“GetReligion…just doesn’t get religion.” –Anon.
I’ve been waiting for the GetReligionistas to chastise the MSM for overlooking the religious dimension of the Hugo Chavez story, but in vain. So I guess I better do it myself.
The only obit that registered awareness among those I looked at (NYT, WaPo, Miami Herald, AP) was by Reuters’ Daniel Wallis, who led with a couple of episodes when Chavez took out a small silver crucifix and waved it over his head. Better, Wallis noted how “he projected himself in religious, nationalistic and radical terms as Venezuela’s savior.”
But what’s most important is to recognize that Chavez made religion central to his Bolivarian socialist ideology. He made a concerted effort to appeal to Venezuela’s evangelical community, and won enthusiastic support from its neo-pentecostal wing in particular. Back in 2004, the American embassy in Caracas considered this important enough for a confidential memo–which, thanks to Wikileaks, is available for all to see. More conventionally, University of Georgia sociologist David Smilde has studied the subject, and in 2007 he wrote up a nice article about it for Religion in the News.
Smilde describes how, during the 2004 recall election campaign, evangelical leaders received $400,000 from the government to organize two huge rallies for Chavez (“Clamor for Venezuela” and “Million Prayers for Peace”). In a 40-minute speech, Chavez called Christ “the original commandante” and himself, one of the commandante’s soldiers.
Not unlike some Republican politicians in the U.S., Chavez personally seemed to waver between an evangelical and Catholic identity. His relations with Venezuela’s Catholic bishops were not good, in part because he cut the Church’s government subsidy, in part because they didn’t like his dictatorial methods. The country’s evangelical leadership was divided.
After his 2006 reelection, Chavez declared, “The Kingdom of Christ is the kingdom of love, of peace; the kingdom of justice, of solidarity, brotherhood, the kingdom of socialism. This is the kingdom of the future of Venezuela.” Such an appeal to religious nationalism was not unique in 21st-century Latin America. Versions of it could be found on the tongues of leftist politicians in Ecuador and Nicaragua as well–“part of a region-wide transition from a discourse of economics and social class to one focusing on ethnic identity, nationalism, and culture,” Smilde writes.
We in the United States have experienced our own religious nationalism in recent years, often under the banner of “American exceptionalism.” As in Venezuela, it’s come mostly from evangelicals. Of course, as my new fellow blogger Jonathan Merritt noted the other day, these folks hated Chavez, and tweeted their joy at his demise. But they’re part of the same world of discourse.