Militant Secularism and Religious Repression in Latin America

When one thinks of places where public expressions of faith are constrained, the Western Hemisphere does not typically come to mind.  The United States has a religiously feisty population.  Latin America is adorned with the art and architecture of Catholicism.  But, on closer examination, anti-religion trends – and even outright persecution – can be seen in many Latin American cities.

There are at least two main types of religious persecution.  The first is perpetrated by those in power claiming a religious justification for harming others (e.g. Iran).  The second, as in the case of China, is the targeting of individuals or communities for persecution because of their religion.  ISIS, or Islamic State exemplifies the worst of the worst: a cabal that used explicit religious justifications to undergird its authority to enact violence, while targeting persecuted classes based on their religious identity.

Thankfully, most of Latin America is not wracked by conflict and religious persecution in the same way that we see in other parts of the world.  Nonetheless, looking at the religious landscape of Latin America today, there are examples of outright persecution.  This repression is usually at the hands of the old secularists: authoritarians steeped in the anti-faith, secular, materialist dogma of the twentieth century’s hard Left.

In some places, notably Cuba, onerous legal restrictions are designed to put religious people in jeopardy of breaking the law, and then those citizens are hounded by the police, fined, and jailed.  For instance, according to the U.S. Department of State, the Cuban Communist Party’s Office of Religious Affairs and the government’s Ministry of Justice use, “threats, international and domestic travel restrictions, detentions, and violence against some religious leaders and their followers, and restricted the rights of prisoners to practice religion freely.  Media and religious leaders said the government continued to harass or detain members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom.”

It is extremely difficult to register a church, rent property, open a new church, update existing buildings, or build a new church in Cuba – regardless of whether the congregation is Catholic or Protestant.

Hugo Chavez and his successors have been harshly critical of the Catholic Church when it suited them. Venezuela has also seen a surge of anti-Semitism, due in large part to government propaganda that is anti-Jewish and anti-Israel.  In Venezuela and Nicaragua, religious figures, both clergy and laity, have been investigated, harassed, and in some cases indicted and punished for taking public stands against corruption.

Today, Mexico is a place of religious vibrancy, but also of persecution and violence.  Some of this is an ongoing legacy of the Revolution (1910-1920) and the secularist politics of twentieth-century parties such as the long-ruling PRI and socialist PRD.  According to at least one contemporary report, Mexico is the most dangerous place in the world for Catholic priests and laity because many are targeted by drug cartels for taking a stand against violence and corruption.


Separately, there remain places in Mexico, such as in Chiapas, where local authorities punish – with beatings and jail among other measures – those who convert from Catholicism to another faith.  Sadly, this is a global problem: the use of governmental violence to inhibit or punish the fundamental right of individuals to make religious choices, including a change of religion, consistent with their consciences.

We see less violent persecution in the Western Hemisphere, but the trend is toward a militant secularism that seeks to push religious people, religious institutions, and religious ideas entirely out of the public square.  This is typically a lawfare strategy, to weaponize new regulations in ways that deny religious people their livelihoods as well as their religious rights.

For instance, in Canada, recently passed legislation in the province of Quebec, labeled Quebec Bill 21, denies religious people in public service the right to wear religious symbols while on duty.  This Bill is in clear violation of the Canadian Constitution.  Bill 21 means that a Christian may not wear a small crucifix necklace, a Jew may not wear a kippah, and a Muslim may not cover her hair while in the workplace.

The United States has seen similar laws and lawsuits forcing private businesses, faith-based organizations, and charities to violate their deeply held convictions on issues such as paying for contraception or whether employees should affirm the religious values of their faith-based employer.

Will we see the same in Latin America in the near future?  Sadly, yes.  The first trend is the increasing secularism of urban populations and elites.  As reported by Pew and others, we see evidence of this in very low church attendance rates among Catholics, especially in influential cities like Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and La Paz.  Surveys show increasing numbers of the general population not even pretending to identify culturally as Catholic, but instead identifying as “secular:” Uruguay (42 percent), Cuba (25 percent), Chile (25 percent), Argentina (21 percent), and almost 10 percent in Haiti, Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Suriname.

Second, we are seeing an aggressive secularist lawfare strategy in many capitals, particularly when it comes to issues of life, marriage, and sexual orientation/gender identity.  In 2018 alone, Uruguay and Chile passed laws making it easier for transgender people to change their identity on legal documents; courts in Costa Rica and Ecuador declared that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional; and, a Bermudan court ruled as unconstitutional a law that pulled back same-sex marriage rights.  And popular media is playing a role: last year’s Oscar for “best foreign film” went to a Chilean movie about transgender rejection and triumph that has become a regional sensation.

In an article proudly documenting all of this progressive change, the author warns, “signs of a new conservative backlash are emerging.  Led by evangelicals and conservative Catholics, citizens are getting organized to demand an end to progressive policies on gender diversity, sexuality, and reproductive rights.” The logical next lawfare step is to assail conservative religious teaching on sexuality as “hate speech.”  The first such charges have already been made in the courts.

Religious freedom advocates support the fundamental right of all citizens, including those with whom they disagree, to make religion-based arguments in the public square.  This should transcend religious or partisan positioning, whether conservative or progressive. However, Latin America’s new secularists, just like the old secularists, are trying to use the coercive power of government to impose a new ideology on the populace, one that clearly takes aim at traditional, faith-based understandings of life, the family, and the fundamental institutions of society.


*Image: At the 2014 “March of the Whores” in Ecuador. The sign reads: “I am trans: from man to woman and from woman to whore”. Holding the sign is Diane Rodríguez (born Luis Benedicto), the first transgender person elected to Ecuador’s senate.

Eric Patterson, Ph.D. is Executive Vice President of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C. Among his fourteen books are Latin America’s Neo-Reformation: Religion’s Influence on Contemporary Politics and Politics in a Religious World: Building a Religiously Informed U.S. Foreign Policy.