Walking along Mexico City’s streets selling crafts made by his family, Jose, a fifty-something year old man with gray hair and a big smile, seems more engaged than usual with his offerings. Wooden and plastic crucifixes hang from his shoulder while he shouts “The Christ of Hope! Let’s pray to get a recount! Let’s pray to be heard by the government!”.
Jose has crafted rough-hewn rosaries and offered them among the crowds during the biggest demonstration ever held in Mexico. According to the organizers, almost two million people came from all over the country at the end of July to respond to the call of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist candidate who claims to have won the highly contested presidential election of July 2nd. And Jose’s merchandise speaks volumes. Those supporting the left wing are beginning to claim the religious patrimony long considered to be the province of the right.
Official figures characterize Mexico as a predominantly Roman Catholic country (89 percent of its population), the second largest in the world. Mexican Catholicism is pervasive, but the country has been a deeply secular country for more than a century, with the intervention of religious institutions in politics successfully banned by the state since the end of the Cristero War in 1929. In 1992, the government broadened the rights of the churches, giving priests some political rights and regulating patrimonial and educational issues. Although the state kept control over the existence of churches and their activity and explicitly restricted clerical participation in political life, a new political elite closer to the Catholic hierarchy and conservative orders (such as the Legionaries of Christ) emerged during the Mexican transition to democracy.
The elections of 2006 were the most competitive in Mexico’s history. Moreover, two altogether different political platforms faced each other and, according to observers, Catholicism played an unusually important role in the way citizens defined their preferences. Some even directly accused the Catholic hierarchy of using their power and influence to prevent the victory of Lopez Obrador, a man who would guarantee the separation between church and state.
During the battle over the election, Catholics perceived the need to recover the powerful symbols of religion for their cause. After several demonstrations in the streets of Mexico City and even one at the huge Metropolitan Cathedral, an imposing 16th century building at the heart of the city, the Catholic hierarchy had to face the challenge posed by many poor Catholics whose political choices are with the left.
Many of those supporting the Coalicion por el Bien de Todos and PRD have started using religious icons to add some color to their demonstrations. Thus, Our Lady of Guadalupe has been regularly seen among them with banners reading “God is not ‘panista,’” or “God is always with the poor.” The situation became alarming enough that Archbishop Norberto Rivera asked believers to refrain from using the images in a political way.
In early September, while the country was waiting for the Electoral Tribunal decision, Mexico City’s archbishopric–the largest in the country– had to make public its position disengaging itself from the government and PAN, the right wing party whose triumph was later acknowledged by the Tribunal. The Mexican Church is far from being a monolithic institution. While some sectors of the Franciscans, the Dominicans and the Jesuits have actively engaged in leftist social and political causes, and the not-yet-dead Basic Ecclesial Communities still attract some people in poor communities, the institutional Church remains reluctant to support those willing to reconcile their Catholicism with their political preferences for the left.
— By Marisol Lopez Menendez