Philip Jenkins: Mexico’s Crisis of Faith

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Philip Jenkins teaches at Penn State University and is Distinguished Senior Fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion.]

For all the crises and confrontations that the United States faces around the world, some observers think that the most alarming situation of all might be on our own doorstep. Back in 2008, the U.S. Joint Forces Command warned that both Mexico and Pakistan might suffer "rapid and sudden collapse." If Mexico did succumb to its escalating drug wars, that would leave a classic failed state of 110 million people just across the Rio Grande. That figure does not count some 25 million people of Mexican heritage in the U.S.

Whether or not we can realistically talk of state collapse, the Mexican situation is serious. Drug-related violence has claimed some 30,000 lives since 2006, and large areas of the country are under the effective control of one or more of the notorious cartels, gangs and militias. Few weeks go by without the media reporting some massacre of innocents, and police and government officials are regularly targeted.

Lost in most discussions of the crisis is the role of the churches. This in practice means above all the Roman Catholic Church, which theoretically claims the loyalty of at least 80 percent of the population. (Around 6 percent of Mexicans are Prot­estant.) Al­though Mexico maintains a strict separation of church and state, nobody denies the enormous role of Catholicism in Mexican society and culture.

How have Christians coped with the horror of living through a virtual civil war? In many instances, clergy and believers have lived up to their ideals. They have behaved heroically, striving to make peace between factions, trying to fulfill social needs in regions where secular government has all but abdicated its power. Individual priests and bishops comfort bereaved families and preach bravely against violence and criminality, at grave risk to their lives. Fearless activism for peace and human rights made Saltillo's legend­ary bishop José Raúl Vera López a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize....

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