Reflections on the Daily Violation Of the Secular State
This analyst of Nicaragua’s political situation
denounces the ongoing violation of the secular state,
and firmly explains why we need secularity
to build democracy and freedom.
Onofre Guevara López
Secularism is one of the main conquests in the fight for freedom of conscience, human rights, tolerance and democracy. Anywhere religious fundamentalism prevails, democracy and human rights, particularly those of women, are absent.
A three-dimensional functionIn no socio-political period has either religious fundamentalism or secularism remained immutable. As the privileged class develops more conservative ideas, it stops respecting the separation of the functions of the state, as maximum representative of society’s organized power, and those of the church, with its own exclusive functions in the spiritual realm, and with that secularism starts losing its real value.
Secularism is not just the independence of the “temporal” power from the “spiritual” one. It has a three-dimensional function in society. Considered the main advance “in the conquest of the freedom of peoples,” secularism also has other functions within political and ideological activities. Historically, it expresses the moment when the human community acquires the capacity to assume the search for a better world and its own happiness in reality, here on earth, independent of “God’s plan for humanity” offered by religion. With this liberating conception, religion was placed where it belongs: in people’s private life; in their conscience.
According to this conception, secularism can be understood as having three dimensions. The first is the legal dimension, in which the church and state are separated. The second is the human dimension, which guarantees freedom of conscience. And the third is the social and ideological dimension, in which religious elements are removed from the public realm to occupy a private space.
Secularism is not always recognized or practiced in all three of its dimensions because the penetration of conservative ideas into all terrains has limited it to what is written in the Constitution and laws. Neoliberal governments have been bringing religion out of the inner dimension of individual life and into the public arena, giving it a political dimension. In so doing they transgress the principle of the secular state enshrined in most Constitutions, which is yet another reflection of the pre-eminence of their economic and political interests. Such behavior makes a mockery of the sense of secularism, which is one of the most effective ways to generate tolerance among human communities with different beliefs and build a democratic culture.
Four governments have mocked This is what is happening in Nicaragua. Secularism remains only in the text of the Constitution. In real life it is denied its real value and true importance in achieving democratic human relations. The devaluation of secularism goes hand in hand with our society’s limited democratic development. Secularism remains in our republic’s maximum law, but reduced to a symbolic trophy, stripped of any real value. Our political conditions have allowed governments to violate it with impunity. That trophy, held up as a triumph of democratic liberalism and defended by the Sandinista revolution in its time, is today an unmerited prize, because the governments have stopped honoring it in their eagerness to please the conservative forces with whom they share so many economic interests and governing styles.
the secular Nicaraguan state
Today, our President is combining economic and political interests with his suspect cult of the religious. But his contradiction with the Constitution and his equally suspect political practice are nothing original, although his reasons are obviously different than other cases that come to mind. For example, it must be remembered that the revolutionaries who drew up the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen following the triumph of the French Revolution said they were doing so “in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being.”
However, such a long-standing contradiction gives neither the current Ortega government nor the three that came before it the right to ignore or mock our state’s secular nature. Nicaragua’s legal condition as a secular state—article 14 of the Constitution says that “Nicaragua has no official religion”—has been treated with great disrespect in many individual cases by all of our recent governments. The case of the current government is particularly serious only insofar as its leaders still proclaim themselves to be leftist revolutionaries.
With his Machiavellian toying with God and religion and his alliance with the religious hierarchies, President Ortega opened up two fronts against the Right, one political and one ideological. The first is to hold on to power and the second is to take away the Right’s traditional pre-eminence in the religious field, making it his own private reserve.
President Ortega is wresting away the Right’s traditional ideological weapon. But by stripping the secular nature of its functions from the state as a whole, he is damaging the grassroots sectors’ freedom of conscience. It’s now impossible to tell when this alienating, secular-scorning preaching is political and when it’s truly religious, because the two identify with and complement each other.
Secularism is mocked on a daily basis, although at times more obviously than others. One striking case is the predominant presence of the Catholic hierarchy at official government acts, as at President Ortega’s January 2007 inauguration, when Cardinal Miguel Obando, Archbishop of Managua Leopoldo Brenes and another bishop were guests of honor seated on either side of the president of the legislative branch, thus displacing the presidents of the other two branches of state. While presumably intended to provide greater formality, inclusion of the religious hierarchies actually violated the constitutional order.
The criminalization of therapeutic abortionAnother of the many examples was the protest march held by Catholic and Evangelical faithful on October 8, 2006, calling for the criminalization of therapeutic abortion in a political act agreed to between the Bolaños government and the hierarchies of both religious sectors and attended by government officials and Liberal and FSLN legislators. A few days later, the legislative branch fulfilled the ecclesiastical wish to criminalize therapeutic abortion, a right for pregnant women whose life was at risk that had been recognized in our Penal Code for well over a century. This journey back into the dark ages, stimulated by its inquisitional spirit and government indulgence, was a slap in the face to the memory of the Enlightenment thinkers who inspired secularism and to the memory of humanity, which has made sacrifices to win its freedoms. It amounts to a regular dehumanization process “in the name of God.”
The declarations by Cardinal Miguel Obando three months after the public protest appeared to hold off ringing the bells in celebration, as he recommended that science should be heard in the controversial debate over therapeutic abortion. The cardinal’s words and the ascendancy he has acquired with the marriage of Ortega-Murillo allowed a glimmer of hope for some way out of the darkness into which the reform to article 165 of the Penal Code, criminalizing therapeutic abortion, had plunged the country.
But there was no way out. The opinion of doctors wasn’t taken into account either then or later. So the united forces of religion and official policy assaulted women’s right to life and to freedom, a double aggression that grew out of the aggression against state secularism. There are still no signs of rectification over a year later and the Supreme Court—the highest institutional body to which one can appeal—has made no response whatever to the writs of unconstitutionality introduced by feminist and human rights organizations. As all the institutions are controlled and shared out in quotas among followers of Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán ever since their political pact, the judicial branch has turned a blind eye to this case and other open violations of the constitutional precept of a secular state by the executive branch with the complicity of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.
Seemingly dissimilar political forces (Ortega followers, Liberals, Conservatives) joined forces in opposition to therapeutic abortion in a single reactionary action. As they have been doing on almost every occasion in recent years, the Ortega followers abandoned the revolutionary principles of generations of Sandinistas just to obtain the support—or at least neutrality—of the religious hierarchies on key points in Ortega’s race for reelection, an ambition to which he was fully dedicated in October 2006. Nothing else could have been expected from the Conservatives, given their traditionally reactionary positions, while there is now ample proof that the so-called Liberals have deliberately forgotten the principles rooted in the Renaissance that were mainstays in the first days of democracy. There is no longer even the shadow of Liberal principles in the party texts produced by our Liberals.
Religious trappings at government eventsAnother example among so many: President Ortega and his wife invoke the divinities and display religious icons at every party political and government event, while public documents issued by their party are formatted along the lines of religious homilies. In December 2007, President Ortega ordered all state dependencies to pray and sing to the Virgin Mary’s Conception, something he himself did in the Plaza of the Revolution. Days before, in the name of the government, Rosario Murillo—the co-ruler in partnership with the President—publicly asked its supporters to “rescue the tradition of praying the rosary as a family every day.” This is a petition that only priests ask of their faithful in church.
The invocations to the divinity by priests, bishops or the President and his wife during official FSLN political acts blatantly exploit religious beliefs for political objectives. In so doing, they are increasing the distance between secularism as a constitutional precept and secularism as respect for individual religious practice. They are also trying to annul secularism as an expression of freedom of conscience, even though it is irreplaceable in the struggle for social justice and the ideal of building a better world. The lack of respect for secularism and the interference in the politics of religious ideas and feelings frustrate the struggle for social demands.
Who are the winners and what’s the prize?This sabotage of secularism is not at all trivial although it might appear to be. When religious ideas are introduced and prioritized over ideas of social justice and social vindication in the conscience of working people, it conditions them to passively await the results of the prayers and promises offered to the divinities in which they believe. There’s a relationship—naturally not a numerical one—between people alienated by religion and people marginalized from social struggle.
That being said, clerics and politicians try not to leave the people attracted by their preaching completely passive. They incite them to the permanent practice of religion as a means of personal escape and flight from their ideals, placing them in the miracle waiting rooms that churches of all denominations have now become. It’s easy to verify this alienating practice by observing the multiplicity of churches and temples operating in poor neighborhoods, with noisy singing and preaching that bewilder the participants and torment the neighborhood. It would be interesting to see one of these churches operating with the same kind of licentiousness in a bourgeois residential zone. They’d certainly never be found in the exclusive housing estates. Suffice it to say that while the Liberal and pro-Ortega representatives passed a law against noise pollution, they exempted these churches from its regulations.
So who are the winners in all of this and what is their prize? The religious sectarians are aware that the poor neighborhoods are the “natural” habitat of poverty and that there’s a good climate there for all the human and social deficiencies to develop their alienating labor. They also know that the poor neighborhoods are hotbeds of unrest and that all the human and social needs stimulate the organization of struggles and protests. Whether by manifest intention or indirectly, their preaching and demagogy seek to alleviate the social and political pressure, appealing to people potentially apt for social struggle and converting them into supporters and addicts of all kinds of beliefs. The social demands fall away as more people take refuge in the churches. In this kind of situation, clerics and politicians win over people’s good will and even sympathy without investing anything other than promises of salvation and wellbeing in this world and the next. This is the sense in which religion can be understood as the “opium of the people”—not because people become believers, but because they become inactive and docile.
Also in educationYet another example: in January 2008 we witnessed strong complaints from the Catholic Church via media com¬muniqués, letters, sermons and press, television and radio declarations because the Ministry of Education had withheld disbursements to pay teachers in Catholic schools. They claimed that this state subsidy to Catholic schools was fair and just because they provide free education, which is true, although they also allow the church to increase its religious influence over children at different educational levels. This violates the Constitution in two respects: the state’s right and obligation to assume responsibility for national public education (articles 58 and 119) and the secular structure the state should maintain in its public expressions (article 14).
Meanwhile, a deal with the Catholic University represents the maximum constitutional transgression. This university is private. In fact it’s the most expensive in the country, the exclusive preserve of the powerful classes. Yet this business in which Cardinal Obando participates receives an annual state subsidy of 12 million córdobas (around US$630,000), which is nothing short of derisive from a state with “no official religion.” This same practice was also implemented by the three neoliberal governments preceding this one, which claims to be leftwing yet accepted its inheritance out of political interest.
God and the 1987 ConstitutionIt is said that the traditional politicians and their imitators in the current government have always toyed with religion, while continuing to toy with the people. In President Ortega’s case, this has meant a reversal of more than 20 years. In 1987, during the discussion of the prologue to the current Constitution—originally promulgated and implemented during Ortega’s first term in office although since then thoroughly amended—the revolutionary Sandininsta government responded with nothing more than democratic tolerance to those representatives who were believers.
At the time, the Sandinista majority in the National Assembly wanted to follow the example of the three preceding Liberal Constitutions (those of 1893, 1905 and 1939) by not invoking God in the prologue. However, they understood the position of the minority calling for some such invocation and debated the issue. Consensus was finally reached with the agreement not to invoke God, as the opposition legislators wanted, but to mention His name: “In the name: Of the Nicaraguan people; of all the democratic, patriotic and revolutionary parties and organizations of the people of Nicaragua; of its men and women: of its workers and peasants; of its glorious youth; of its heroic mothers; of the Christians who from their faith in GOD have committed themselves to and inserted themselves into the struggle for the liberation of the oppressed…”
A secular tolerance that no longer existsTwo interesting details demonstrate this tolerance during the political bargaining between Sandinistas and the minority opposition when drawing up that prologue. Clemente Guido Chávez of the Democratic Conservative Party proposed that the word God be capitalized and made this a condition of his signing the new Constitution. Although the Sandinista bench accepted his demand, the now deceased Guido never signed the 1987 Constitution. It’s not known whether the Sandinistas reprimanded him over this. And one other detail: opposition legislator Luis Sánchez Sancho, a Socialist at the time, made the most radically atheist intervention in the National Assembly plenary against any mention of God in the prologue, arguing against the proposals of the Conservative legislators, but nobody criticized him or anybody else for expressing their opinions.
The 1987 Constitution states that “Nicaragua has no official religion.” Commenting on the dogmatic part of our Constitution and the great achievement represented by having incorporated the transcendental principle of secularism, Spanish jurist Plácido Fernando Viagas Bartolomé wrote that “It implied the end of a long evolution that has caused so much suffering. It is possible that the problem simply consisted of the fact that for a long time man created God in his image and likeness and that his fears, insecurity and distrust determined a Supreme Being jealous of himself and intolerant, who could not permit freedom.”
Official Sandinismo no longer displays any sign of tolerance and Ortega swears in his ministers and officials in the name of God, ignoring constitutional secularism. Paradoxically, the current intolerance of Ortega-ism has a religious, not “revolutionary” stamp. In the process of this “conversion,” President Ortega and his people started marginalizing the priests who practiced Liberation Theology, thus turning their backs on thousands of “Christians who from their faith in GOD” had “committed themselves to and inserted themselves into the struggle for the liberation of the oppressed,” as the prologue to our Constitution states. This process started by annulling the practice of secularity and swerving towards an alliance with rightwing clerics who were former counterrevolutionary militants that opposed the state in the 1980s.
The police as well...Another example: no religious festivities dedicated to the patron saints of towns and cities are held in the municipalities—including the capital—take place without support from municipal tax revenues, including those paid by citizens who are not Catholic or have no professed religion. Mayors and councilors therefore also fail to respect the secular nature of the state, mocking the Constitution and the citizenry.
The National Police force plays a special part in this violation. During religious festivities, it sometimes complies with its duty to protect public order and sometimes participates in religious acts expressly carried out in Catholic and Protestant churches by and for the police. Uniformed commissioners and police officers are frequently seen publicly participating in rites that should be reserved for their private life. It’s not wrong to demonstrate their religiosity, but they are violating the Constitution by doing so in uniform, which is hardly exemplary behavior from authorities responsible for enforcing the law.
This sends out the wrong message at a time when so many personalities would use anything at their disposal to maintain their political ascendancy over the less informed. It offers such people an additional resource for maintaining the system that has invested them with power, wealth and wellbeing. Such a mockery of the state’s secular nature protects a great deal behind the political-ideological-religious manipulation.
Is Daniel Ortega really a convert?Some think these attitudes by state authorities who violate constitutional secularism are just a clever political move. It thus improves Daniel Ortega’s image with Christians while providing him the chance to flaunt a “Christianity” that opens up spaces for him in the awareness of those masses influenced by religious fundamentalism. They receive the President and his officials like “repentant sinners” deserving of Christian forgiveness for the “sins” attributed to them by their rightwing adversaries. During the last electoral campaign, Ortega demonstrated such intentions, peppering his political discourse with religious allusions, apparently thinking he might win an indulgence along with the presidency.
There’s no reason to doubt that what we’ve seen here with President Ortega’s government corresponds to a well-calculated plan, given his radical contradictions with the Catholic hierarchy in the 1980s. But there’s also sufficient evidence to suggest that his demonstration of religious faith in each of his recent performances, with the apparent conviction of a neo-convert, could be the result of an ideological change that is as genuine as it is radical. If that’s the case, we can only lament the contradiction between his new faith and the revolutionary content of the discourse he refuses to abandon despite the current national and international circumstances.
Now more than ever, the “converted” President is surrounded by a mess of contradictions. His best friends, the Presidents of Iran and Libya, are Muslims, with the Iranian a fundamentalist and therefore reactionary to boot. His Cuban friends practice no religion in any official capacity. Like Ortega, his friend the President of Venezuela invokes God in all of his political acts, but has his contradictions with the Catholic hierarchy. The other Latin American rulers—those of Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile—maintain an officially secular and tolerant position, albeit under great Catholic influence. Therapeutic abortion is practiced in all the Latin American countries with leftwing governments, with the exception of Chile and Nicaragua. In Chile, this was imposed by the Pinochet dictatorship to reward the Catholic hierarchy for supporting its crimes against both the Chilean people and democracy.
It is to be expected that within this amalgam of situations related to secularism and Catholic and Muslim theism, Ortega, who aspires to re-election and remaining in power with the tight political circle that surrounds him, will continue moving closer to sectors of the confessional Right through Cardinal Obando.
To legitimize his powerHow do the interests of the Church as an institution dovetail with the contradictions that characterize President Ortega’s government actions and policies? Three realities can be observed: First, there is no single position within the Catholic Church with respect to the government. Second, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo is the only top figure in the Catholic hierarchy representing the tendency most closely allied to the Ortega government. And third, while there is no unanimity of criteria within the Catholic hierarchy with regard to the government, there is also no solid opposition.
The Catholic hierarchy, currently headed by Archbishop of Managua Leopoldo Brenes, is staying more independent of the oligarchy and its political parties than Obando did when he was in the post. Obando distinguished himself as the strongest “spiritual” bastion of the counterrevolution in its two versions—the armed one and the “civic” one—for which he was privileged with economic financing from the US governmental agencies. Rather than criticizing, Monsignor Brenes tends to give political opinions and make suggestions to the government about key social problems, camouflaged in the traditionally sibylline language used by all the hierarchies that preceded him. He is, however, also proving adept at using the government’s ignoring of the constitutional mandate on secularism for his own gain, even though he knows it’s illegal. Brenes also consistently supported the criminalization of therapeutic abortion.
All of this is because within the Catholic hierarchy the individual attitudes of one or other member do not change with respect to what they consider the essential problems. The Catholic Church will always seek a way to legitimize its real power and ensure it is kept active, irrespective of whether President Ortega is a real convert or just keeping up appearances. Above all, the hierarchy is interested in providing continuity to ecclesiastical influence over society, whoever happens to be heading the government in Nicaragua or any other country for that matter.
Pointing the fingerThis lack of tolerance of this political-religious game leaves a number of important victims down on the field: the democratic laws of the Republic; the secular nature of its institutions and the laws that guarantee this; the working people, whose extreme poverty leaves them open to manipulation; the country’s democratic development; and the healthiness of social life.
When secularism fails in the relationships between people of different faiths, it endangers the principles and laws that protect human and social relationships and makes Nicaraguans’s living conditions even more difficult. How have we gotten where we are today? There are subjective causes among the population and objective and material causes in our development as a country, but at this particular moment the main responsibility falls on President Daniel Ortega and his wife, who have become the central figures behind the ideological counterrevolution within the FSLN and the government. They are the visible faces of a new economic bourgeoisie that props itself up with Catholic dogma in the search for ideological justification.
They started by marginalizing Marxist analysis of natural and social phenomena, seeking an explanation in astrology and analogous esoteric beliefs. Although they were never great Marxists to begin with, they could not and would not adopt Marxist theory to orient their political activity. One can be a revolutionary without being a Marxist, but without the Marxist method for social analysis a revolutionary will always be closer to being a mercenary and more susceptible to “conversion.”
Then they cut off their relations with the exponents of Liberation Theology who identified with the revolutionary project and used Marxism as an instrument for analyzing Latin American reality, finding that there was no contradiction between Christianity and revolution and demonstrating as much in their own practice. And finally, Ortega and his people adopted the political-ideological positions of the Catholic Church’s Vaticanist tendency, allying with the most fundamentalist Catholic sector, which has been a silent partner of all right wings throughout the ages.
A rightwing governmentRescuing secularism in the national institutions that depend on the state would mean establishing more respectful personal and social relations. Rescuing secularism for the good of all would place religion in the private sphere. This is difficult to achieve with the current government, because without religion in the streets, plazas and public events it would find political manipulation more complicated. And it is precisely because the dominant classes resort to religious manipulation as a vital fuel for their existence that this government can be classified as rightwing.
Onofre Guevara López is a press commentator and former unionist.