Caesar renders unto God

December 27, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

FREEDOM of religion in the United States is not protected by the Constitution alone. In practice, it is also policed by the religions themselves in their plurality and vigor.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ," the First Amendment reads. But if, in 1791, Congress were to have established a religion, which religion would it have been? The genteel Anglicanism of Virginia, the severe Puritanism of Massachusetts, the gentle Quakerism of Pennsylvania?

Because there were so many options, each with its passionate backers, "none of the above" won out. For the same reason, of course, the First Amendment had to contain the free-exercise clause as well as the non-establishment clause. Popular sentiment would tolerate no less.

In Mexico, the history of church and state has been radically different.

The Protestant Reformation left Spain untouched. In New Spain, later to be Mexico, all of the power that in the United States was divided among many religious authorities was concentrated in one: the Roman Catholic Church.

The reaction, when it came, came violently. Religion -- in effect, Roman Catholicism -- had to be not just disestablished but suppressed.

For Benito Juarez, Lincoln's contemporary and an Oaxacan Indian, confiscating church land completed Mexico's liberation from Europe. For the revolutionaries who wrote the current Mexican constitution in 1917, anticlericalism was indispensable to the repudiation of dictator Porfirio Diaz.

Last week, Mexico quietly decided to take most of its anticlerical laws off the books.

In the decades since 1917, the Catholic Church, poorer in property, has arguably grown richer in the allegiance of the common people. Meanwhile, Protestantism, though no better off officially than Catholicism, has made dramatic gains. Los Evangelicos, though still in some ways North American, are putting down Mexican roots.

Mexico is not copying the United States, but an American cannot fail to notice that with a new pluralism on the streets and a newly benign indifferentism on the law books, Mexico now approximates the American recipe for religious freedom.

All hope (and some pray) that what has worked here will work there as well.

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