lost its primary goal, the ministry of satisfying the spiritual needs of the people. This spiritual ministry has not been taken by the evangelical church, which is also starting to go beyond that into the social, economic, and political realm, hopefully without forgetting that its main task, as a church, is the spiritual one.

Position of Simon Bolivar

Simon Bolivar, one of the greatest thinkers and liberators that Latin America has had, commenting upon church and state relations and why he had not included any reference to religion in his 1826 project for a Bolivian Constitution said: “The state cannot rule the conscience of the subjects, neither give an award or a punishment, because God is the only (higher) power.” He further stated: “Religion is the law of conscience. Any law upon it nullifies it, because as it imposes the need for this duty, takes away the merit of faith which is the basis of religion…. The sacred precepts and dogmas are useful, beautiful, and of metaphysic evidence, we all know how to profess them, but this duty is moral, not political.” And Bolivar concluded: “Being all this (religion) of divine jurisdiction, at first sight it seems to me sacrilegious and profane to mix our ordinances with the commandments of the Lord. To prescribe religion, thus, does not belong to the legislators.“7

On his part José Artigas, liberator of Uruguay, addressing the 1813 Constitutional Convention and openly favoring religious liberty for all stated: “we shall promote civil and religious liberty to its maximum imaginable extension.“8 A similar position was taken by Francisco de Miranda in Venezuela, Francisco Morazan in Central America, Bernardo O’Higgins in Chile, Bernadino Rivadavia, Moreno, and Belgrano in Argentina, Vicente Rocafuerte in Mexico, and others.

Vicente Rocafuerte, an Ecuador-born patriot and one of the “ideologists” for the national independence of the Latin American countries, himself a Catholic, recognized that in the United States the relationship between church and state had been remarkably solved by separating these two institutions. In 1831, in an age hostile to liberty of conscience and worship, Rocafuerte wrote his book “Essay on Religious Tolerance” in which he stated that “a dominant religion is oppressive. That is why the early Christians were also persecuted.” For him the separation of church and state was “the genius of the century.“9

Recent Developments Concerning Church and State

One of the Latin American countries that most recently has separated the church from the State is Paraguay.

In a surprising but understandable move, the Paraguayan Catholic Bishops Conference joined a group of 14 protestant churches in asking for the separation of church and state in that country. The new Paraguayan constitution guarantees religious freedom and the separation of church and state. It also eliminates the requirement to profess the Catholic religion for the President of the republic.

In June of 1991, with the participation of two evangelicals, and with the support of indigenous peoples and others, Colombia’s Constitutional Convention took away the official status of the Catholic church and declared that “all religious confessions and churches are equally free before the law” (art. 19 of the new Constitution) in spite of the Catholic church. The Colombian Congress is not discussing a religious liberty law which, according to its framers (evangelical lawyers) would further guarantee and detail the equality of all churches and their rights to freedom of worship.

On its part, the Lower Chamber of the Mexican Congress has just approved a “Law on Religious Associations and Public Worship” that attempts, at least partially, to restore religious liberties in that country. In its 6th article the law establishes that “religious associations are equal before the law in rights and obligations.” This means that there are not special privileges for the Catholic Church.

Evangelicals in Chile are pressing the Congress to grant evangelical churches the legal status of entity of public law. Currently the only church in the country that has such a status is the Catholic church. This new status would relieve the evangelical churches from having to register with the government, give some tax benefits to them, and especially improve their current legal situation which now places the evangelical churches at the same level of sports clubs, cultural associations, and the like.

Argentina, where the Catholic church is still the “official” one, and where the President must be Catholic, has now started a process of debate concerning this topic. President Carlos Menem has manifested his desire to eliminate the “religious test” for the President, and believes the Catholic hierarchy will not oppose this measure. There is also strong support for the separation of church and state.10 Currently, the Argentinean Congress is discussing a law on religious liberty which, due to its controversial and unclear provisions, is not expected to pass anytime soon.

Concerning Bolivia, the struggle for the separation of church and state continues, this time with the support from not only evangelical circles but even from some sectors of the Catholic church. Some political parties have also expressed their desire to see a constitutional amendment to provide for church and state separation. At this moment, article 3 of the Constitution establishes that “the State recognizes and sustains the Roman, Apostolic, Catholic church. It guarantees the freedom of worship.”

Conclusion

Latin America has had one of the most extended experiences with the establishment of and “official” church. For the most part the results have been negative. Negative for the Catholic church, which not only has seen an increasing decline of the number of its faithful, but also has suffered the impact of the abuses, mistakes, and shortcomings of the supposedly “Catholic” central governments. Negative for the country, because it did not allow the development of an environment of true pluralism in the religious realm, affecting even the political realm.

With the new constitutional reforms that most Latin American countries have undergone and are still undergoing, and the consolidation of the separation of church and state in most of them, there is hope that the religious climate will improve, thus providing a better environment not only for the evangelical churches that have long suffered discrimination, but even for the revitalization of the Catholic church. As the wisdom of history and biblical principals have shown, it is better that the state perform its specific civil responsibilities, which the church dedicates itself to the satisfaction of the spiritual needs of the people.

Last but not least, we should never forget that the separation of church and state does not mean separating God or the Bible from public life. Christianity is relevant to all areas of life, and can impregnate them with biblical principles. But that work should be carried out by individuals and never by uniting the church and the state at an institutional level.

1 Timothy Goodman, The Reformation of Latin America, The American Enterprise, July/August 1991; Pedro C. Moreno, Latin American Evangelicals: A Critique.
2 Richard Rodriguez, Losing Ground, Crisis, November 1989, p.40.
3 National and International Religion Report, April 22, 1991, p.3.
4 FORBES, October 15, 1990, p.57
5 Michael W. McConnell, Richard A. Posner, An Economic Approach to Issues of Religious Freedom, The University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 56, No. 1, Winter 1989, p.54, 55.
6 Rodriguez, op. cit., at 42.
7 Luis D. Salem, El Dios de Nuestros Libertadores, 1977.
8 Arnoldo Canclini, La Libertad de Cultos, 1987, at 75.
9 Alejandro Soto Cardenas, Influencia de la Independencia de los Estados Unidos en la Constitucion de las Naciones Latinoamericanas, 1979, at 159.
10 La Nacion, April 12, 1992.

INVOCATIONS TO GOD IN CONSTITUTIONAL PREAMBLES IN THE AMERICAS


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Amazing GraceAmazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism (DVD)

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2. Does the Old Testament Law apply today?
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