Religious populism spreads in Latin America

Miami, USA - When Venezuela's leftist populist President Hugo Chávez cited Jesus Christ repeatedly in his election victory speech earlier this week, he joined a growing number of Latin American politicians who are embracing religion -- or at least pretending to do so.

Are they sincere or are we seeing an epidemic of religious populism?

Many analysts see a growing political manipulation of religious fervor in the region, alongside a greater church influence in state affairs. Some fear that, much as in other parts of the world, religion will soon be used to fuel domestic and even regional confrontations.

Before we look into whether such fears are justified, let's look at the facts. Chávez, who has often lashed out against Venezuela's church hierarchy for allegedly siding with the country's oligarchy, and who has been quoted by biographer Agustín Blanco Muñoz as having said that he wasn't ''Christian or Catholic,'' spent part of his victory speech Sunday talking about Jesus Christ.

''The Kingdom of Christ is the kingdom of love, of peace, the kingdom of justice, of solidarity, brotherhood, the kingdom of socialism,'' Chávez said. ``This is the kingdom of the future of Venezuela.''

Weeks earlier, Nicaragua's leftist president-elect Daniel Ortega had won his country's Nov. 5 election by dropping his earlier Marxist rhetoric and running as a religious Catholic. He recently married his longtime companion through the church, supported a church-backed law banning therapeutic abortions and staged photo opportunities in various religious settings.

In Ecuador, conservative banana industry magnate Alvaro Noboa recently rose from almost nowhere in the polls to win the first-round presidential election by running as El mensajero de Dios (God's messenger). He was later defeated in a Nov. 26 runoff vote by leftist populist Rafael Correa, who in the final stretch of the campaign presented himself as a fervent Catholic.

In Argentina, a just-retired Catholic bishop in Misiones province drew national attention last month by winning a local election that marked the first political defeat of President Néstor Kirchner.

In few countries is the church pushing its weight more visibly than in Nicaragua. Roman Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando threw his backing behind his once arch-rival Ortega during the recent electoral campaign, and Ortega has reciprocated by backing the church-supported abortion law.

''There is an all-out alliance between Ortega and Obando,'' Sergio Ramírez, the leftist Nicaraguan vice president during Ortega's regime in the 1980s, told me recently. ``What we're seeing in Nicaragua is a permanent intromission of the church in state affairs.''

In addition, the church has become a much more active player in Argentina since that country's 2001 economic crash, and barely a day goes by in Mexico without headlines quoting Cardinal Norberto Rivera's statements on almost every political or social issue.

A Latinobarómetro poll conducted in 17 Latin American countries last year revealed that the church is by far the most respected institution in the region: 71 percent of Latin Americans said they trust the church. By comparison, 43 percent said they trust their president, 42 percent trust the armed forces, 38 percent trust the private sector, 28 percent trust Congress and only 18 percent trust political parties.

Among the countries where the church enjoys the greatest support are Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay and Panama, with more than 80 percent trust levels, Venezuela (74 percent), Colombia (75 percent) and Ecuador (77 percent).

Church actions aside, much of Latin America's current religious fervor may have to do with the growing disenchantment with politics.

''People need to cling to some emotional element, and this emotional element had long been supplied by ideologies,'' says Marcos Aguinis, one of Latin America's most talented writers and religion analysts and a psychiatrist by training.

``The collapse of ideologies such as communism has left a vacuum, and has led people to seek other things to which to cling with passion, such as religions.''

My opinion: The growing political manipulation of religious fervor in the region -- as well as in the United States -- makes me nervous. Will Chávez now push his new plan to reform the constitution to allow his indefinite reelection in the name of Jesus Christ?

Will Nicaragua's Ortega seek to reopen old border disputes with neighboring countries in the name of God? Will others start campaigning as God's emissaries? Maybe not. But religious populism is on the rise worldwide, and may be growing in Latin America as well.