Religion is a socio-cultural phenomenon inherent to all peoples of humanity. The institution that accompanies it, which often has direct or tangential relationships between the religion and politics, is understood as the participatory search by citizens for the common good and for power in a given society. Religious and political coexistence is not always the same. There are examples, however, of hegemony of political power by religion and vice versa. In this respect, the Puerto Rico of the 20thcentury presents a profile of relationships that are sometimes tense and other times cooperative.

It is difficult to define the concept of religion because there are various cultural conceptions of this subjective experience. The same occurs when evaluating the role of religious institutions or denominations in politics. This is due to the interpretations of the judicial and constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

Religious morals bring with them ethics of social relationships. The believer is also a citizen with rights and responsibilities, with an ideology and a social identity. His behavior is guided by rules imposed by the state and by the religious collective to which he belongs. This duality can sometimes be reconciled, sometimes not. There is the essence of the conflict. All institutions tend to preserve their power and subordinate their followers, including their social role or particular personality. Relations between religion and politics are often the subject of suspicion and tension. The religious institution, especially the hierarchical authority, guards its right to freedom of worship and the resulting individual and social practices. Sometimes, there are collaborative approaches to issues on which there is consensus, but in other cases, institutional hegemony by one side or the other leads to judgments, criticisms or followers being directed to act in affirmation and defense of the sphere of power.

Contemporary Puerto Rican history, particularly in the 20th century, has many examples of these relationships. Beginning with the U.S. invasion and the establishment of governments using the ideology and judicial practices of that country, a new relationship began between the Catholic church and the state. If the cultural Catholic tradition inherited from Spain underlined the Spanish American nature and a close relationship with the state, under the new order established on the island by the United States, political relations changed based on the political vision of the authorities in the colony. In 1903, the Catholic ecclesiastical structure was separated from the province of Santiago in Cuba to be administered directly by the Holy See in Rome.

Spanish religious influence did not end, even though the majority of the clergy left for Spain along with the Spanish troops who abandoned Puerto Rican soil after the military defeat. There were priests, nuns and various congregations and orders that continued their missions in Puerto Rico. The hierarchy, however, changed with bishops appointed from the United States, and also with the establishment of new congregations like the Redemptorist from Baltimore, Maryland, and others.

The social and political presence of the Protestant sector increased during the 20th century. The first non-Catholic church in Puerto Rico was established in the 1860s. From 1872 on, the sector had continued its Christian work throughout the island and penetrated social, political and economic spheres both in the rural areas and in the urban centers of power. Protestant churches were instrumental in the process of the Americanization of Puerto Rico after 1898, because their evangelization had the cultural weight of the United States.

During the first decades of the century, political forms arose from religious practices. Protestantismadvanced in its ideological participation under the new political order that was being built, while Catholicism developed under the institutional legitimization directed by the U.S. bishops and resisted the new movement through the actions of the clergy and a kind of popular Catholicism. For example, an organization of rural lay members, called Los Hermanos Cheos, was dedicated to simple preaching in the countryside in the southern and central part of the island to protect the population from Protestant evangelization.

Also worth mentioning is the political militancy of pro-independence and nationalist political movements of the 1930s to the 1960s, such as the Catholic Association, led by Catholic priest Severo Ramos, and the Christian Patriotic Crusade, whose mentor was father Victoriano Margarito Santiago Arce (1917-2012), known as Padre Margarito. The social doctrine of the Catholic church permeated its discourses around the idea of independence as a political option for Puerto Rico. In both cases, they had no institutional support and were in conflict with the governmental authorities of the era.

Later, various social movements arose in Latin American and found fertile ground in the Christian thinking of Catholics and Protestants. Usually they were dissident voices within their respective churches that represented growing trends in the world of theology. From Europe emerged the theology of the political, which in Latin America acquired its own characteristics in a continent that was economically underdeveloped and plagued with social injustices. Liberation theology was born in the 1960s, a time marked by the Cuban Revolution.

Winds of change began to blow in Catholicism. The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council constituted one of the most important hierarchical assemblies in the history of 20th century Christianity. Convened in 1962 by Pope John XXIII, who died a year later (June 3, 1963), it was continued by Pope Paul VI until its closure in 1965. The Council promoted the opening of the Catholic church to the modern world and the commitment of Christians to social and cultural causes as a way of showing their faith.

The call was soon heard in Puerto Rico. While U.S. bishops exercised their power and influence in social and political life, such as with the founding of the Christian Action Party (PAC, for its Spanish acronym) in 1960, voices were raised about the island’s subordinate political position to the United States. One Puerto Rican bishop, the Jesuit Antulio Parrilla Bonilla (1919-1994), who promoted cooperatives, repudiation of the Vietnam War through conscientious objector status, and Puerto Rican independence was at the center of the whirlwind of tension between religion and politics.

Thus Protestants and Catholics found common objectives in Christians for Socialism. The organization played a central role in the 1960 and 1970s as the ecclesiastical leadership rejected such ideological positions because it considered them outside orthodoxy. At other times, however, the social role of the churches led to important participation by Christians, often with official approval, in significant struggles such as ending the military training on the island of Vieques, a situation that had precedent in the 1970s on Puerto Rico’s other island, Culebra.

Moral conservatives joined forces against abortion, in defense of the family and similar themes. Pentecostals and other neoconservative denominations have been very eloquent on these topics. So much so that at the end of the 20th century, the Puerto Rico government established an office for relations with the faith communities in La Fortaleza, the center of executive power. The tactical alliance between religion and politics generated controversy.

Other encounters tend to break the dichotomy between religion and politics. Community-based organizations, labor movements, environmentalists and civic activists in general have brought ecumenical Christianity to social and political commitment.

Finally, at the political partisan level, the classic example was the creation of the PAC, mentioned above, as the result of ties between two political trends of the 20th century: those in favor of annexation and independence. With the objective of directly influencing decision-making in public policy — and with the approval of the Catholic hierarchy and lay participation — this Christian democratic-style political party was founded and rivaled the then-governing Popular Democratic Party.

It appears that a synthesis of recent history affirms that there should be no contradiction between politics and religion when civic and religious duties come together in an integrated way. History is the story of the work of humans in space and time. The divisions of actions, such as what is political and what is religious, refer to social imaginings of power. As with any cultural construct, both manifestations inevitably confront each other, which results in a story that is not yet finished.


Author: Martín Cruz Santos
Published: November 06, 2015.

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