Friday, November 5, 2010

The political misuse of popular religiosity

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Popular religiosity is rising today, as it has been one of the cornerstones of the electoral campaign, especially in its fundamentalist aspect. It was induced by the opposition and a conservative wing of the bishops of São Paulo, unsupported by the CNBB [Brazilian Catholic Bishops Conference], assisted later by evangelical pastors. Without an alternative political project, Serra discovered he could reach the people by appealing to emotional issues that affect the sensitive soul of the people, such as abortion and gay marriage -- issues that require broad discussion in society, outside of the electoral campaign. Policy made on this basis is always bad policy because it neglects the main thing -- Brazil and its people, as well as arouses hatred and slander that go against the nature of religion and do not belong to Brazilian tradition.

Popular religiosity, as a decadent form of official Christianity, has historically suffered all kinds of interpretations. The children of the first Enlightenment (Voltaire, and others) saw it as an anachronism reminiscent of a magical world view; the children of the second Enlightenment (Marx and company) saw it as false consciousness, a numbing opium and an ineffective cry of the oppressed; the neo-Darwinists like Dawkins saw it as an evil for humankind that should be be removed.

These views are narrow because they do not do justice to the religious phenomenon in itself. The right thing is to take religiosity for what it is: as a concrete experience of religion in its popular expression. Every religion is the cultural garb of a faith, an encounter with God. Within religion, the major themes that drive human seeking are articulated: the meaning of life, pain, death and what we can expect after this weary existence. It speaks of the destiny of people, which depends on the behavior in this world. Its aim is to evoke, nurture and encourage the sacred flame of the spirit that burns inside of people, through love, compassion, forgiveness and listening to the cry of the oppressed, without leaving aside the question of the ultimate meaning of the universe. Therefore, what is at stake in religion and religiosity is no small thing. It exists because of these dimensions. A use that does not respect its nature, means disrespectful and secular manipulation, as has happened in the current election.

Despite all this, we must take into account the religious institutions that have social power and influence that go beyond the religious field. This influence can be manipulated in different directions -- to avoid discussing heavy topics like social injustice and the need for public policies directed towards the neediest, and other relevant topics.

This field is where the fight for the force of religious capital takes place. And it has been fierce in this election. Curiously, the opposition candidate became a pastor when he published something I saw in a newspaper -- "Jesus is Truth and Justice", signed with his own hand, as if the evangelists are not enough to assure us of this truth. The sense is to imply that Jesus is on their side, while the opposition candidate is demonized, the victim of hatred and rejection. This is a subtle form of religious manipulation.

A fervent Catholic wrote to me that he wanted to "cut me into a thousand pieces, burn them, throw them into the bottom of a well and send my soul to the deepest hell." All in the name of Him who commanded us to love even our enemies. The Brazilian people don't think this way because they are tolerant and respect differences, because they believe that along the way to God we can always join in and give each other a hand.

The only thing that does not misinterpret religion is the practice that enhances the ability to love, helps us in self-restraint of our dimension of darkness, awakens us to the best ways to achieve justice for all, guarantees the rights of the poor and makes us not only more religious, but more fundamentally human. Who is helped by slander and lies? God abhors them.

1 comment:

  1. Isn't something similar happening in the United States with the so-called "Christian right"? I hope that a literalist interpretation of the Bible will never become a litmus test for those who want to serve in political office. Else, the USA might regress to a fundamentalist theocracy such as Iran. Lord have mercy! Luis