Try to imagine Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, dressed up as a bishop — the head bishop — of his own state-sponsored church.
According to media reports coming out of Latin America, President Chavez is considering a proposal that would establish him as the high priest of his own form of evangelical Christianity, convert his cabinet members into bishops of a lower rank, and submit church activities to the civil and military power of his government.
It is still unclear who is behind the proposal. Publicly, it has taken the form of a petition by leaders of “Centro Cristiano de Salvación” (Christian Center of Salvation). The association claims to represent 17,000 evangelical churches and 5,000,000 Venezuelans. Their request is simple: make their denomination the country’s official religion, teach it in all public schools and pay the pastors from government coffers. In turn, they will make Chavez their head bishop and promise to submit absolutely to his authority.
Chavez’ political critics say the petition is anything but spontaneous and independent. Edgar Zambrano, a deputy of the Venezuelan National Assembly, told the Spanish newspaper “El Mundo” that he has no doubt that “President Chavez is the one behind the proposed law.” Human rights groups are crying unfair play, warning this may be a government-orchestrated ploy to wrest away power from yet another sector of Venezuelan society, while allowing Chavez to appear to be merely acquiescing to popular acclaim.
Some call the Venezuelan leader “El Loco,” but if these reports are true, President Chavez deserves more credit. He may be crazy, but he’s not dumb. He promised the world that his recent re-election would launch the second phase of his so-called “Bolivarian Socialist Revolution” and he is now keeping his promise.
When I went to Venezuela last February to do commentary for Fox News about a large religious procession sponsored by the Catholic Church, it was clear Mr. Chavez was uncomfortable with the strength of the country’s traditional piety and how that the piety links its people to a higher, spiritual power and an international organization. Organizers of that event pledged more than 1,000,000 people would process peacefully in the streets of Barquisimeto. The crowds easily surpassed the official estimation.
On that festive day I saw Venezuelans proud to be Venezuelans. For a moment they could put aside political and social uncertainty and unite around faith.
I also saw the shrewd attempts of President Chavez to link himself to the success of the procession and manipulate the religious message into a purely nationalistic one of which he was the lone star. Hours before the procession, he interrupted all television and radio programming so he could deliver without competition his media message. He sent military jets to fly over the crowds with an impressive air-show of military might. He paid thousands of “volunteers” to wear government shirts and pass out free water bottles and pro-Chavez literature.
While human rights groups have always expressed concern for the long-term viability of religious liberty under a Chavez administration, until now, a wide range of denominations has been free to worship and operate independently of government control.
There has even been room for debate, and a little bit of give and take.
The Catholic Church, representing more than 90% of the population, has been a thorn in the side of President Chavez. For many years, the local body of Catholic bishops has reminded the president publicly and in no uncertain terms, of a politician’s responsibility to defend human rights, reject corruption and seek the common good of all citizens. A retired Vatican official and Venezuelan Cardinal, Rosalio Castillo Lara, has been fiercely critical of Chavez.
Most recently, however, Catholic leaders have taken a more conciliatory tone and the new Cardinal Archbishop of Caracas, Jorge Urosa Savino, has succeeded in building a relationship of mutual tolerance, if not respect.
Just one month into his new term, President Hugo Chavez is emboldened to carry out his full agenda of the Bolivarian Socialist Revolution.” What remains to be seen is whether this second stage will include religious liberty.
If not, we may end up calling him, “Your Excellency, Archbishop Chavez.”
God bless, Father Jonathan