Politics and Religion Mix

by John Marino

October 8, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. When Pedro Rosselló returned to Puerto Rico last year to seek a third term in office, some of his followers had taken to calling him a messiah.

Rosselló quickly tried to distance himself from the label, saying it was inappropriate to refer to him in such terms. But as a candidate, he has frequently talked in biblical terms, a risky move in predominately Christian Puerto Rico, where the Catholic Church and evangelical preachers hold great sway over the local population.

In April, following the indictments of two former political associates in a fraud case related to the Superaqueduct project, Rosselló returned from an Easter vacation stateside and addressed the Puerto Rican people in a paid public televised address, calling the "unfounded" allegations against him his "cross to bear." Last month, during the first televised gubernatorial debate, he talked about the "40 days" left before Election Day, and the profound choices voters would have to make. The number "40" was also biblical, stemming back to Moses and the Exodus and stretching through Jesus Christ’s 40 days of fasting during the temptations of Satan.

Over the past week, Rosselló has leapt head first into the murky waters where religion and politics meet, picking up endorsements from religious figures and criticizing other religious leaders. It’s probably not the wisest political move for a candidate who is generally seen as the front-runner in the race for La Fortaleza (a poll this week by The San Juan STAR had Rosselló with a 5.6 percentage point lead while a poll by El Vocero had him leading by 14 percentage points).

Rubbing shoulders with religious leaders is as likely to alienate voters, as it is to attract them. And publicly tussling with the Catholic Church is probably not real smart in Puerto Rico.

The controversy kicked off with an endorsement by evangelical preacher Wanda Rolón, who told reporters that Rosselló had gotten baptized as a born-again Christian at her chapel last year. Rosselló has since been endorsed by a Catholic priest. He denied that he was " born again," but described himself as a "Protestant Catholic," saying he was born and raised Catholic but has taken counsel from spiritual advisers of other Christian faiths.

The New Progressive Party candidate then went on to criticize leaders, such as San Juan Archbishop Roberto González Nieves, for getting involved in political matters. "The archbishop has gotten himself involved in matters that have nothing to do with religion. He has gotten involved in political matters. I don’t agree with it," Rosselló said. "I was baptized Catholic, but I don’t recognize the authority of several Catholic leaders such as the archbishop. I think religion as an institution has some defects, such as the non-inclusion of women or gender equality in its ranks. I think it has to keep up with its times."

But if Rosselló seemed to willingly venture into a murky area, so did religious leaders, particularly the archbishop and retired Cardinal Luis Aponte Martínez. González Nieves said Rosselló’s statement on being a Protestant-Catholic, showed the former governor was undergoing an "identity crisis." Aponte Martínez was even stronger, referring to Rosselló as a renegade Catholic. "The most that can be said is that he is using religion opportunistically. I am not telling people not to vote for him. I am just saying a Catholic who votes for him is going to vote for a declared apostate."

The day the Rolón endorsement aired, the San Juan archbishop and other religious leaders of different faiths had a press conference to call on voters to participate in the November elections, regardless of their political preference. No endorsements were made, but the religious leaders did discuss the issue of political corruption, which undoubtedly helped the Popular Democratic Party strategy of keeping the matter alive as a campaign issue. On the other hand, González Nieves called the island’s political status the "most neuralgic," or painful, issue in Puerto Rico. That could have been taken as a criticism of the current status.

PDP gubernatorial candidate Aníbal Acevedo Vilá kept mostly quiet about the controversy, saying "politicians should never use religion to hunt for votes." That’s an appropriate strategy for a candidate.

Although there are strict separations between church and state in the Puerto Rico constitution, politicians have long used religion in their efforts to win popular support. During her successful run for La Fortaleza in 2000, Sila Calderón wore more large crosses than pop star Madonna in her heyday, and probably visited a Catholic church in every town on the island. There’s a darker history here, too. In the early 1960s, the Catholic Church told parishioners that to vote for the Popular Democratic Party was to sin because of its stance on promoting birth control. A series of editorials condemning the move earned the island’s English language newspaper a Pulitzer.

It’s foolish for a political front-runner to venture into the turbulent waters where politics and religion mix. It’s also foolish for religious leaders to do the same. They need to work harder to correct their past mistakes, even if their public statements on local politics are designed to correct the public record, as I think they might argue.

The political fallout from all this, if any, is hard to predict. But it’s clear that the mix of religion and politics has only worked to further cloud a campaign already stained by mud.

John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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