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The Clergy and the Coup

November 20, 2009

by Daniel Altschuler

Earlier this week, Mary Anastasia O’Grady shamelessly pulled the God card to defend the Honduran coup. Specifically, she handed her Wall Street Journal column over to the coup-supporting Cardinal Rodriguez to curry favor for the June 28 ousting of President Manuel Zelaya from power. Her article ignores the Church’s troubling historical role in Honduran politics, instead granting this institution legitimacy as the defender of democracy. O’Grady should have known better.

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O’Grady’s piece is one in a long line of conservative attempts to justify the overthrow of a democratically-elected president. Christopher Sabatini and I have already debunked these arguments, so I will not do so again here. But this week’s novelty was O’Grady’s use of a deeply controversial Church leader as a mouthpiece for the argument she has been making for months. In her article, she explains why Cardinal Rodriguez supported the coup—what he argues was a “constitutional succession”—namely, that Zelaya undermined the rule of law and therefore lost the “moral authority” to govern the nation.

The Cardinal’s concerns with the rule of the law are legitimate. Manuel Zelaya did not respect the principle of horizontal accountability—a central tenet in liberal democracies. But using the rule of law to justify forcibly removing a president without due process is deeply contradictory. Worse still is the Cardinal’s retreat to “moral authority”—should the military also remove a president at gunpoint for infidelity, supporting abortion rights or promoting secular education?

But the biggest problem with O’Grady’s piece is her uncritical acceptance of the HonduranChurch as an institution deeply concerned with the struggle for social justice and democracy. This portrayal is ahistorical and wrong.

No one can deny that clergy played an important role in confronting certain military regimes in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. But the Catholic Church also played an important role in defending other autocrats in the region, so its claim to defending democracy has always been questionable. The Church’s role therefore demands a country-specific analysis.

Unfortunately, the HonduranChurch to which O’Grady ceded her platform has long been a laggard in supporting democracy. The most recent authoritarian period in Latin American history, to which O’Grady refers, provides a clear illustration. While prominent figures like Archbishop Romero and Bishop Gerardi lost their lives standing up to brutal regimes in neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador, leaders of the HonduranChurch remained tied to the country’s right-wing elites and marginal to the country’s struggle for democracy. Contrary to O’Grady’s depiction of Cardinal Rodríguez’s position as a strong stand by a bastion of democratic ideals, the HonduranChurch’s defense of the coup demonstrates the continuity of its dubious democratic credentials.

The Church in Latin America has long been marked by contradictions. In the second half of the twentieth century, tension existed between progressive clergy promoting social justice agendas—e.g., popular education and peasant organizing, often inspired by Liberation Theology—and more conservative clergy content to hand out alms to the poor while supporting (often authoritarian) political rule by a small economic elite.

Even in countries where clergy provided legitimacy for authoritarian rule, however, the Church has retained a great deal of popular legitimacy because of Catholicism’s numerical dominance (increasingly challenged by Evangelicals) and the Church’s considerable charitable infrastructure. The countless Catholic schools and hospitals for the region’s poor have been an important part of this story. In Honduras, for instance, religious institutions fill important holes in education and health care and in responding to crises like Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Primary schools, clinics, water, and sanitation programs—the Church has played a significant role in providing all of these critical services.

But charity and humanitarian assistance do not make an institution democratic. The HonduranChurch—in the early 1980s as in the present—clearly illustrates the need to distinguish between support for charity and support for democratic ideals. O’Grady’s column conflated these two positions and relied on the Church’s supposed “moral authority” to convince readers to fall into line with Conservative apologists of the Honduran coup. Readers of Honduran history, however, will know better than to fall for such God-peddling sophistry.

Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org conducting research in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, and his research focuses on civic and political participation in Honduras and Guatemala.

Tags: Manuel Zelaya, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, Wall Street Journal, Church

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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