NOTE: Today, Bolivians are voting in a presidential election nearly one year after the last presidential election that was followed by a US-backed coup. The coup brought Christian fascists into power. They have used violence against the mostly-indigenous population and reversed some of the gains made under President Evo Morales. The Christian Right is still connected to the United States and is still a threat in Latin America. – MF
Since the late 1970’s, the Christian Right is a consistent and influential voting block for the Republican party. They also helped fuel government violence and destruction in El Salvador.
When people think of Christians in politics, most think of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision and the start of the “pro-life” movement. However, the rise of the political influence of the Christian Right actual begins in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. After the landmark win of Brown vs. Board of Education in the Supreme Court, schools receiving federal funding were required to desegregate. This lead to a mass exodus of students of white families, leaving public school systems for whites-only Christian private schools.
However, eventually Christian private schools were forced to integrate or lose their tax-exempt status due to the outcome of the Green vs. Connelly case in 1970. Simultaneously, President Nixon ordered the IRS to reject tax-exempt status to all segregated schools. This forced Christian schools to integrate or else lose their tax-exempt status. Several Christian leaders were angered and argued that the actions by the IRS were interfering with “religious freedom.” This was the catalyst to the rise of the Christian Right as a voting block and a political force to be reckoned with.
Reagan Administration Ties to the Christian Right
The Reagan Administration famously courted several Christian leaders for political support. Before Reagan became president, President Jimmy Carter famously entered the oval office with tremendous support from Christian voters despite being a Democratic candidate. However, things began to change for Carter as the Christian voting block moved further right.
Although Christians catapulted Jimmy Carter into the presidency, Christian leaders placed blame on the new Democratic president for the actions of the IRS and President Nixon against private schools the previous year. This led Christian leaders to support Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign in 1980. The Moral Majority was founded by Jerry Falwell (the founder of the Lynchburg Christian School and televangelist), a Christian right-wing political organization with the goal of mobilizing conservative Christian voters to vote-in Republicans into political offices and to pass conservative Christian laws and policies. The influence of Christian leaders in politics did not stop at Reagan’s campaign, but also during his tenure as president. This had consequences not only for those in the U.S., but also those in Central America.
Christian Leaders and U.S. Intervention in Central America
The Moral Majority wielded an immense amount of influence over the political decision enacted by the Reagan Administration. Several Christian leader advised the president on policy important to the Christian Right such as abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and the Equal Rights Amendment, but few laws and policies changed to reflect the views of the Christian Right. However, despite having no tangible policy changes in the U.S., Christian leaders had a significant influence over foreign policy decisions in Central America.
During the 80’s, the Reagan administration made several foreign-policy decisions that installed and supported military dictatorships and anti-communist regimes in Central America. In Nicaragua, Reagan supported Contra rebels engaged in guerrilla warfare to topple the Sandinista government. In Guatemala, Reagan supported the military dictatorship of José Efraín Ríos Montt and even went as far as to describe Montt as “a man of great personal integrity and commitment…I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice,” the same day as the Dos Erres massacre.
The Salvadoran Civil War and Support from the Christian Right
El Salvador’s Civil War is Reagan’s (and the Christian Right’s) biggest legacy however. The Salvadoran Civil War was fought between the military-led government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a collective of left-wing militias. Despite claims of human rights abuses, Christian Right leaders supported Reagan’s foreign policies and the military-led Salvadoran government.
As the influence of the Christian Right becomes stronger when Reagan enters office, Catholicism begins to transform into Liberation Theology, subsequently becomes popular amongst the poor and marginalized in El Salvador. Liberation Theology focused on the needs of the most marginalized and the political liberation of oppressed people, a position in total opposite of the Salvadoran government’s goals and the traditional leaders of the Catholic Church. As Reagan entered, the Christian Right began to support the Salvadoran government despite the murders of nuns and priests, including Archbishop Oscar Romero and Jesuit Priest Ignacio Matin-Baro. After the murder of Archbishop Romero the issue became clear in El Salvador. It was not just a political one, but also a religious one and the Moral Majority was there to help.
Evangelical leaders began to take an active role in the conflict in El Salvador once Reagan was established in office. For instance, in June 1982, Jerry Falwell stated,
“I met with the president last Friday. We were talking about Central America…Can you imagine in the House of Representatives, when you have Marxist, Soviet-Cuban expansionism moving within hours by flight from our shores and the president has to beg the House of Representatives to give him enough money to give to the people there to protect them so that Mexico and Central America doesn’t fall,”
and later when asked about the government-funded death squads in El Salvador, he explained,
“we must support our friends while exercising all possible influence to improve human rights in their society…What it boils down to is which skunk we’re going to support — the one spraying in our direction or the one spraying in the other direction. I don’t have any problem with that one”
Other evangelical leaders became directly involved with the Salvadoran military. In 1983, Pat Robertson famously toured Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Afterwards, Robertson stated that Roberto D’Aubuisson, the Salvadoran leader of the right-wing death squads, was a “very nice fellow,” and later provided millions in “humanitarian aid” for the country. Following his trip to El Salvador, Robertson aired four 20–30 minute segments focusing on the “distortions of the liberal media” against then-president Alvaro Magana.
Robertson was not the only one socializing with dictators and death squad leaders. Paul Crouch, the founder of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, visited El Salvador in 1986 where he spoke at the Salvadoran Full Business Fellowship and award a plaque to Jesus Caceres, the head of the Treasury Police Force at the time. In 1987, Crouch visits El Salvador to start a deal with the government and his broadcasting network. Before airing his network in El Salvador, Crouch urged his U.S. viewers to donate and, “to pray as never before — God wants to reach all troubled Central America.”
Similarly, Dr. Fred Shwarz initiated the Christian’s Anti-Communist Crusade and developed anti-communist propaganda that was played in Salvadoran radio stations. Later the Latin American Director for the Crusade, John Colbert, dropped thousands of leaflets of Christian literature, from a helicopter provided by the Salvadoran government, over FMLN-controlled territory.
The end of the Reagan administration also symbolized the decline of the political power of the Christian Right. The Moral Majority was disbanded and famously stated that, “their goal of supporting Reagan” — and his foreign policy in El Salvador — were accomplished. By 1988, Pat Robertson was more concerned for his presidential bidding than focus on his efforts in Central America. In 1992, the Salvadoran government and the FMLN came to a peace accord and the fight between the two was over. FMLN became an official political party and held power for many years. However, the legacy of the Christian Right in El Salvador is still felt to this day. Salvadoran politicians and leaders hold Christian conservative and the laws passed reflected those views. For example, abortion is still illegal and punishable by prison, same-sex marriage is not recognized by the government, and just this year President Nayib Bukele marched troops into parliament to demand a loan of $109 million in security funds and prayed at the speaker podium to “ask God to grant us patience for a week.” While President Bukele enacts militaristic powers in the name of God, Salvadorans leave their homelands in search of place without violence as Mary, Joseph, and Jesus once did.