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Viewed from the outside, Mexico is often assumed to be uniformly Christian and Catholic in its history and present culture. But Mexican history includes a strong push and pull between religious and secular forces, one that is entering a new chapter today.

The Mexican religious field is currently shifting from monopolistic Catholicism to Christian diversity. This new condition requires policies that promote a pluralistic culture and new models of collaboration between churches and the state. At the same time, Mexico is living on the historical threshold between a radical secularism based on the principle of church-state separation and a new, more nuanced secularism. It is not clear whether this change toward a more secular Mexico will take place under a cooperative model, whether it will succumb to pressures for religious freedom, or whether we are witnessing the renewal of an old anticlerical conflict.

Historical background: from anticlericalism to church-state separatism

It is important to recognize that there are different patterns of secularism. Secularism in Mexico refers to a social regime that regulates the relationship between the churches and the state. This regime of separation has been implemented to counteract the overwhelming historical influence of the Catholic Church in almost all public spheres.

In the early 19th century, Mexico gained independence from the Spanish crown. In 1854, the Constitution was reformed to take power away from the Catholic Church, including new laws to govern under a restrictive principle of separation of church and state.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the application of the laws caused anticlerical measures that brought the Cristero War between the Army and Catholics (1926-1929). The peace agreement was not to modify the Constitution, but to end anticlerical laws in exchange for the Catholic Church ending its intervening in politics. During the 20th century, religious persecution was curbed while secularism remained in force in official education, the public health system, formal and electoral politics, and the media (Blancarte, 1992).

For more than 70 years, Mexico’s secularism interrupted diplomatic relations with the Vatican and legally ignored the existence of religious associations. Although the government continued to allow public religious ceremonies (in a country with a deep pilgrim and festive tradition), there were regulations that prohibited citizenship rights to some religious people. Pastors or priests could not vote in elections, and it was forbidden for religious clergy to wear habits on public roads. During these years, the Catholic hierarchy, with the support of lay movements (considered the long arm of the hierarchy), organized national crusades demanding citizens’ rights and religious freedoms (De la Torre, 2014).

Beginning in the 1990s, some of these restrictions were modified. In 1991, diplomatic relations with the Vatican State were reestablished, and in 1992 the legal status of religious associations was recognized (the General Directorate of Religious Associations in Mexico was founded), and the following civil rights were legally recognized: the manifestation of religion in public spaces (for example, masses, festivals, and pilgrimages) and the recognition of the right of priests and pastors to vote in electoral contests. Secularism was maintained in secular schools, religious associations were restricted from owning communication media, and cult pastors were not allowed to occupy political or popular election positions. The Directorate of Religious Affairs authorized religious associations to own property, have access to public broadcasting and obtain permission to hold religious services in public.

This juncture marked a new stage of modernization and openness towards religious pluralism in which minority religious associations organized themselves to win equal recognition for all religions.

Religious diversity and discrimination

Catholicism occupied a monopolistic position in Mexico until 1970. From that decade on, Catholicism slowly and gradually declined. Mexico, along with Paraguay, is the country with the highest percentage of Catholics in Latin America and has not experienced the advance of evangelicals seen in other countries in the region (Pew Research Center 2014).

That does not imply that the Catholic Church is oblivious to change. In the last national census (INEGI 2020), Catholics decreased to 77.7% of the population, maintaining a status of majority and dominant religion, but no longer the only one. At the same time, evangelicals increased to 11.2%. This group is internally fragmented: According to the records of the Department of Religious Affairs of the Ministry of the Interior, there are more than 3,000 religious associations. Those not affiliated with any religion have also grown (10.6%), although most of them are believers without a church. Finally, there are minority religions that together do not represent even 1% of the population (INEGI 2020).

Mexico is experiencing a slow but steady move towards a religiously diverse society. This demands changes in its secular tradition. First, the laws must include all religions, avoiding privileged treatment. Second, the state must promote a culture of pluralism and respect for differences (Beckford 2003), which is urgent considering that in Mexico, disenfranchisement of religious minorities is the second cause of discrimination (ENADIS 2017). Third, it must respect both religious and secular freedoms. This situation represents an area of tension between the increasingly active movements demanding sexual liberties (feminist and LGBT+) and the pro-family, pro-life and anti-gender ideology crusades that have formed unprecedented alliances between evangelicals and conservative Catholics.

Mexico’s subjective secularism

Secularism is not only achieved through laws and institutions, but above all with the rationalization of morality (Willaime 1996). The loss of plausibility of the religious was termed by Peter Berger (1967) as subjective secularism. I will analyze as indicators of subjective secularism the Encreer survey’s (2016) data on religious opinion and public space (see Hernández, Gutiérrez Zúñiga and De la Torre 2016).

Most of Mexicans (90.4%) recognize pluralist values by agreeing that members of any religious cult should have the same citizenship rights granted by the state. This is a fundamental human right present in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The majority is oriented by a subjective secularism, since it opposes the projects of confessionalization of the public space and approves a secular state that contemplates laws that regulate the interference and direct action of religion in the political field. In the ranking of acceptance of secular principles: 88% disapprove that candidates for public positions using religious symbols to win votes; 79.5% accept the introduction of teachings on sexuality in public schools; 75.3% reject the rejection of religions openly participating in electoral politics; 70.7% agree with the inclusion of gender content in school books; 71.7% admit the right of homosexual couples to adopt children; 67.9% oppose churches owning media outlets; 65.2% who say they agree with the same-sex marriage law; 62% sympathize with abortion not being punished by law; and more than half (56.4%) of Mexicans approve of laws requiring churches to submit fiscal reports to the Ministry of Finance.

The data reveal a high degree of subjective secularism. Mexicans have incorporated the convenience of the principle of church-state separation, of the citizen value of religious diversity and maintain a vision of secular morality that contrasts with that assumed by conservative Christian movements regarding sexual liberties and gender ideology being taught in schools.

A single issue against state secularism is the fact that nearly two thirds (60.6%) agree with religious content or values being taught in public schools contravening school secularism. This is a delicate issue because the school space is crucial for the acceptance of the religious diversity of children, and although it is a secular school, the celebration of traditions (such as the altar of the dead or Christmas) have religious roots and can exclude other minorities (Gutiérrez Zúñiga 2020). At the same time, it is a field under tension by conservatives who constantly claim the right of parents to educate their children and not of the state. This becomes tense when sex education content is included in primary schools.

In most cases, the survey opinions contradict the positions of Christian anti-gender and pro-life movements. It also rejects the interference of religions in politics, like the foundation of an evangelical political party, Social Encounter Party (PES) created to defend family values, which made an alliance with the MORENA party that brought Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the presidency. 

Religious affiliations establish some significant differences in their positions on secularism, as well as those issues on which there is shared consensus.  In general terms, Catholics are more liberal on sexual issues (by 20%) than Christian evangelicals and paraprotestants, who tend to be intransigent on issues related to sexuality. The nonreligious (unaffiliated) mostly reject the incidence of religion in public spaces such as electoral politics and public schools. Evangelicals are more complacent on this issue than the rest.

The current demand for religious freedom

Since the 1990s there has been pressure from neoconservative Christian groups (mainly Catholics with new alliances with Evangelicals) to include religious content in schools, freedom of conscience in health care, to authorize religious associations to own the media, and to allow pastors to run as political candidates. In the background, these actions have intensified and have generated alliances of the conservative Christian wing to combat the advances of the feminist movements that demand the decriminalization of abortion and LGBTI+ that succeeded in legislating marriage and the right to adoption between same-sex couples.

The anti-secularist actions are championed by the demand for religious freedom that resorts to an instrumental use of human rights, what Juan Vaggione (2005) has called “strategic secularism”, which takes up the arguments of international human rights treaties corresponding to the issue of religious freedom and locates the lags of each country for the compliance of such treaties. 

Since 2006, there have been several projects aimed at reforming Article 24 of the Constitution, which establishes “freedom of belief” (Barranco 2006) and seeks to replace it with the term “religious freedom”. This initiative argues that religious freedom should not have more limits than the rights of third parties and the common good. If the law is approved, it would place the state at the service of religious associations and would completely weaken the principle of separation of church and state. Conscientious objection would be allowed in order not to obey the laws. The political activism of the churches would be introduced as freedoms, the possession of mass media would be allowed, religious classes would be established in public schools (which would be financed with the state budget), the churches could collaborate in social programs mixing proselytism with the social activities of the state, in order to reinforce the religious political corporatism. Religious associations would establish chaplaincies in hospitals and the Army. And to put the icing on the cake, the state would have the duty to finance religious associations. The legal action is parallel to the alliances between Catholics and conservative evangelicals in the national pro-family and pro-life crusades.

The challenge for a modern secularism

The current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has contravened the Jacobin tradition with a constant biblical policy in his daily public statements (the morning speeches). The president, following the example of other Latin American presidents, tried to secure clientelistic support from evangelical sectors, but their strength in Mexico is very weak. Although he tried a policy of collaboration with evangelicals, his relationship with Catholic sectors was null. In June 2022, facing the insecurity caused by a failed policy to contain the violence of organized crime and in response to the unjust murder of two priests, the Mexican Episcopal Conference launched a national campaign for pacification in Mexico that encourages prayer, registration of missing persons, and demanding a change in national policy. This is an unprecedented case in Mexico and strains the balance of church-state relations.

At the end of the 1990s, Mexico promoted a separatist secularism that restricted the freedom of religious associations. At present we are living a threshold of change towards a new secularism that, according to Baubérot (2007), must maintain the balance of an equilateral triangle that integrates (1) the separation of spheres, (2) the implementation of a pluralistic culture of respect and equality for religious minorities, and (3) individual freedoms of conscience, which include both religious freedoms and those of individuals with demands that contravene Christian morals.

The current situation of tension with the Catholic Church could be a reversal of the anticlerical past or an impulse to collaborate between state and church. The coin is in the air.


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Renee de la Torre

Angela Renée de la Torre Castellanos, Ph.D. (1997), University of Guadalajara/CIESAS Occidente, Mexico, is Professor and Researcher at the Center of Research and Graduate Studies in Social Anthropology...