Mexico's Calderon steeped in religious struggle

Morelia, Mexico - The roots of Felipe Calderon's likely ascent to Mexico's presidency lie in one of the darkest periods of the country's history, when the public expression of religion was banned, Roman Catholic churches and chapels were closed and priests were forbidden to wear clerical garb or voice opinions on public affairs.

Calderon's father was among the many who took up arms in defense of the church, and it was that sense of persecution that led him in 1939 to join with other conservative Catholics to found the National Action Party, or PAN in its Spanish initials, the party whose banner Calderon appears to have carried to victory.

Unless Mexico's Federal Electoral Tribunal overturns the disputed July 2 election, Calderon, 43, will be the first president of Mexico whose life is steeped in the brand of conservative Catholicism that gave rise to the Cristero guerrilla movement, which fought against the anti-clerical policies of Mexico's ruling generals from 1926 to 1929.

How that will affect church-state relations in Mexico, which until the 1990s had some of the toughest laws separating church and state in the world, is unknown. Most Mexicans profess to be Catholics, but comments on public affairs by church leaders are viewed as controversial. Until 1992, priests couldn't vote and the church couldn't own property.

Calderon doesn't openly discuss his faith, and in an interview in March he said he wouldn't pursue a religious agenda. He described as "adequate" Mexico's existing abortion laws, which permit terminating a pregnancy in the case of rape, incest or risk to woman or fetus and said he opposed any liberalization. He also opposes the "morning after" contraceptive pill.

His deeply religious background makes him unique among Mexican presidents. He was clearly marked by the struggle of his father and the PAN for religious expression.

Mexico's anti-church stance is a remnant of the bloody revolution of 1910-17, during which peasants sacked churches and killed priests because of their ties to the ruling aristocracy. The revolution itself was an extension of 19th century efforts to rein in a church that had accumulated great power during centuries of colonial rule by Spain.

It was in 1926, when Mexico's generals imposed strict rules on religion, that Felipe Calderon's father, Luis Calderon Vega, then 15, became a Cristero, as the most strident Catholics were known.

It was a dangerous time to be religious. Many priests fled to the United States, and Calderon Vega's sister Soledad, who's now 87, remembers that their father hid a local priest while a government spy posted on the corner kept a lookout for clergy.

"His name was Joaquin Saenz," she said, recalling the priest.

Mexicans regained the right to practice religion in public in 1929, but discrimination against the church and believers continued long after.

Calderon Vega entered a state university but was expelled for wearing a cross. This discrimination against devout Catholics led him to seek out like-minded conservatives, who created the PAN.

Growing up in a conservative, religious opposition movement in Mexico was a quixotic existence for Felipe Calderon. More than three decades after the party was founded, and with few victories to show, Felipe, the youngest of five children, scampered up ladders in knee pants to nail campaign posters onto telephone poles. Union thugs loyal to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, came in right behind them, tore down the posters and threatened the youngsters.

"Sometimes we forget that the PAN was the longest-running opposition movement in the 20th century. They were difficult times, where people were sometimes killed for their opposition," said Roderic Camp, a veteran Mexico expert at California's Claremont College and the author of 20 books on Mexican politics.

Like his father, the younger Calderon paid a price for his religion. A straight-A student, he attended the parochial school where his father taught ethics, but then was turned away from Michoacan's public universities in 1980 because the school's curriculum wasn't legally recognized.

That led him to Mexico City, where he studied law and later received a master's degree in economics from the prestigious Autonomous Technical Institute of Mexico. He also received a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University. He'll be 44 if he's sworn in Dec. 1, the youngest president in Mexican history.

Calderon's father didn't live to see his son's success; he died in 1989.

And perhaps he wouldn't have been all that pleased. He withdrew from PAN activities in 1980, upset about the growing role of big business in the party and its decision to accept public financing for its campaigns.

In a 1970 interview with a Morelia newspaper, Calderon Vega didn't talk about free markets and family values like today's PAN leaders. He sounded very much like leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who's trying in court to overturn Felipe Calderon's narrow win.

"The rich every day get richer and the poor every day poorer," Calderon Vega said then.

"He was the enemy of injustice," recalled Brother Salvador Chavez Ceballos, 68, a Marist priest who taught alongside him.