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.