Posts

Brazilian politician and activist Marina Silva.

Fragile Triumph: The Enlightenment’s Ongoing Travail

Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera’s fascinating reflections on recent shifts Latin American conservatism underscore both the dominance and the fragility of secularism in the democracies of the western hemisphere. 

One can hardly imagine a better example of the triumph of secularity in public life than this account.  The authors Rivera discusses, and the networks they represent, have obviously learned their lesson: Science is the pathway to truth.  Science delivers certitude.  Science provides the heft needed to win arguments.  After a couple of centuries of zigzagging toward Enlightenment, the Latin American public sphere is today sufficiently secularized so as to force even the opponents of Enlightenment to resort to its own tactics and discourses in pursuit of power.  Whatever the quality of the “science” in question, the most salient revelation of this interview is that there exists adequate infrastructure within these networks to produce arguments buttressed, at least on the surface, in the same ways that intellectual and moral claims are established by the more dominant liberal parties.  Science = Authority.  It is now the coin of the realm.  In the desperately contested terrain of Latin America’s democracies, we should not be surprised by gold rushes.

But of course, the very existence of these authors and their constituencies is also evidence of the current and ongoing weakness of secularism as one dimension of a now aging revolutionary movement.  Advanced thinkers in Brazil and elsewhere may have once imagined positivism—to take one example of this movement—as a conquering presence, realigning minds with Reality and structuring societies in ways that would reflect Knowledge.  But the demise of such capital-lettered hopes is now an old story.  The postmodern critique of Enlightenment holds, even as postmodernism’s failure to establish a pathway to public order and authority looms daily before us.  We’re a long way from the hopeful, rationalist visions of Marx and Comte, of Bolívar and Sarmiento. 

Above, the Positivist Church of Brazil, founded in 1881 in Rio de Janeiro.

In this great vacuum older stories, ancient stories yet abide, and with them communities of actual citizens impelled by these stories—stories sustained by metaphysical visions and transcendent hopes, stories in which divinity yet rules humanity, and in which humanity yearns for communion with the divine.  These communities are certainly, as Rivera notes, no longer in tow to the old authority structures, whether it be the Vatican or the Westminster Standards.  But in the age of Pope Francis—and perhaps especially at this particular moment—it is well to point out that neither have those authority structures themselves maintained a narrow continuity with their earlier forms.  If these religious communities, whether Catholic or Protestant, are intellectually conflicted and even incoherent, scholars of religion, of all people, should surely expect as much.  David Tracy has recently observed that “Given our temperament, or needs, or our culture’s needs, we all choose particular fragments of the great traditions that we think are exceptionally valuable right now.”  “Science” is now one of those great traditions (whether positivistic scientists acknowledge it as such or not), and seekers of knowledge and power will avail themselves of it.  It will not, rest assured, be pretty. 

The present crisis of democracy afflicting us throughout the western hemisphere requires of us, among other things, a conception of rationality and knowledge that invites argument beyond science’s limits, and that is capable of fostering higher moral ideals than personal liberation.  Lyotard’s prescient read of our situation, now four decades old, registers, if anything, more convincingly today than it did in 1979.  “In the context of delegitimation, universities and the institutions of higher learning are called upon to create skills, and no longer ideals. . . . The transmission of knowledge is no longer designed to train an elite capable of guiding the nation toward its emancipation, but to supply the system with players capable of acceptably fulfilling their roles at the pragmatic posts required by the institution.” [1]  The pursuit of pragmatic skills may be sufficient for the economic sphere, for a time at least.  But these skills are, obviously, not sufficient for wellbeing in the broader public sphere, where morality must be debated and beliefs bared.  The delegitimized Enlightenment hope of a public sphere governed by scientific rationality and secular liberality needs to give way to a welcome of true epistemic difference.  There are religious people in the future.  A universal submission to the great modern institutions of Knowledge is not in the offing.  If, as Luke Timothy Johnson has recently put it, “the moral and religious” are in fact legitimate “modes of knowing,” this legitimacy must extend to the public sphere. 

This is not to say that all claims to knowledge emerging from any given community are equal—only that we must together arrive at a conception of rationality capable of honoring the most searching and time-honored forms that have emerged across our history—and forge a public sphere capable of such honoring.  The tragicomedy of our moment would be considerably less tragic and comic had what Johnson acidly calls “the etiolated language of the Enlightenment” not all but guaranteed such long-developing revanchist responses as we are now witnessing.  

There are other ways, ways that seek to bring serious thought undergirded by theological belief into the public sphere in a way that honors the pluralistic achievement of modernity without sacrificing conviction at the gate.  The example of the remarkable Brazilian politician and activist Marina Silva comes to mind.  A former Senator of the Republic, Minister of the Environment, the founder of a political party, and three times a presidential candidate, Silva, a Pentecostal, has over decades sought to articulate a compelling theological rationale for her politics, even as she has taken care to advance her vision in ways that speak to those beyond her ecclesiastical home.  The power of her example and argument has required both Christians and secularists to reexamine their usual assumptions about faith and politics.  Could any credibly claim the public square is not richer for her presence in it?[2]

Above, Silva was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots activists for her work to protect the Amazon and its people.

If the foundational practices of political liberalism—the ballot, free speech—are not to be used as weapons against it, we must devote ourselves to constructing a more robust pluralism.  For their part, religious intellectuals and activists with more credibility than the authors of The Black Book of the New Left must work to develop networks and institutions within their communities that can foster the constructive public engagement upon which democracy so obviously depends—and which, at present, is in such evident short supply.


 

[1]Jean François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by G. Bennington and B. Massumi (Minneapolis, 1984), 48.

[2]For more background and commentary on Silva, see my essay, “What I Saw at the Revolution,” along with Janine Paden Morgan, “Emerging Creation Care Movement Among Brazilian Evangelicals,” both in Eric Miller and Ronald J. Morgan, Brazilian Evangelicalism in the Twenty-First Century: An Inside and Outside Look, in the Christianity and Renewal—Interdisciplinary Studies series, ed. Wolfgang Vondey and Amos Yong (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019): 119-136; 231-250.

The Winter of (Neo)Conservative Discontent

In an important recent interview on The Religious Studies Project website, Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera of the University of Costa Rica provides a valuable analysis of the strange political trend sweeping not only Latin America but much of the world.

Professor Rivera rightly notes that this new conservatism is radically different from earlier forms of Latin American conservatism that more closely identified with traditionalist Roman Catholicism as well as various social dynamics and even rhetorical tactics of the ancien régime. This new, or what Professor Rivera identifies as “neo-” conservatism, however, employees the language of biology and pop psychology as well as the verbiage of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment liberalism. One of the key battles of the neoconservative movement that Professor Rivera treats is the battle over sexual morality in much of Latin American between progressive or leftist and neoconservative Latin American intellectuals.

Professor Rivera’s analysis further deserves the complement of a discussion of some of the historical background of the neoconservative movement, which I will herein provide in some small measure.

Neoconservatism must be most properly understood as a fundamentally North American phenomenon in as much as it has its origins in the United States and, moreover, in as much as it advocates a distinctly American agenda.  As is commonly known, the intellectual core of neoconservatism was built around Russian-Jewish emigres to the United States, such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, who while initially embracing Trotskyism, spurned the Soviet Union after Stalin and later Brezhnev’s anti-Semitic turn. These thinkers (and others) through media outlets such as Commentary Magazine and National Review,  helped to shape how the American right would confront the New Left during the searing culture wars that erupted in the United States in the late 1960s.

However, as much, or perhaps even more than the New Left, the neoconservatives waged war against the Old Right in America. If the Old Right was strongly Protestant Christian, the neoconservatives embraced what they termed “Judeo-Christian” values. While the old American right was ethnocentric and viewed America as fundamentally a white country composed primarily of ethnic Northern European people, the neoconservatives, while engaging in racialist “dog whistles”—Norman Podhoretz was the author of a 1963 Commentary essay, “My Negro Problem—and Ours”—primarily viewed America as a country into which all the people of the world could become a part as long as they assimilated to a vaguely defined “Western Civilization.” Perhaps most importantly, embolden by the slogan, “America First,” the Old American Right was protectionist in economic matters and isolationist in regard to foreign wars. The neoconservatives, however, although having to wait until 2003 for an American president to accept their agenda wholesale, advocated for “free markets” as well as the transformation of much of the world via American cultural capital and American military might.

In the late 1970s, as the impending Reagan Revolution gathered steam, the older generation of neoconservatives were joined by a number of Christian journalists, many of whom, such as Michael Novak and then Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus, had been leftwing activists involved in the Civil Rights movement as well as Vietnam War protests. Others, such as George Weigel, who boasts of his relationship with the older generation of neoconservatives in his 2017 memoir, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II, were up and coming Catholic theologians.

With a host of books and essays produced in the 1980s, these thinkers were tasked with what Neuhaus called in his 1984 watershed work The Naked Public Square, “the New Religious Right,” which contrary to the old ethnocentric, triumphalist, and anti-modern tendencies, of, ironically, both Fundamentalist Protestantism and traditionalist Roman Catholicism, would embrace much of modernity while retaining a loosely defined Christian creed combined with American patriotism and unconditional support of capitalism and American cultural and military expansion throughout the world.

The Catholic neoconservatives—Neuhaus would embrace the faith and become ordained a priest in the 1990s—saw much success in their work, as many Catholics did embrace the Republican Party and began to drift away from the left-leaning tenor of the American Catholic Church under the reign of the late Cardinal Bernardin during the 1980s as well as 1990s.

As a result, the Catholic neoconservatives turned their sights on liberation theology, a Latin American movement that utilized some concepts and language from various Marxist schools and which was making inroads not only in South and Central America. Michael Novak crafted two important books dedicated to combating liberation theology Will It Liberate? Questions about Liberation Theology (1986) as well as This Hemisphere of Liberty: A Philosophy of the Americas (1990). More than morality or even theology, these works dealt primarily with economics.

The United States had (and, to this day, has) treated Central and South America as well as the Caribbean as the US’s “backyard.” Thus, the incursion of anti-capitalist ideology into the diverse lands “south of the border” presented a clear and present danger, even after the end of the Cold War, to American influence in Latin America. By posing as benevolent theologians linked (at least on the surface) with the popular papacy of John Paul II, the Catholic neoconservatives hoped they could stop the spread of a theology that, more than it upset traditionalist or conservative Catholic theologians, threatened America economic and geopolitical interests in the region. With the late twentieth and early twenty-first century explosion of conservative Catholicism around the world as well as the lingering post-Cold War American hegemony that has lasted until recent years, the Catholic neoconservatives could consider their project complete.

Now, however, as the Catholic Church appears divided into increasingly polarized camps, consisting of traditionalists, on one hand, and progressives, on the other, the Catholic neoconservatives, who attempted to find a theological via media between the two camps, have found themselves increasingly isolated. Furthermore, in the realm of geopolitics, seemingly amorphous forms of populism appear to be gaining support among large swathes of the population from Brazil, to the United States, to Italy, and to even countries like Japan, thus threatening the neoconservative project of global liberal world order under American hegemonic rule.

While the future of religion, politics, and political theology remains wide open, the immediate past, including the influence of the Catholic neoconservatives throughout the Americas and the world, is coming into clearer focus.

The secularization of discourse in contemporary Latin American neoconservatism

Conservative discourse has had many faces in Latin America. For the most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Catholic Church had a monopoly, but was succeeded by the charismatic evangelical movements after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. As the Catholic Church took a more progressive turn, evangelical movements became the spokespersons for conservative views. Today, these discourses are being infused with scientific perspectives.

In this week’s podcast, Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera explains how historical Latin American conservatism became neoconservatism. Though Latin America is diverse, conservatism has been a constant throughout the region’s history, intervening not only in the power plays of religious institutions, but also in the shaping of people’s everyday life conceptions of the world. Through a discussion of The Black Book of the New Left: Gender Ideology or Cultural Subversion by Argentinian authors Nicolás Marquez and Agustín Laje, Espinoza Rivera shows how neoconservatism has managed to influence these processes by developing a language of its own that blends “scientific” arguments with philosophical and historical analysis of the contemporary world political landscape. This language is popular among religious groups, including both Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and Catholics today. Paradoxically, the diverse users of this language has generated a common tongue for anyone that wants to participate in current Latin American public arenas.

This podcast was recorded and produced in the context of the 17th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), “Religion – Continuations and Disruptions” held in Tartu, June 25 to June 29, 2019. We kindly thank the EASR Committee and the University of Tartu scientific committee, organising team, and volunteers for the support provided during this process.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sardines, popcorn, and more.


The Secularisation of Discourse in Contemporary Latin American Neoconservatism

Podcast with Jerry Espinoza Rivera (21 October 2019).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-secularisation-of-discourse-in-contemporary-latin -american-neoconservatism/

PDF for download available here.

Sidney Castillo (SC): Now we’re still in the fourth day of the EASR Conference 2019, in Tartu Estonia. And it has been a hectic week with a very, very rich learning experiences, sharing with colleagues and hearing about their research. And now I’m sitting here with Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Jerry Espinoza Rivera (JER): Thank you.

SC: And would you be so kind as to introduce yourself?

JER: I am a professor, assistant professor at the University of Costa Rica. I teach philosophy at the School of General Studies. And now I’m presenting a paper about the Latin American neoconservative discourse, here in Tartu.

SC: Perfect. And we welcome you here. It’s nice to know that here at the EASR we have Latin American representative scholars working, and that they take part not only in Latin America or in Spanish speaking countries, but also here in English speaking fields. And it’s very nice to know that our work is being known, in that sense.

JER: I agree.

SC: So, just to jump right in to the questions. The first question, I think, tries to frame your subject – especially here at the EASR: how can we understand conservatism in Latin America? So you can give us an overview.

JER. OK. I differentiate between traditional conservatism and neoconservatism. Traditional conservatism in Latin America is closely related with the Catholic Church. You know that the Catholic Church has had a very strong influence in Latin America, especially in politics. And traditional conservatives have been closely related with Catholic thought. So in my presentation, I make a review of this ideological approach of the Catholic Church, especially during the 19th century. Because there is a big difference between the Catholic thought before the Second Vatican Council and after the Second Vatican Council. So the traditional conservativism is deeply closely related with the catholic thought before the Second Vatican Council. For example, the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council considered that the only salvation was possible inside the church. Nobody outside the church could be saved. And this traditional conservatism was based on the idea that only absolute truth was the Catholic truth. That’s quite a big difference between this traditional and the neoconservatives.

SC: And if you could give us somehow a comprehensive understanding of how the transition of conservatism to neo-conservatism happened? It was probably about the Second Vatican Council but in more contextualised forms? It would be interesting for the Listeners . . . . (5:00).

JER: Actually, I do research about not only the neoconservatives in Costa Rica but in Latin America. I use quite a famous book, right now in Latin America, written by two Argentinians. One is Agustín Laje and the other one is Nicolás Márquez. They wrote a very popular book at this moment that is called The Black Book of the New Left. It’s a book written to discredit what they call the New Left. And it’s very interesting to read in this book how they use, for example, the science in a different way than was used by the traditional conservatives. Because traditional conservatives were very sceptical about science – not only about science, but about reason in general. If you read, for example, the syllabus written by the Pope Pius IX, he condemned the use of science as it wasn’t the truth. It was considered an error by the Pope Pius IX. And that was traditional conservatism. In traditional conservatism, science was not the way to achieve the truth. The way to achieve the truth was the faith: faith in the Catholic Church. In neoconservatism it changed. If you read the book by Laje and Márquez you can see that they use the science as . . . they consider science as a kind of certainty; as absolute truth. It’s completely different. In this case, science is not a way to cut across below the faith, as it was in the traditional conservatism, but the absolute truth.

SC: So, you’ve mentioned the relation of conservatism to the Catholic Church and the neoconservatism that is shown in this book. It seems to me that they are different instances of institutionality. So does analysis of this book tell us something about religion in some way? In which way?

JER: That’s another very interesting issue: that this neoconservatism is not considered religious to conservatives. Of course, underground they are religious, but they don’t use the religious discourse to justify their ideas, they use science. They use another kind of justification. For example, in this book, the Black Book of the New Left, they never quote the Bible, because they try to demonstrate that it is science that demonstrates or proves that, for example, homosexuality is against nature. Or, for example, that life begins since conception. And it’s, of course, against the groups that support the legalisation of abortion. And there are many examples where they show how they use science, or a kind of discourse of science, to demonstrate their ideas.

SC: So, paradoxically it seems that traditional conservatism was against science and now neoconservatism is pro-science. But underneath they’re both religious (10:00). That’s very interesting to know. You mentioned something about homosexuality. To probe this issue more, I’d like to ask: what are the discursive forms that neoconservatism is playing?

JER: It’s interesting.to see how these neoconservatives, they build a kind of new enemy kind of antagonism for themselves. Their enemy is not now what it was during the cold war, for example, Communism. But now their enemy is more related with sexuality. And that’s why they use this term “gender ideology”. The term is essentially an empty signifier. What does it mean, when I say that is an empty signifier? That it doesn’t have any meaning. But they use it to attack, or to discredit for example ideas by Judith Butler or the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir or all their theories philosophers or thinkers that heave written about gender. So they create this concept. They call it gender ideology to discredit . . . . But not only to discredit these thinkers, but to discredit any policy or any fight related with sexual or reproductive rights. That’s why, for example, you can see in Latin America, how these groups attack for example, any decision related to legalisation of abortion. They call it gender ideology. Because they created a kind of enemy to discredit and they use this term, this signifier, to discredit any policy related with sexual and reproductive rights.

SC: Which is a thing I believe also I stayed in (audio unclear) and there was a tendency for the state to . . . or at least not everybody was in favour of reproductive rights or sexual rights.

JER: Yes. You can see how it was very important issue in Brazil during the last election. Jair Bolsonaro the President, he uses it, this discourse, to discredit his enemies. What does it mean? It means that it’s an important issue in Latin America, not only a discourse of minorities. What you can see in Brazil, you can see it in Colombia, in Peru, in Chile and many countries. This discourse of the neoconservatives has grown. In my country Costa Rica you can see it for example. Now there is a big conflict about the use of mixed toilets. It is, you can consider it like something very unimportant, but some religious groups, conservative groups, use it as an excuse to attack the government. And it’s a very good example of how the neoconservatives use these kinds of issues to discredit or to attack some policies (15:00).

SC: Like a point of entry for doing politics for Latin America?

JER: Yes. It’s interesting to see how Laje and Márquez, they are travelling across every region, every country, presenting their book. It’s interesting to see how, for example in Costa Rica, there was a big controversy about the presentation of this book, but you can see that they are looking for these kind of controversies. Because they know that it makes them famous. For example, in the case of Costa Rica, one of their presentations was forbidden at one of the Universities, because it was considered that it was discriminatory. So they made it a case, they made it an issue to become famous, because of the controversy that they generated.

SC: Also I believe that it’s not only dependent on this book. It’s got currency worldwide.

JER: Yes, of course. I use the book as an example. Because the book is incredibly famous and very popular. It’s interesting to see how a book that, if you read it the book it . . . academically, it’s very week, you know? Their arguments are very week. It’s very easy to refute them. But they know that there are many people who want to read this kind of argument. And that’s why, actually, the book, you can’t buy it; it’s free! So it’s easy for people to obtain the book. It’s interesting how they promote their ideas.

SC: And going back to this issue of traditional conservatism and neoconservatism: so it’s not related, neoconservatism, to the Catholic Church?

JER: No. that’s another difference with between traditional conservatism and neoconservatism. Traditional conservatism was deeply, closely related with the Catholic Church, but neoconservatism not only includes Catholics, but also neo-Pentecostalist parties. For example in my country, in Costa Rica, there is a quite a big neo-Pentecostal party, who was there actually participated in the last election and was one of the parties that obtained more votes. It was a disputed presidency, with the candidate that finally won. But they obtained forty percent of the votes! It’s really, really big. And what’s interesting is to see that in spite of the fact that it was neo-Pentecostalist party, many Catholics voted for this candidate. Ten years ago it was unimaginable. It’s very interesting to see how this neoconservative discourse is attracting not only people who are traditional Catholics, but people who belong to other kinds of churches.

SC: Speaking of that, I think that, in sociological terms, it’s interesting how these concepts of the conservatives’ cause reached civil society(20:00). And that’s why I also want to ask, what effect does it have in the shared imaginary of the general public?

JER: Yes, the growth of these parties is not only a political phenomenon, but a social phenomenon. It’s extremely related . . . in the case of Brazil, for example, there was a big influence of WhatsApp in the election of Bolsonaro. That’s exactly the same case in Costa Rica. Social networks were very important in the final election. Because it’s easier to spread fake news through these kind of networks. Ten years ago, or twenty years ago it was more difficult to do these kind of things. Now, with social networks, it’s easier to spread this kind of fake news. You can see it in the United States, in the election of Trump. It is quite a similar process.

SC: Do you have any further remarks to kind-of sum up what we have been discussing so far?

JER: I just want to remark how dangerous is what’s happening right now, not only in Latin America but in many countries. Even here in Europe – you can see it in Poland, in Hungary and in Slovakia and other countries. It’s a new kind of politics that uses hatred towards some groups, minority groups, for example LGBT collectives, or the feminist groups. And this is new. And they use it because they realise that it’s quite popular. You know? This kind of discourse is quite popular. People easily believe these kind of ideas that you can read: things about “homosexualisation of the world” for example. It’s kind-of crazy ideas they are spreading, and it’s quite dangerous. You can see it happening in the United States in 2016, and you can see it in Brazil in the case of Latin America. And this phenomenon is spreading around the world.

SC: So it’s akin to . . . even to conspiracy theories?

JER: Yes. In the case of Latin America it’s even worse, I would say. Because it’s also related to the problems that are related with poverty, inequality and other problems that make that easier for these people to be attracted to this kind of discourse.

SC: Right. Well, Professor Espinoza, it was very nice to have you here at the Religious Studies Project and we hope to have you again, soon.

JER: Thank you.

SC: Thank you.

 

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Podcasts

Brazilian politician and activist Marina Silva.

Fragile Triumph: The Enlightenment’s Ongoing Travail

Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera’s fascinating reflections on recent shifts Latin American conservatism underscore both the dominance and the fragility of secularism in the democracies of the western hemisphere. 

One can hardly imagine a better example of the triumph of secularity in public life than this account.  The authors Rivera discusses, and the networks they represent, have obviously learned their lesson: Science is the pathway to truth.  Science delivers certitude.  Science provides the heft needed to win arguments.  After a couple of centuries of zigzagging toward Enlightenment, the Latin American public sphere is today sufficiently secularized so as to force even the opponents of Enlightenment to resort to its own tactics and discourses in pursuit of power.  Whatever the quality of the “science” in question, the most salient revelation of this interview is that there exists adequate infrastructure within these networks to produce arguments buttressed, at least on the surface, in the same ways that intellectual and moral claims are established by the more dominant liberal parties.  Science = Authority.  It is now the coin of the realm.  In the desperately contested terrain of Latin America’s democracies, we should not be surprised by gold rushes.

But of course, the very existence of these authors and their constituencies is also evidence of the current and ongoing weakness of secularism as one dimension of a now aging revolutionary movement.  Advanced thinkers in Brazil and elsewhere may have once imagined positivism—to take one example of this movement—as a conquering presence, realigning minds with Reality and structuring societies in ways that would reflect Knowledge.  But the demise of such capital-lettered hopes is now an old story.  The postmodern critique of Enlightenment holds, even as postmodernism’s failure to establish a pathway to public order and authority looms daily before us.  We’re a long way from the hopeful, rationalist visions of Marx and Comte, of Bolívar and Sarmiento. 

Above, the Positivist Church of Brazil, founded in 1881 in Rio de Janeiro.

In this great vacuum older stories, ancient stories yet abide, and with them communities of actual citizens impelled by these stories—stories sustained by metaphysical visions and transcendent hopes, stories in which divinity yet rules humanity, and in which humanity yearns for communion with the divine.  These communities are certainly, as Rivera notes, no longer in tow to the old authority structures, whether it be the Vatican or the Westminster Standards.  But in the age of Pope Francis—and perhaps especially at this particular moment—it is well to point out that neither have those authority structures themselves maintained a narrow continuity with their earlier forms.  If these religious communities, whether Catholic or Protestant, are intellectually conflicted and even incoherent, scholars of religion, of all people, should surely expect as much.  David Tracy has recently observed that “Given our temperament, or needs, or our culture’s needs, we all choose particular fragments of the great traditions that we think are exceptionally valuable right now.”  “Science” is now one of those great traditions (whether positivistic scientists acknowledge it as such or not), and seekers of knowledge and power will avail themselves of it.  It will not, rest assured, be pretty. 

The present crisis of democracy afflicting us throughout the western hemisphere requires of us, among other things, a conception of rationality and knowledge that invites argument beyond science’s limits, and that is capable of fostering higher moral ideals than personal liberation.  Lyotard’s prescient read of our situation, now four decades old, registers, if anything, more convincingly today than it did in 1979.  “In the context of delegitimation, universities and the institutions of higher learning are called upon to create skills, and no longer ideals. . . . The transmission of knowledge is no longer designed to train an elite capable of guiding the nation toward its emancipation, but to supply the system with players capable of acceptably fulfilling their roles at the pragmatic posts required by the institution.” [1]  The pursuit of pragmatic skills may be sufficient for the economic sphere, for a time at least.  But these skills are, obviously, not sufficient for wellbeing in the broader public sphere, where morality must be debated and beliefs bared.  The delegitimized Enlightenment hope of a public sphere governed by scientific rationality and secular liberality needs to give way to a welcome of true epistemic difference.  There are religious people in the future.  A universal submission to the great modern institutions of Knowledge is not in the offing.  If, as Luke Timothy Johnson has recently put it, “the moral and religious” are in fact legitimate “modes of knowing,” this legitimacy must extend to the public sphere. 

This is not to say that all claims to knowledge emerging from any given community are equal—only that we must together arrive at a conception of rationality capable of honoring the most searching and time-honored forms that have emerged across our history—and forge a public sphere capable of such honoring.  The tragicomedy of our moment would be considerably less tragic and comic had what Johnson acidly calls “the etiolated language of the Enlightenment” not all but guaranteed such long-developing revanchist responses as we are now witnessing.  

There are other ways, ways that seek to bring serious thought undergirded by theological belief into the public sphere in a way that honors the pluralistic achievement of modernity without sacrificing conviction at the gate.  The example of the remarkable Brazilian politician and activist Marina Silva comes to mind.  A former Senator of the Republic, Minister of the Environment, the founder of a political party, and three times a presidential candidate, Silva, a Pentecostal, has over decades sought to articulate a compelling theological rationale for her politics, even as she has taken care to advance her vision in ways that speak to those beyond her ecclesiastical home.  The power of her example and argument has required both Christians and secularists to reexamine their usual assumptions about faith and politics.  Could any credibly claim the public square is not richer for her presence in it?[2]

Above, Silva was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots activists for her work to protect the Amazon and its people.

If the foundational practices of political liberalism—the ballot, free speech—are not to be used as weapons against it, we must devote ourselves to constructing a more robust pluralism.  For their part, religious intellectuals and activists with more credibility than the authors of The Black Book of the New Left must work to develop networks and institutions within their communities that can foster the constructive public engagement upon which democracy so obviously depends—and which, at present, is in such evident short supply.


 

[1]Jean François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by G. Bennington and B. Massumi (Minneapolis, 1984), 48.

[2]For more background and commentary on Silva, see my essay, “What I Saw at the Revolution,” along with Janine Paden Morgan, “Emerging Creation Care Movement Among Brazilian Evangelicals,” both in Eric Miller and Ronald J. Morgan, Brazilian Evangelicalism in the Twenty-First Century: An Inside and Outside Look, in the Christianity and Renewal—Interdisciplinary Studies series, ed. Wolfgang Vondey and Amos Yong (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019): 119-136; 231-250.

The Winter of (Neo)Conservative Discontent

In an important recent interview on The Religious Studies Project website, Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera of the University of Costa Rica provides a valuable analysis of the strange political trend sweeping not only Latin America but much of the world.

Professor Rivera rightly notes that this new conservatism is radically different from earlier forms of Latin American conservatism that more closely identified with traditionalist Roman Catholicism as well as various social dynamics and even rhetorical tactics of the ancien régime. This new, or what Professor Rivera identifies as “neo-” conservatism, however, employees the language of biology and pop psychology as well as the verbiage of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment liberalism. One of the key battles of the neoconservative movement that Professor Rivera treats is the battle over sexual morality in much of Latin American between progressive or leftist and neoconservative Latin American intellectuals.

Professor Rivera’s analysis further deserves the complement of a discussion of some of the historical background of the neoconservative movement, which I will herein provide in some small measure.

Neoconservatism must be most properly understood as a fundamentally North American phenomenon in as much as it has its origins in the United States and, moreover, in as much as it advocates a distinctly American agenda.  As is commonly known, the intellectual core of neoconservatism was built around Russian-Jewish emigres to the United States, such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, who while initially embracing Trotskyism, spurned the Soviet Union after Stalin and later Brezhnev’s anti-Semitic turn. These thinkers (and others) through media outlets such as Commentary Magazine and National Review,  helped to shape how the American right would confront the New Left during the searing culture wars that erupted in the United States in the late 1960s.

However, as much, or perhaps even more than the New Left, the neoconservatives waged war against the Old Right in America. If the Old Right was strongly Protestant Christian, the neoconservatives embraced what they termed “Judeo-Christian” values. While the old American right was ethnocentric and viewed America as fundamentally a white country composed primarily of ethnic Northern European people, the neoconservatives, while engaging in racialist “dog whistles”—Norman Podhoretz was the author of a 1963 Commentary essay, “My Negro Problem—and Ours”—primarily viewed America as a country into which all the people of the world could become a part as long as they assimilated to a vaguely defined “Western Civilization.” Perhaps most importantly, embolden by the slogan, “America First,” the Old American Right was protectionist in economic matters and isolationist in regard to foreign wars. The neoconservatives, however, although having to wait until 2003 for an American president to accept their agenda wholesale, advocated for “free markets” as well as the transformation of much of the world via American cultural capital and American military might.

In the late 1970s, as the impending Reagan Revolution gathered steam, the older generation of neoconservatives were joined by a number of Christian journalists, many of whom, such as Michael Novak and then Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus, had been leftwing activists involved in the Civil Rights movement as well as Vietnam War protests. Others, such as George Weigel, who boasts of his relationship with the older generation of neoconservatives in his 2017 memoir, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II, were up and coming Catholic theologians.

With a host of books and essays produced in the 1980s, these thinkers were tasked with what Neuhaus called in his 1984 watershed work The Naked Public Square, “the New Religious Right,” which contrary to the old ethnocentric, triumphalist, and anti-modern tendencies, of, ironically, both Fundamentalist Protestantism and traditionalist Roman Catholicism, would embrace much of modernity while retaining a loosely defined Christian creed combined with American patriotism and unconditional support of capitalism and American cultural and military expansion throughout the world.

The Catholic neoconservatives—Neuhaus would embrace the faith and become ordained a priest in the 1990s—saw much success in their work, as many Catholics did embrace the Republican Party and began to drift away from the left-leaning tenor of the American Catholic Church under the reign of the late Cardinal Bernardin during the 1980s as well as 1990s.

As a result, the Catholic neoconservatives turned their sights on liberation theology, a Latin American movement that utilized some concepts and language from various Marxist schools and which was making inroads not only in South and Central America. Michael Novak crafted two important books dedicated to combating liberation theology Will It Liberate? Questions about Liberation Theology (1986) as well as This Hemisphere of Liberty: A Philosophy of the Americas (1990). More than morality or even theology, these works dealt primarily with economics.

The United States had (and, to this day, has) treated Central and South America as well as the Caribbean as the US’s “backyard.” Thus, the incursion of anti-capitalist ideology into the diverse lands “south of the border” presented a clear and present danger, even after the end of the Cold War, to American influence in Latin America. By posing as benevolent theologians linked (at least on the surface) with the popular papacy of John Paul II, the Catholic neoconservatives hoped they could stop the spread of a theology that, more than it upset traditionalist or conservative Catholic theologians, threatened America economic and geopolitical interests in the region. With the late twentieth and early twenty-first century explosion of conservative Catholicism around the world as well as the lingering post-Cold War American hegemony that has lasted until recent years, the Catholic neoconservatives could consider their project complete.

Now, however, as the Catholic Church appears divided into increasingly polarized camps, consisting of traditionalists, on one hand, and progressives, on the other, the Catholic neoconservatives, who attempted to find a theological via media between the two camps, have found themselves increasingly isolated. Furthermore, in the realm of geopolitics, seemingly amorphous forms of populism appear to be gaining support among large swathes of the population from Brazil, to the United States, to Italy, and to even countries like Japan, thus threatening the neoconservative project of global liberal world order under American hegemonic rule.

While the future of religion, politics, and political theology remains wide open, the immediate past, including the influence of the Catholic neoconservatives throughout the Americas and the world, is coming into clearer focus.

The secularization of discourse in contemporary Latin American neoconservatism

Conservative discourse has had many faces in Latin America. For the most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Catholic Church had a monopoly, but was succeeded by the charismatic evangelical movements after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. As the Catholic Church took a more progressive turn, evangelical movements became the spokespersons for conservative views. Today, these discourses are being infused with scientific perspectives.

In this week’s podcast, Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera explains how historical Latin American conservatism became neoconservatism. Though Latin America is diverse, conservatism has been a constant throughout the region’s history, intervening not only in the power plays of religious institutions, but also in the shaping of people’s everyday life conceptions of the world. Through a discussion of The Black Book of the New Left: Gender Ideology or Cultural Subversion by Argentinian authors Nicolás Marquez and Agustín Laje, Espinoza Rivera shows how neoconservatism has managed to influence these processes by developing a language of its own that blends “scientific” arguments with philosophical and historical analysis of the contemporary world political landscape. This language is popular among religious groups, including both Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and Catholics today. Paradoxically, the diverse users of this language has generated a common tongue for anyone that wants to participate in current Latin American public arenas.

This podcast was recorded and produced in the context of the 17th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), “Religion – Continuations and Disruptions” held in Tartu, June 25 to June 29, 2019. We kindly thank the EASR Committee and the University of Tartu scientific committee, organising team, and volunteers for the support provided during this process.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sardines, popcorn, and more.


The Secularisation of Discourse in Contemporary Latin American Neoconservatism

Podcast with Jerry Espinoza Rivera (21 October 2019).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-secularisation-of-discourse-in-contemporary-latin -american-neoconservatism/

PDF for download available here.

Sidney Castillo (SC): Now we’re still in the fourth day of the EASR Conference 2019, in Tartu Estonia. And it has been a hectic week with a very, very rich learning experiences, sharing with colleagues and hearing about their research. And now I’m sitting here with Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Jerry Espinoza Rivera (JER): Thank you.

SC: And would you be so kind as to introduce yourself?

JER: I am a professor, assistant professor at the University of Costa Rica. I teach philosophy at the School of General Studies. And now I’m presenting a paper about the Latin American neoconservative discourse, here in Tartu.

SC: Perfect. And we welcome you here. It’s nice to know that here at the EASR we have Latin American representative scholars working, and that they take part not only in Latin America or in Spanish speaking countries, but also here in English speaking fields. And it’s very nice to know that our work is being known, in that sense.

JER: I agree.

SC: So, just to jump right in to the questions. The first question, I think, tries to frame your subject – especially here at the EASR: how can we understand conservatism in Latin America? So you can give us an overview.

JER. OK. I differentiate between traditional conservatism and neoconservatism. Traditional conservatism in Latin America is closely related with the Catholic Church. You know that the Catholic Church has had a very strong influence in Latin America, especially in politics. And traditional conservatives have been closely related with Catholic thought. So in my presentation, I make a review of this ideological approach of the Catholic Church, especially during the 19th century. Because there is a big difference between the Catholic thought before the Second Vatican Council and after the Second Vatican Council. So the traditional conservativism is deeply closely related with the catholic thought before the Second Vatican Council. For example, the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council considered that the only salvation was possible inside the church. Nobody outside the church could be saved. And this traditional conservatism was based on the idea that only absolute truth was the Catholic truth. That’s quite a big difference between this traditional and the neoconservatives.

SC: And if you could give us somehow a comprehensive understanding of how the transition of conservatism to neo-conservatism happened? It was probably about the Second Vatican Council but in more contextualised forms? It would be interesting for the Listeners . . . . (5:00).

JER: Actually, I do research about not only the neoconservatives in Costa Rica but in Latin America. I use quite a famous book, right now in Latin America, written by two Argentinians. One is Agustín Laje and the other one is Nicolás Márquez. They wrote a very popular book at this moment that is called The Black Book of the New Left. It’s a book written to discredit what they call the New Left. And it’s very interesting to read in this book how they use, for example, the science in a different way than was used by the traditional conservatives. Because traditional conservatives were very sceptical about science – not only about science, but about reason in general. If you read, for example, the syllabus written by the Pope Pius IX, he condemned the use of science as it wasn’t the truth. It was considered an error by the Pope Pius IX. And that was traditional conservatism. In traditional conservatism, science was not the way to achieve the truth. The way to achieve the truth was the faith: faith in the Catholic Church. In neoconservatism it changed. If you read the book by Laje and Márquez you can see that they use the science as . . . they consider science as a kind of certainty; as absolute truth. It’s completely different. In this case, science is not a way to cut across below the faith, as it was in the traditional conservatism, but the absolute truth.

SC: So, you’ve mentioned the relation of conservatism to the Catholic Church and the neoconservatism that is shown in this book. It seems to me that they are different instances of institutionality. So does analysis of this book tell us something about religion in some way? In which way?

JER: That’s another very interesting issue: that this neoconservatism is not considered religious to conservatives. Of course, underground they are religious, but they don’t use the religious discourse to justify their ideas, they use science. They use another kind of justification. For example, in this book, the Black Book of the New Left, they never quote the Bible, because they try to demonstrate that it is science that demonstrates or proves that, for example, homosexuality is against nature. Or, for example, that life begins since conception. And it’s, of course, against the groups that support the legalisation of abortion. And there are many examples where they show how they use science, or a kind of discourse of science, to demonstrate their ideas.

SC: So, paradoxically it seems that traditional conservatism was against science and now neoconservatism is pro-science. But underneath they’re both religious (10:00). That’s very interesting to know. You mentioned something about homosexuality. To probe this issue more, I’d like to ask: what are the discursive forms that neoconservatism is playing?

JER: It’s interesting.to see how these neoconservatives, they build a kind of new enemy kind of antagonism for themselves. Their enemy is not now what it was during the cold war, for example, Communism. But now their enemy is more related with sexuality. And that’s why they use this term “gender ideology”. The term is essentially an empty signifier. What does it mean, when I say that is an empty signifier? That it doesn’t have any meaning. But they use it to attack, or to discredit for example ideas by Judith Butler or the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir or all their theories philosophers or thinkers that heave written about gender. So they create this concept. They call it gender ideology to discredit . . . . But not only to discredit these thinkers, but to discredit any policy or any fight related with sexual or reproductive rights. That’s why, for example, you can see in Latin America, how these groups attack for example, any decision related to legalisation of abortion. They call it gender ideology. Because they created a kind of enemy to discredit and they use this term, this signifier, to discredit any policy related with sexual and reproductive rights.

SC: Which is a thing I believe also I stayed in (audio unclear) and there was a tendency for the state to . . . or at least not everybody was in favour of reproductive rights or sexual rights.

JER: Yes. You can see how it was very important issue in Brazil during the last election. Jair Bolsonaro the President, he uses it, this discourse, to discredit his enemies. What does it mean? It means that it’s an important issue in Latin America, not only a discourse of minorities. What you can see in Brazil, you can see it in Colombia, in Peru, in Chile and many countries. This discourse of the neoconservatives has grown. In my country Costa Rica you can see it for example. Now there is a big conflict about the use of mixed toilets. It is, you can consider it like something very unimportant, but some religious groups, conservative groups, use it as an excuse to attack the government. And it’s a very good example of how the neoconservatives use these kinds of issues to discredit or to attack some policies (15:00).

SC: Like a point of entry for doing politics for Latin America?

JER: Yes. It’s interesting to see how Laje and Márquez, they are travelling across every region, every country, presenting their book. It’s interesting to see how, for example in Costa Rica, there was a big controversy about the presentation of this book, but you can see that they are looking for these kind of controversies. Because they know that it makes them famous. For example, in the case of Costa Rica, one of their presentations was forbidden at one of the Universities, because it was considered that it was discriminatory. So they made it a case, they made it an issue to become famous, because of the controversy that they generated.

SC: Also I believe that it’s not only dependent on this book. It’s got currency worldwide.

JER: Yes, of course. I use the book as an example. Because the book is incredibly famous and very popular. It’s interesting to see how a book that, if you read it the book it . . . academically, it’s very week, you know? Their arguments are very week. It’s very easy to refute them. But they know that there are many people who want to read this kind of argument. And that’s why, actually, the book, you can’t buy it; it’s free! So it’s easy for people to obtain the book. It’s interesting how they promote their ideas.

SC: And going back to this issue of traditional conservatism and neoconservatism: so it’s not related, neoconservatism, to the Catholic Church?

JER: No. that’s another difference with between traditional conservatism and neoconservatism. Traditional conservatism was deeply, closely related with the Catholic Church, but neoconservatism not only includes Catholics, but also neo-Pentecostalist parties. For example in my country, in Costa Rica, there is a quite a big neo-Pentecostal party, who was there actually participated in the last election and was one of the parties that obtained more votes. It was a disputed presidency, with the candidate that finally won. But they obtained forty percent of the votes! It’s really, really big. And what’s interesting is to see that in spite of the fact that it was neo-Pentecostalist party, many Catholics voted for this candidate. Ten years ago it was unimaginable. It’s very interesting to see how this neoconservative discourse is attracting not only people who are traditional Catholics, but people who belong to other kinds of churches.

SC: Speaking of that, I think that, in sociological terms, it’s interesting how these concepts of the conservatives’ cause reached civil society(20:00). And that’s why I also want to ask, what effect does it have in the shared imaginary of the general public?

JER: Yes, the growth of these parties is not only a political phenomenon, but a social phenomenon. It’s extremely related . . . in the case of Brazil, for example, there was a big influence of WhatsApp in the election of Bolsonaro. That’s exactly the same case in Costa Rica. Social networks were very important in the final election. Because it’s easier to spread fake news through these kind of networks. Ten years ago, or twenty years ago it was more difficult to do these kind of things. Now, with social networks, it’s easier to spread this kind of fake news. You can see it in the United States, in the election of Trump. It is quite a similar process.

SC: Do you have any further remarks to kind-of sum up what we have been discussing so far?

JER: I just want to remark how dangerous is what’s happening right now, not only in Latin America but in many countries. Even here in Europe – you can see it in Poland, in Hungary and in Slovakia and other countries. It’s a new kind of politics that uses hatred towards some groups, minority groups, for example LGBT collectives, or the feminist groups. And this is new. And they use it because they realise that it’s quite popular. You know? This kind of discourse is quite popular. People easily believe these kind of ideas that you can read: things about “homosexualisation of the world” for example. It’s kind-of crazy ideas they are spreading, and it’s quite dangerous. You can see it happening in the United States in 2016, and you can see it in Brazil in the case of Latin America. And this phenomenon is spreading around the world.

SC: So it’s akin to . . . even to conspiracy theories?

JER: Yes. In the case of Latin America it’s even worse, I would say. Because it’s also related to the problems that are related with poverty, inequality and other problems that make that easier for these people to be attracted to this kind of discourse.

SC: Right. Well, Professor Espinoza, it was very nice to have you here at the Religious Studies Project and we hope to have you again, soon.

JER: Thank you.

SC: Thank you.

 

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