Latin lessons: what Latin America can teach us about faith in society

Latin America provides ideas on how to translate social need into an available programme of action.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
15 June 2015
Romero mural

Archbishop Oscar Romero. Flickr/Franco Folini.

Often ignored, Latin America has much to teach us about belief in society and how democratic change is possible.

There is a crisis of political faith. It is not going to fade with the election of a new leader to an exhausted Labour Party because political allegiance is determined by values rather than policies. Faith in society, or lack of it, determines our responses to the course of events. Behind political values lies a metaphysic at counterpoint to the parameters of power. At what is a pivotal moment in our politics the time has come round again to look outward to international experience. That is going to demand serious revaluation of what now seem inadequate assumptions about belief in society. Britain cannot import another culture’s experiences as if they were commodities, but it can learn some unexpected lessons from elsewhere.

Perry Anderson of New Left Review once identified an ‘absent centre’ in our cultural/intellectual life. The deracinating effects of this absence continue to hinder imaginative responses to the perpetual crisis of capitalism. We need to fill the hollow with something more substantial and less opportunistic than a doomed search for ‘the middle ground’. What we do not need is nostalgia for Palladian architecture and a lost sense of hierarchy.  Faith in media modernity is not belief but a desperate throw of loaded dice.

We need a radical dynamic generated in the credible and embracing the attainable. The often-ignored case of Latin America may offer some possibilities that at first glance may surprise a North Atlantic island. But stay with it and see what happens. The life of another continent is not ours. There is no direct translation. What is valuable is the energy that at times moves the earth we walk on.

‘President Raul Castro of Cuba considers returning to the Catholic Church,’ said BBC News. It wasn’t the change the Western media really want, but it was considered worth reporting as a symptom of ‘change’ in Cuba, which translates as disavowal of the revolution. But this is wishful-thinking. Actually, there have been good relations between Havana and the Vatican for years. Even the deeply conservative John Paul II was to a degree sympathetic, despite his staunch anti-Marxism. His successor, Pope Benedict, gave the regime his blessing. The Latin American pontiff, Francis I, speaks the language in more senses than one.

‘The Church of the poor’

The Catholic faith is indelible in Latin culture. Even in its more hardline phase, post 1968, the Cuban government only could dissuade. Outright persecution would have been impossible. In recent years it has seen the positive value of faith beyond merely private devotion and into the public realm as an affirmation of the altruism that the revolution has placed at its heart. This accords with Ché’s reflections on the ceremonies he witnessed, far from the urbane hierarchies, in remote Andean communities.

It accords also with the remarkable movement of Liberation Theology which swept through Latin America, often clandestinely, from the Sixties onwards. This did not meet with John Paul II’s wholehearted approval, but Liberation Theology has proved remarkably effective in shaping the normative values of a radically developing continent. Following immediately from Raul’s visit to the Vatican, the Liberation Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez has been welcomed, not tolerated on sufferance, into the Vatican to speak formally at an event designed to shape the future of a social ethic that is, as the Catechism states, ‘the Church of the poor.’

These are matters not easily received by the general climate of North Atlantic opinion, liberal or conservative. To many the Catholic faith is simply a question of outmoded prohibitions systemised by a failed metaphysic that is at best illusory, if well-meaning, and at worst perniciously hypocritical.

On the ground it is different. In the tin shacks and dirt tracks of the shanty towns the selfless work shames the rest of us. Outside observers start from the disadvantage of not knowing the cultural territory, and therefore of not being in touch with the realities that move, as political reality often does, by stealth and subtle statecraft. The contrast between the common practice of faith and the structure of authority is a marked feature of any belief system, secular or religious. The point is that any description, whether sympathetic or not, must be in possession of the facts, and the general picture to be derived from them. Prejudice ill serves the cause it seeks to uphold.

The question is not the necessity of a particular belief, but the necessity of understanding the cultural context of that belief. Latin America remains unknown and dark without the cartography of its political and religious mindsets. To the Western liberal all that inherits from Marx [and especially from Lenin], however qualified, is tainted by the imagery of Stalin and the associated sense of enclosure and totality. Catholicism to the English liberal especially evokes a reaction in which a Brideshead exclusivity compounds with scandalous and indefensible conduct in the clergy. These approaches ill serve an informed appreciation of a radicalism grounded neither in discredited theory nor in repressive convention but in the active life of communities whose development so often has been in spite of formidable opposition. 

Beyond liberalism

Liberation has been the watchword against such repression. The catalogue of openly Fascist regimes in Latin America remains a serious disadvantage to the credibility of the West’s claims to the moral high ground. The tolerance or support of murderous dictatorships by US governments is a marked pattern over many years. The regimes themselves have been shameless, knowing they would not face censure in the realpolitik of the Cold War. Reforming administrations were undermined by cynical manipulation or, failing that, brutal force daring to evoke the ideals of Jefferson as justification.

Liberation movements have looked not looked to liberal Western values. This is hardly surprising given the record of liberal intervention. The growth of Latin American democracy has grown organically from the experience of resistance to unwarranted deprivations of body and mind. The remarkable advance of social and economic revaluation has been so downplayed in so much public discussion of the world’s geopolitical shifts since 1990. Anglo-American liberalism is not prepared to consider that the dynamic of change is spoken in another language.

The West may begin by re-learning that social development arises from the local and particular seeking a moral framework to support identifiable needs. The need precedes the desire for change. An obvious enough statement you may think, but one that is lost in the culture of personal aspiration. Social needs are relegated to matters of regret that will fade in the natural course of economic events. As if.

There are those well-placed in the Labour Movement who generously supported the Sandinistas. Then with just as much fervour they were supporting the repeal of Clause 4. A generation later society is governed by the money markets. Both Thatcher and Blair began their tenures with declarations of faith, only to let them fade. Replaying Thatcher’s bizarre invocation of St Francis [as someone, very likely on the Today programme, is sure to do] will not countermand the argument. We are engaged here in serious commentary, not street corner preaching. A Christian revival is neither credible nor especially desirable, given the nature of mass revivals.

What is desirable is a value system that translates social need into an available programme of action. The values have to be capable of withstanding the hostility of vested interests. We need a metaphysic that can transcend local and material needs. It has to be culturally appropriate to work. There can be no simple translation from one continent with a different history. What is possible is a communal aspiration to an equivalence of perception. It may come about through Science, a process of discovery that begins in reason and ends in wonder. What is urgent is a repudiation of powerful money as the basis of human endeavour. Without a bedrock of values we are prey to cynical, self-serving opportunism, the more clever for being [superficially] convincing.

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