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Modern Politicians And The Christ Factor

The tendency of politicians in Latin America (and beyond) to cite Christ in their speeches may indicate both megalomania and contempt for institutional democracy.

Chavez and Correa in 2009
Chavez and Correa in 2009
Loris Zanatta

BUENOS AIRES — You shall not take God's name in vain, says the Second Commandment. Nor, presumably that of His Son. And yet when it comes to politicians in Latin America, the name of Jesus Christ goes from mouth to mouth, speech to speech.

Julio de Vido, Argentina's former planning minister now convicted and jailed on corruption charges, suggested a Judas had betrayed him — and like Christ had been sacrificed to save a Barabbas, the "real criminal." From his prison cell in Curitiba, Brazil's former president Lula da Silva is also bearing Christ's cross, and the visits he receives are akin to pilgrimages of his devotees. When Ecuador's vice-president Jorge Glas went on trial accused of receiving money from the constructors Odebrecht, his ally, the former president Rafael Correa defended him, citing Christ's crucifixion.

The examples abound. I do not know if these were innocent or guilty, or treated unjustly, but wonder instead why they name Christ in defending themselves. It sounds blasphemous, disproportionate and a little comical. We hear Christ's name mentioned elsewhere in the world, and not just by those who have fallen.

The powerful and the victors are also wont to take Him over: The paths of victimhood are infinite and the most agitated include the Donald Trump faithful. Why, they ask vehemently, are the powers-that-be stacked against him? It is the establishment, they say, who hate him like the Pharisees hated Christ. How many times did Italy's former premier Silvio Berlusconi compare himself to Christ with similar arguments? Consensus and power will not satisfy such people: They want divine investiture and recognition that like Christ, they are hated for the revelation they represent and for destroying the old idols.

No matter what the ideology, they are His heirs, if not reincarnations. Christ was the world's first socialist, says Bolivia's President Evo Morales. Nay the first communist, Cuba's late Fidel Castro would interject, and thousands with him. Indeed as Castro confided to the liberation theologian Frei Betto, if the Church were to form a state, "it would do it like us' — meaning, the Communist regime. Betto, a Dominican friar, observed that "we could call it God's plan in history."

It presupposes the existence of a source of legitimacy.

Ecuador's Rafael Correa, raised with the precepts of liberation theology, Lula da Silva the Christian militant, Daniel Ortega who made three priests ministers, and Venezuela's late president, Hugo Chávez: Fidel liked to say they were all inspired by "Christ's ideas."

Perhaps the most curious case may be in Brazil. It was almost as if the vote was over Christ: not so much about the best way to govern the country as which candidate was more or less in line with Christ's legacy. As if this were a single, unequivocal concept somebody could hold. Jair Bolsonaro's Evangelical followers evoke a manly and vindictive Christ, and mock his adversaries, chiding them for taking Him to a gay Pride parade. Opponents responded by pointing out the myriad contradictions between the Bible and Bolsonaro's declarations. Each side raised itself as a Christ fighting the anti-Christ.

Photo: Cris Faga/ZUMA

Why are so many citing Christ's name in vain? Why the obsession and so much effort to carve yourself a Christ that serves your needs?

There are many possible explanations, though one stands out: In order to dominate others, transform your truth into absolute truth, escape the fleeting nature of history and dignify your passage through it with "God's sign." Does Christ have anything to do with it? Obviously not. Churches, which are meant to be the guardians of His message, have far too frequently given credit to those who use it for secular ends.

For a start, invoking Christ for political reasons is anti-democratic. It presupposes the existence of a source of legitimacy over and above the institutions a country has formed to run its affairs, and to which certain, privileged individuals alone have access.

In public life, it would be preferable to behave as if God did not exist.

Many call this source Christ, but you could give it other names, like the Party, race, class or nation. Christ thus becomes a fetish, and this commonly used tool serves to remind us of just how young, fragile and precarious our democratic foundations are.

Few understood this as well as the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, perhaps for being raised in a secular, middle-class environment and because he fought Nazism and paid for it. He certainly did not fail to note the regime's pseudo-religious pretensions, nor the great tolerance shown it by the German churches.

He concluded upon reflection that in public life, it would be preferable to behave "as if God did not exist." Had he become a heretic, atheist or an "extreme secularist" as some charged? Far from it. He meant that the essence in democracy is not to invoke an Absolute, but for people to persuade each other using rational arguments.

That is because democracy is the public arena in which citizens, both believers and non-believers, compare arguments and use consensual decision-making procedures, without assuming the predominance of any faith-based truth. This defines perfectly the necessary separation between politics and religion, which suits them both. Christ, on the other hand, is a most unsuitable weapon in politics — so leave Him out of it.

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