This week, Pope Francis declared Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero a “martyr” for the Catholic faith, the last major step on the road to becoming a saint. Romero was assassinated on the order of a US-trained and -backed death-squader, Roberto D’Aubuisson, almost thirty-five years ago, on March 24, 1980.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, there is unease with Romero’s case for sainthood among high-ranking prelates, including Benedict XVI, “because of Romero’s embrace of liberation theology, a type of Christian theology that posits that Christ did not just seek liberation from sin but every type of oppression.” In fact, there was an actual Vatican ban on Romero’s beatification, which the pope lifted with his declaration.

Liberation theology, which had its origins in Latin America, was a powerful force within the Catholic Church, aligning the church with the poor and condemning US-backed militarism. In Empire’s Workshop I made the case that liberation theology posed an existential threat for the rising New Right, both its secular and religious versions. It was, in many ways, the first “political religion” that united post–Vietnam War conservatives, before they moved on to Islam. Liberation theology’s threat was primal, since it represented a reformed and progressive version of Christianity that emphasized inherent rights—only not the kind of inherent rights our libertarian Mullahs emphasize (i.e., property rights). Liberation theologians had a vision of individual dignity based on social solidarity and earthly economic justice.

In the 1970s both respected conservative theologians like Michael Novak and fringe Bible-thumpers, had set their sights on liberation theology as an evil that had to be doctrinally defeated and institutionally eradicated. It’s in this context that Oscar Romero being cleared for beatification (by a pope from Latin America who has his own complicated relationship to liberation theology—but more on that in another post) is important, which progressives should see as a rearguard battle in the culture wars, which are the political wars, which are the economic wars, which in Central America were real, life-and-death wars.

Here are excerpts of what I wrote on the topic in Empire’s Workshop, which I think help put Romero’s martydom in context:

Starting in the 1960s, conservative evangelical theologians such as John Price and Jerry Falwell interpreted, as did their secular declinists counterparts, defeat in Vietnam as a signal moment of world history in which the US stood at the precipice of collapse. They not only urged their flocks to fight what would become known as the culture wars, the campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, gay rights, and so forth, but to get more involved in foreign affairs as well. Ronald Reagan’s crusade against the Central American Left—his patronage of the Contra insurgents in Nicaragua and death-squad states in El Salvador and Guatemala—was the first extensive opportunity to do so, an apprenticeship that gave the Religious Right its first real taste of its own power within the Republican Party and drew it closer to other groups within the Reagan Revolution.

In order to bypass public and Congressional opposition, the White House outsourced the “hearts and minds” component of its Central American wars to evangelicals. Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum sent down “Freedom Fighter Friendship Kits” to the Contras, complete with toothpaste, insect repellent, and a bible. Gospel Crusades, Inc, Friends of the Americas, Operation Blessing, World Vision, the Wycliffe Bible Translators, and World Medical Relief likewise shipped hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid to the anti-Sandinista rebels and Honduran refugee camps, where they established schools, health clinics, and religious missions. In El Salvador, Harvesting in Spanish, Paralife Ministries, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Nicaraguan Freedom Fund (affiliated with the Unification Church) and the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade broadcast radio programs, handed out bibles, ran schools, established medical and dental clinics, and provided moral education to the soldiers. Pat Robertson used his Christian Broadcasting Network to raise money for Efraín Ríos Montt, the evangelical Christian who presided over the Guatemala’s 1982 genocide, which killed over a hundred thousand Mayan Indians….

In the United States, right-wing Christians Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, Phyllis Schlafly and Oliver North, along with evangelical capitalists such as Amway founder Richard DeVos, founded the Council for National Policy in 1981, which, as the Religious Right’s steering committee in the 1980s, was deeply involved in Reagan’s Central American exploits. Christian businessmen raised money for arms and humanitarian work and funded the myriad organizations that worked closely with the White House to sway public opinion and congressional votes in favor of Reagan’s policy in El Salvador and Nicaragua. As part of Iran-Contra’s extensive support network, they deepened their ties with the international Right….

It was largely in opposition to the Christian humanism…that the New Right elaborated the ethical justification of today’s free-market militarism. Not only was the Central American Left motivated as much by Catholic liberation theology as by Marxism, the domestic solidarity movement, much more than the protests against the Vietnam War, was noticeably Christian. Groups such as the Religious Task Force on El Salvador, Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean, the U.S. Catholic Conference, Witness for Peace, the Quakers, and the National Council of Churches actively mobilized hundreds of thousands of Christians in opposition to Reagan’s policy. It was a shared hostility to this Christian socialism that united mainstream conservative Protestants and pulpit thumping fundamentalists.

Take the Institute on Religion and Democracy, for example. Today (that is, in 2005, when Empire’s Workshop was published), the neoconservative IRD is a key player in the Bush coalition, working hard to discredit liberal religious organizations that oppose Bush’s wars. Two of its theologians—Michael Novak and Richard Neuhaus—have provided the White House with key spiritual guidance, theologically defending not just American militarism but the free-market fundamentalism and orgy of wealth accumulation that underwrites that militarism. The IRD, it turns out, was founded in 1981 by intellectuals associated with the American Enterprise Institute and advised by PR firms contracted by the White House. Its mission was to provide “mainstream” religious support for Reagan’s Central American policy, yet it immediately allied with evangelicals like Jimmy Swaggert, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson to take on liberation theology.

In a series of books and articles challenging the major tenets and proponents of liberation theology, Novak and Neuhaus began to, as Novak put it, “locate a theological grounding for corporate capitalism” by elaborating a set of ideals specific to the free market that they believed complimented the Christian understanding of free will. To those who said that capitalism embodied the worst of acquisitive individualism, Novak, who presented himself as a political liberal, responded with his “theology of the corporation,” which held up the business firm as “an expression of the social nature of humans.” He dedicated much of his work to refuting liberation theology’s insistence that Third World poverty could be blamed on exploitation by the First World, arguing that Latin America’s economic backwardness must be blamed on “cultural” factors.

As did their mainstream coreligionists, fundamentalists formulated their free-market moralism as a quarrel with liberation theology. The founder of Christian Reconstructionism, the influential branch of the evangelical movement that seeks to replace the Constitution with biblical law, Rousas John Rushdoony described liberation theology as the “economics of Satan,” while another preacher labeled a “theology of mass murder” and the “the single most critical problem that Christianity has faced in all of its 2000 year history.” Capitalism, they insisted, was an ethical system, one that corresponds to God’s gift of free will. Man lives in a “fundamentally scarce world,” Christian economist John Cooper argued, not an abundant one only in need of more equitable distribution, as the liberation theologians would have it. The profit motive, rather than being an amoral economic mechanism, is part of a divine plan to discipline fallen man and make him produce. Where Christian humanists contended that people were fundamentally good and that “evil” was a condition of class exploitation, Christian capitalists such as Amway’s Richard DeVos, head of the Christian Freedom Foundation, insisted that evil is found in the heart of man.

Where liberation theology held that humans could fully realize their potential here on earth, fundamentalist economists argued that attempts to distribute wealth and regulate production was based on an incorrect understanding of society—an understanding that incited disobedience to proper authority and, by highlighting economic inequality, generated guilt, envy, and conflict. God’s Kingdom, they insisted, would not be established by a war between the classes but a struggle between the good and the evil.

As did Novak, evangelicals sought to rebut liberation theology’s critique of the global political economy. Third World poverty, according to evangelical Ronald Nash, has a “cultural, moral, and even religious dimension” that reveals itself in a “lack of respect for any private property,” “lack of initiative,” and “high leisure preference.” Some took this argument to its logical conclusion. Gary North, another influential evangelical economist, insisted that the “Third World’s problems are religious: moral perversity, a long history of demonism, and outright paganism.” “The citizens of the Third World,” he wrote, “ought to feel guilt, to fall on their knees and repent from their Godless, rebellious, socialistic ways. They should feel guilty because they are guilty, both individually and corporately.”

Evangelical Christianity’s elaboration of a theological justification for free-market capitalism, along with its view of a immoral third world, resonated with other ideological currents within the New Right, laying the groundwork for today’s embrace of empire as America’s national purpose. In a universe of free will where good work is rewarded and bad works punished, the fact of American prosperity was a self-evident confirmation of god’s blessing of US power in the world. Third-world misery, in contrast, was proof of “God’s curse.” David Chilton, of the Institute for Christian Economics, a Reconstructionist think tank, wrote that poverty is how “God controls heathen cultures: they must spend so much time surviving that they are unable to exercise ungodly dominion over the earth… “

Throughout the 1980s, as its involvement in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala deepened, fundamentalists came to share with Reaganite neocons and militarists a common set of assumptions about the world and America’s role in it. The U.S. had grown dangerously weak, and where neocons called for renewal of political will, evangelicals believed that America’s revival would come about through spiritual rebirth. Their sense of themselves as a persecuted people, engaged in a life and death end-time struggle between the forces of good and evil mapped easily onto the millennialism of anti-communist militarists, particularly those involved in Central America.

Working closely with neoconservative policy intellectuals such as Elliot Abrams, Otto Reich, Robert Kagan, and Jeane Kirkpatrick, conservative evangelical theologians established a moral justification for Reagan’s rehabilitation of militarism. They aligned their theology to incorporate elements of both the idealism and the unflinching militarism that led straight to war in Iraq. “Our government,” wrote Falwell in 1980 but sounding a lot like George W. Bush in 2002, “has the right to use its armaments to bring wrath upon those who would do evil by hurting other people.” And not just defensively but preemptively: “we must go on the offensive,” wrote Rus Walton in his 1988 Biblical Solutions to Contemporary Problems: A Handbook.

The violence of counterinsurgent war stoked the fires of fundamentalist Manichaeism, leading Falwell, Robertson, and others to ally with the worst murderers and torturers in Central and Latin America. “For the Christian,” believes Walton, “there can be no neutrality in this battle: ‘He that is not with Me is against Me’ (Matthew 12:30).” Robertson described the genocide carried out by Guatemala’s Efraín Ríos Montt as a “miracle” and celebrated Salvador’s Roberto D’Aubuisson, the killer of, along with untold others, Archbishop Oscar Romero, on his Christian Broadcasting Network. In 1984, more than a dozen Christian New Right organizations, including the Moral Majority, presented D’Aubuisson with a plaque honoring his “continuing efforts for freedom.”

Many of the death-squad members were themselves conservative religious ideologues, taking the fight against liberation theology to the trenches. Guatemalan security forces regularly questioned their prisoners about their “views on liberation theology.” Others report being tortured to the singing of hymns and praying. Some evangelicals excused such suffering. ”Killing for the joy of it was wrong,” a Paralife minister from the United States comforted his flock of Salvadoran soldiers, “but killing because it was necessary to fight against an anti-Christ system, communism, was not only right but a duty of every Christian.”

So when Jeane Kirkpatrick remarked that the three US nuns and one lay worker who were raped, mutilated and murdered by Salvadoran security forces in 1980 were “not just nuns, they were political activists,” she was being more than cruel. She was signaling her disapproval of a particular kind of peace Christianity.

The conflict that turned red hot in Central America in 1980 with Romero’s murder still burns, as this Pope seems to be fully aware. On the one side are not just the crazed Mel-Gibson-like Christian Wahhabites, but the Paul-Ryans, who want to convince you that their vision of an untrammeled free market and a completely trampled-upon earth is true to their religious “compassion.” On the other side, are those Catholics, many of them from Latin America, who continue to fight for the kind of world Oscar Romero (who, it should be noted, came to his version of liberation theology not through doctrine but from lived experience, from watching so many of his fellow religious folk and congregation died at the hands of US-funded death squads at the service of a homicidal elite) died.

At times, Pope Francis has sent mixed signals as to where he stands in this struggle (and, really, if one want to celebrate Salvadoran martyrs, how about all those women, including teenagers, in jail or dead as a result of the El Salvador’s punitive anti-abortion law). And of course, to many, the whole concept of martydom seems medieval. But in this case, it continues a fight over the nature of modernity. By pushing for the beatification of Romero, Francis is sending his own powerful signal—not about the past but the present.