Religion, as a belief system, interacts with virtually every socio-cultural manifestation, such as family, politics, law, economics, clothing, health, diet, and so on. Thus, religion may affect behavior, values, and even --among other things-- what in anthropology we call material culture.(1)
Walking down the cracked sidewalks of a hot, palm frond-shaded street in Vedado, Havana’s western upper-middle class neighborhood, you pass two women. One of them, younger and taller, is dressed entirely in white—from her white umbrella and white hair wrap down to her white high-heeled shoes. When she notices you staring at her trailing white dress, she smiles and looks down. Her older companion speaks loudly and emphatically to her as they pass you by.
For centuries, the dominant religion found in Latin America has been Catholicism. Having been ruled by the Spanish and Portuguese starting in the 1500s, both nations emphasized religiosity and incorporated the Church into government decisions and policies, from land distribution, to conversion and education. As a result, centuries of the Christian religion and in many cases hegemony over indigenous religions pushed Latin America to be 90 percent Catholic, as of 1910.
On Saturday, May 23, almost 300,000 people took to the streets in San Salvador to celebrate the beatification of Oscar Romero, thirty-five years after the archbishop was assassinated at the start of El Salvador’s civil war. The celebration of his martyrdom—for it has been celebrated by the leftist social movement long before its recognition by Pope Francis—as well as the fierce opposition to his sanctification from within El Salvador, illustrate the deep divisions in this small Central American country that endure nearly twenty-five years after the end of its civil war.
A look at the Latin American dictatorships highlights the importance of the Catholic Church in the legitimisation of violence, even after the Second Vatican Council.1 In the years of the last military dictatorships in Chile (1973-1990) and Argentina (1976-1983), the ongoing political and public influence of the Church existed, in parallel with the potential of Christian religion to legitimise violence.