Faith and Mexico’s Drug War

March 12, 2011

'Saint Muerte' is the patron saint of many of the gangs and cartels in Mexico.

Religion is the most important aspect of any culture. What the religion is like and the key values and concepts of the religion will drive the morality and the actions of the entire nation. I have written at length about the good that Christianity has done for the world since its inception 2000 years ago. I have also argued that as Christianity loses its cultural influence in some nations in the West we will likely see values and morality that we never thought possible. For example, infanticide is something that certain British leaders have been considering in UK (interestingly comparing infanticide to abortion like many pro-lifers have been doing for years).

I have been regularly traveling to Mexico in recent years and am very interested in the state of affairs there. I have been watching as Mexico has gone from a fairly safe country to a country that is so riddled by strife between the government and the drug cartels that many people believe that the nation is on the verge of a complete breakdown. The violence in Mexico is so prevalent that my friends who live in Monterey and Mexico City tell me that they regularly fear for the safety of their families. My friend in Mexico City was driving to work and was horrified to get caught in a traffic jam caused by a decapitated body hanging from an overpass. My friend in Monterey tells me that the murder rate has skyrocketed in recent years and that the whole city is on edge.

But what about the idea that cult defines culture? Mexico is not a western liberal nation. The nation is roughly 90% Catholic and 6% Protestant. Atheism and secularism do not have anywhere near the foothold that they have in Europe (or the US of that matter).  When I go into plants in Mexico they usually have a statue of Mary at the entrance or a Cross on the wall. Any taxi you take will have a picture of Mary or Jesus on the dashboard. With all this, why are things so out of control? Wouldn’t we expect the God who helped Europe to form stable governments and societies to help Mexico do the same? Why is there such widespread violence and hatred?

The answer, I believe, lies in looking beyond the self reported religion of the people into the actual beliefs and practices.  The Catholicism practiced in Mexico is quite different from the Catholicism practiced in the US. The people in Mexico may nominally hold to something called Catholicism but in reality it is all too often a blend of Christianity and local cults and indigenousness religions.

One example is the veneration of “Saint Muerte [Death]”. Saint Muerte is a popular saint in many communities and is particularly popular among the cartels. The problem is that there is no official “Saint Death” in the Catholic Church. Death is not a person and therefore cannot be a saint. But this doesn’t stop people. And ‘Saint Death’ is only an example of the often confused and muddled mess that unfortunately characterizes much of Mexican religion.  Other syncretistic practices abound. Often saints are simply used as talismans or idols that are intended to bring good luck. For so much of the population, there is no orthodoxy, no careful distinctions, and, most importantly, no personal declaration of Jesus as Lord and Savior of their life ruling over all elements of life. And the result is that although the person may call themselves a Catholic or Christian, they are in fact adhering to some strange syncretistic blend of Mesoamerican and Catholic beliefs.

Here is the good news. The Catholic Church appears to be responding clearly to the syncretism by denouncing the cult of “Santa Muerte.” And the growth of Evangelicalism in Mexico is particularly encouraging; my friend in Monterrey has been a part of two church plants in the city and their church is seeking to plant more. So there is a Christian response (from Catholicism and Evangelicalism) that hopefully will help correct the cult that is leading to the destructive culture in this beautiful nation.

HT: Philip Jenkins


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