Archive for the 'Religion' Category


Saint or Commie?

As I’ve written before, I dropped out of the Catholic Church when I was a teenager. I haven’t become an atheist, although I see nothing wrong with that philosophy. It’s just that I prefer to keep my distance from religion. However, I’ve also been upfront about my belief that one reason Latinos don’t make bigger social and economic gains is our overreliance on the Church.

So perhaps I should excuse myself from a debate taking place across the Hispanic community, Latin America, and the Catholic Church. The cause of this debate is that old rabblerouser himself, Archbishop Oscar Romero.

For those of you who don’t know, Romero was the head of the Church in El Salvador from 1977 to 1980. During this time, he spoke out against the brutality of the government and the oppression of the poor. For having such crazy ideas, he was assassinated, presumably by members of a right-wing death squad. Following his death, a civil war ripped the country apart and killed tens of thousands of civilians, including members of my mother’s family.

In the thirty years since his death, Romero has been lionized as a martyr for the cause of social justice, or criticized as a dupe for communist agitators, depending on whom you talk to. The Catholic Church has been considering him for sainthood for years, but weirdly enough, they can’t seem to go ahead and canonize the guy.

The debate over Romero goes to the heart of the Church’s standing in Latin America. Is it an institution that upholds the traditions of the culture, even if those traditions include exploitation and enforced poverty? Or is it a force for peace and compassion, which is what that famous hippie Jesus espoused?

The perception of the Church in Latin America has a direct impact upon U.S. Hispanics. Many of us who are first-generation, for example, saw an organization that gave lip service to helping the poor, but supported corrupt regimes in our parents’ home countries. Priests like Romero, far from being supported, often earned Rome’s disdain. The dichotomy (some would say hypocrisy) was not endearing.

But Romero’s legacy may finally be thwarting the establishment culture that shunned him during his life. In a truly surprising moment, my mother’s home country of El Salvador has finally gotten around to acknowledging its most famous citizen.

The LA Times reports that “For the first time, the Salvadoran state is publicly commemorating Romero. Through most of this month, marches, concerts and debates have honored the priest.”

Furthermore, the country’s president, Mauricio Funes, recently asked forgiveness on behalf of the state for Romero’s assassination. Funes said, “This is something that should have been done a long time ago” and added that his government would “end the decades of silence” that have been Romero’s official legacy.

If El Salvador can finally acknowledge that Romero was killed because of his strong drive for justice, maybe the Vatican can get around to saying that he was a pretty good guy.

By the way, and at the risk of taking a cheap shot, it seems like the Catholic Church’s current issues prove that it’s not the best judge of morality and saint-like behavior. But then again, what do I know? I’m just an ex-Catholic.


Mazel Tov!

A few years ago, I took one of those internet quizzes that pinpoints your real religion, based on your actual beliefs and not the lip service that you espouse. Like all internet quizzes, I’m sure it was of dubious validity and reliability, and it probably had a questionable theological basis on top of that.

Still, I couldn’t argue with the result, which said that I was, in reality, a Reform Jew. By the way, the religion of my childhood, Roman Catholicism, ranked around twenty-eighth or so on my personal scale, which sounded about right (but I’ll refrain from picking on Catholicism just now).

These days, I consider myself more of secular Buddhist agnostic. But the Jewish angle isn’t that far off.

I’m not sure why I relate to Judaism. It’s not like I had a lot of Jewish friends growing up. My neighborhood was primarily Hispanic (and therefore, incredibly Catholic) while my home state is overwhelmingly Midwestern white (mostly Protestant). So not a lot of Goldbergs and Silvermans appeared on the scene.

Perhaps I picked it up when I lived in New York City, where Jewish culture is everywhere. Within just a few years of arriving in NYC, I was ordering bagels with lox and talking about people’s chutzpah and obsessing about death. So maybe that’s why I came up Jewish on the test.

But I think there’s a larger issue. It seems that Hispanics and Jews have always gotten along pretty well. Perhaps both groups know what it’s like to pass for white, but not really. Maybe our mutual focus on family lines up nicely. Or perhaps we just admire each culture’s long history of suffering.

Regardless, I was intrigued to read about a group of Hasidim Jews in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. A small but thriving population traces its ancestry to Spain and Latin America, and as such, members of this group consider themselves Hispanics.

Spare me your jokes about Juan Epstein, the NYC Puerto Rican Jew from “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

There’s a man in Crown Heights with a real-life cross-cultural headspinner of a name, Moshe Nunez, and he says that “There are a lot of Latin American Jews here…. Many non-Jewish Latinos are surprised to see Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn who speak Spanish and carry on their Hispanic traditions.”

I suppose that would be an attention-getting sight. But still, I’m not really shocked that some people would adopt both cultures. The overlap goes back decades.

For example, when my mother moved to America, back in the 1960s, her first job was helping out an old Jewish woman on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The woman was a Holocaust survivor, and she brought that horrific period to life for my mother by rolling up her sleeve and showing the number branded into her arm. This simple display provided quite the education for a young woman from Latin America.

The old woman was very kind to my mother, and she introduced her to the opera and nice restaurants and the finer things in life. According to my mother, the old woman was adamant that bigotry against any group was evil. She said that anyone who would discriminate against a Latino would bash Jews as well.

In the old woman’s mind, we’re all one and the same.


It’s Not Too Late to Buy a Gift

Today is El Dia de los Reyes Magos. In English, it’s usually called Three Kings’ Day. Although neither of those terms means much in the United States, in Latin America this occasion is a big deal.

It’s the final celebration of the Christmas season, designed to commemorate the evening when the three kings arrived at the manger to present baby Jesus with their gifts. It’s never been explained to me why Mary and Joseph hung out for almost two weeks in a dirty manger with an infant, waiting for these guys to show up. Nor do I know what use a baby has for frankincense. But there are far more serious incongruities in religion, so we’ll let it pass.

The point is that this day is marked with feasts, gifts, and general good times throughout Latin America. It may also be the basis for that rather confusing reference to the twelfth day of Christmas (opinions vary). And like all things Latino, it is slowly gaining a foothold here in the United States, with many people celebrating this once-exotic holiday and bringing it to the attention of the majority culture. And we can all use a little more celebrating, after all.

It also happens to be my birthday… just thought I’d mention that.


If Only His Name Leant Itself to Some Obvious Joke

By now, you’ve heard about the scandal (if such a word applies) of Father Cutié. He’s the Latino priest in Florida who was recently caught with his hands stuffed in the bikini of a hottie on the beach.


Apparently, the priest has had a longtime affair with the woman, so Catholics everywhere are relieved that at least she’s a girlfriend and not a prostitute or underage minor or, of course, an altar boy.

Father Cutié has apologized for breaking his celibacy vow, and it remains to be seen what punishment the Church will dish out. This wouldn’t be big news except that the man is a young, charismatic guy with a media presence.

And of course, there’s that whole Hispanic thing.

As Time magazine points out, “America’s Catholic bishops… must realize that Cutié is more well regarded among Catholics than they are, especially among Latinos.” This means that if he’s run out of the Church, he just may take a lot of Hispanics with him.

Indeed, anecdotal evidence implies that Cutié’s parishioners are remarkably forgiving of his transgression.

“This wasn’t some dirty little tryst in the back of the parish residence,” said one of his followers. “It doesn’t appear to be just about sex. It’s about intimacy.”

I’d like to think that this newfound tolerance will show up in other areas, such as addressing the tendency of Hispanic Catholics to be homophobic and dismissive of women’s rights. But in reality, it’s not that Latino Catholics are finally saying, “Let’s lighten up with the arbitrary rules and be more understanding of human nature.” It’s probably just because male Catholics relate to the temptation that Cutié endured, and a lot of Latina Catholics think the guy is hot.

Regardless of the shallowness of its origin, however, it would indeed be ironic if the Catholic Church inched toward some kind of progressive stance because its Hispanic base got fired up.

And that has to be on the mind of the Church’s leaders. Time magazine goes on to point out that “a bigger problem for the Church may be Cutié’s Oprah-like standing in the Latino community — the only demographic where U.S. Catholicism is experiencing growth.”

That’s right. Hispanics, as I’ve pointed out many times before, are the present and future of the Catholic Church. Although I dropped out of the Church long ago, I still find it interesting that Latinos have such power over this massive institution.

Now if only we could spread some of that influence to politics, economic matters, pop culture, and social policy. Then we would be on to something.



Now would be the perfect time for me to find religion. As I’ve stated in previous posts, my recent downsizing has put me in a pissed-off mood that would likely be alleviated from the comfort that faith provides.

But it’s just not taking.

I’ve written about it before, but I’ll state it again. There is no kind of bitter ex-Catholic like a bitter Latino ex-Catholic. I spent the first twenty or so years of my life obsessing on God, and now I am spending the ensuing decades obsessing on how religion is messing up the world.
As you can see, Hispanics are not casually Catholic. You are either into it, or you recoil from it. The whole concept of being laidback about religion is alien to most Latinos.

My wife, who was raised Methodist, doesn’t share my preoccupation with religious dogma or interest in Dante’s “Inferno” or creeping fear that “The Exorcist” was actually a documentary. She is far healthier in her relationship to religion.

As a child, I skipped Mass just once. I had the flu that day, and as I sat on the couch hoping that God didn’t strike me down for missing church, I stared at the television in disbelief. Programs continued to play on TV, even during the time that we were supposed to be in church. I had always assumed that the television went off the air from 11:00 am to noon because, after all, nobody was watching because they were all in the pews. My mother had to explain to me that some people did not go to Mass, and I found this more shocking than discovering there is no Santa Claus. She was talking crazy. Who didn’t go to church?

This is not to say that I blame my mother for my upbringing. In fact, she showed the kind of trust and parental responsibility that more adults should display.
When I was sixteen, it was time for me to sign up for confirmation classes. Presented with this opportunity, I took a moment to deliberate and then, as if I were choosing chocolate over vanilla, I told my mother that I didn’t want to be confirmed.
“Why?” she asked.
“I just don’t believe it,” I said.
She nodded and said, “No one can make you believe anything. If you don’t want to do it, then you shouldn’t do it.”
I didn’t recognize the magnitude of her support until later years, when even the most ardent atheistic of my friends admitted that they had been forcefully confirmed in the church of their parents’ choosing. My mother had the right idea: If you don’t believe it, move on.
No, I don’t hate the Catholic Church. Rather, like many Hispanics, being raised Catholic has left me with a spiritual nagging that forces me to ponder the big questions, fruitlessly, when all I really want to do is analyze the odds of my team making the World Series (by the way, those odds could be better).
Neither am I an atheist. It is far too definitive of an answer for me, so clear and simple in its certainty that I have to be skeptical of it. If forced to describe myself, I go with “secular Buddhist agnostic,” and this mish-mash appears to suffice. Or perhaps I am a rationalist like Bill Maher, he of the biting wit and self-satisfied smirk.

Still, the fact that I even address Catholicism in these posts is telling. I can’t seem to let it go.

Of course, there are reasons beyond my own neurosis to revisit this topic. The interplay between Christianity and Hispanic culture has larger societal ramifications.

For example, as I mentioned in a previous post, younger Hispanics are turning away from the Church. What does this mean to the future of Latino culture? Will it be less Catholic, or are these norms so ingrained that there is no altering them, regardless of their direct relevance to the latest generation?

Going further, one could also ask what this means to a country that is, like it or not, getting more Latino. Will this have an impact on, for example, the scary stat that just 39 percent of Americans believe in evolution?

By the way, let’s set aside the point that a better way to phrase the question is, “Do you understand evolution?” rather than making scientific fact a question of belief.

In any case, I don’t know if the poll results are broken down by ethnicity, but I have to assume that several Hispanic Catholics continue to distrust Darwin, even if the Church (to its credit) has said that the theory of evolution is not a threat to spirituality. Will Hispanics still be weary of science in another decade?

If so, it makes me want to cross myself and say a Hail Mary.


Where’s My Rosary?

When my wife and I were married over a decade ago, we had the ceremony at a Methodist church. That we had it in a church at all was more about practicality than an indication of the depth of our religious feelings. A couple of hundred guests weren’t going to fit into an outdoor tent or in some other preferred secular location. So we went with my wife’s childhood religion.

This logistical decision did not go over well with some of my distant relatives. They were older and had been raised in the Catholic crucible of El Salvador, and their opinion of the ceremony was summed up by their non-attendance. I found out later that one great aunt said, “If they’re not getting married in a Catholic Church, they’re not really getting married.”

While my relatives’ reaction may have been extreme, it is not rare in Latino societies.  Hispanic culture and Catholic dogma are so intertwined that it is often difficult to separate them. If you haven’t noticed, this has become one of my favorite themes on this blog.

There are good explanations why Latinos are fanatical about the pope.

The historical reason is because the Spaniards brought their religion with them on the point of a sword when they colonized Latin America. Natives who knew what was good for them quickly abandoned their old gods and hailed Jesus. Over the course of a few generations, this forced conversion morphed into sincere belief.

The contemporary reason is that the Church serves as a bridge for immigrants to their new country, a way for them to ease into assimilation and carry some of the traditions with them. Even for first- or second-generation Hispanics, the church often serves as community foundation and social epicenter in a way that is rarely seen anywhere else in this country (with the possible exception of Baptists in the Deep South).

But there are problems with the Catholic Church’s hold on Latino society. For starters, any culture that emphasizes religion so much is bound to be less interested in more secular matters – such as the importance of education or the value of political clout or the practicality of having many children.

In addition, Hispanic Catholicism has a strangely fatalistic viewpoint, seen in the mindset of many Latinos who think that being poor is their destiny and that they’ll be rewarded in the afterlife. Believing that God will take care of everything is one of the chief reasons that Latin American countries, and immigrants from those countries, have such a high tolerance for being pushed around.

There is also the weird disconnect between real-world behavior and Church priorities. In Hispanic culture, the mere act of stepping into the Church is often sufficient to prove one’s moral standing. Growing up, I knew gang members (or at least wannabes) who were praised as “good boys” solely because of their attendance at Church. Their presence, of course, was mandated by their parents, who cared little about what their kids did at other times of the week, as long as they were in the pews on Sunday.

Of course, there is one more negative consequence of Catholicism’s hold on Latino culture. Apparently, every painting by a Hispanic artist must have, at minimum, three images of La Virgen de la Guadalupe (seriously, is this a law or something?).


Despite these issues, however, Hispanic Catholics are not on the same theological plane as heavy hitters such as Christian fundamentalists or Hasidim Jews or Islamic theocrats. Latino Catholics are, for the most part, able to acknowledge the outside world and at least tolerate others.

As for those relatives who boycotted my wedding, they have gone about their Church-centric lives. They still attend Mass so frequently (i.e., at least once a day) that they have earned the Spanish appellation of “las cucarachas de la iglesia.” This is a poetic way of saying that even cockroaches don’t live in the church pews as much as they do.

I presume that the originator of the phrase was Catholic. Also, he apparently didn’t attend a very clean church.



Forgive me for being a bit tardy on this news item, as well as for straying – initially at least – from my professed subject matter.

But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Bristol Palin, who is, as you know, the Republican VP candidate’s poor knocked-up teenage daughter.

Religious conservatives have rallied around the girl and said that her condition is nobody’s business, or that it is actually good news because it verifies Palin’s pro-life credentials. So as a thought experiment, let’s reverse the situation:

Say that Obama or Biden had a 17-year-old daughter who got pregnant and is keeping the baby. Would we hear from social conservatives how it’s irrelevant, or proof of the candidate’s humanity, or even inspiring?

More likely, we would hear how liberals don’t instill proper values in their children, or that they don’t respect traditional family values, or that their lax parenting proves their inability to lead the country, or that it all sets a poor example for young people.

My point isn’t that religious conservatives can be hypocrites, or that abstinence-only sex ed doesn’t work, or that this girl’s condition has become a campaign issue (although to be honest, all of that is true). Rather, this is my long-winded way of addressing the powerful and detrimental nature of religion in American culture.

So what has this, specifically, got to do with Hispanics?

Well, as you may or may not know, Latinos are the alpha and omega of Catholicism in the United States, and perhaps the world. Consider that in America, almost 70% of Hispanics are Catholic, compared to just 20% of the general population. Some countries in Latin America are as Catholic as Middle Eastern countries are Islamic.

Has all this religion helped the Hispanic community? I would argue that it has not.

The stranglehold that the Catholic Church has over Hispanic culture has bred a unique form of interdependence. Faith in God’s master plan has superseded faith in one’s abilities and talents. This latter type of perseverance – call it secular if you want – is more needed than ever in communities where deep-seeded problems demand creative answers. Instead, with all the issues facing the Latinos, prayer is the answer most often given as a viable solution.

For a more specific example, let’s look at the horrific graduation rate of Latino adolescents. It’s no surprise that Hispanic teens lag so far behind white, black, and Asian American students in actually getting through high school. The priority that Latino culture places on religion dwarfs the attention given to education (I will post more on this discrepancy later). Especially among immigrant parents, making sure that a kid does all his homework is not nearly as vital as ensuring his attendance at Mass (I will add that my mother was an exception to this mindset, which was to my great benefit).

Social conservatives love to proclaim that issues in barrios and hoods exist because the people who live there have grown too dependent on government largesse to fend for themselves. They may have a point.

However, their alternative has often been to push for more dependence on Christianity, a cultural force that, unlike government, isn’t accountable to voters. How else do we explain the dreaded faith-based initiative?

A natural objection to all my negativity is to point out the good that religion does. Indeed, many people have turned their lives around because of a newfound faith, and some of our greatest leaders (eg, Martin Luther King Jr.) were driven by religion. And in Latin America, numerous priests in Central America – to say nothing of the great Archbishop Oscar Romero – have sacrificed their lives for a greater good.

Still, at this point in history, is the net effect of religion in general (and Catholicism on Latino culture specifically) a positive? My belief is that it ultimately does more harm than good.

So I’m pleased to see that young Latinos, like the younger generation overall, are at least pausing to consider if all this praying is really worth it.

A report by the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies shows that Hispanics become less Catholic with each U.S.-born generation. This lines up with surveys showing that the number of nonreligious young people (those from 18-25 years old) has nearly doubled over the last generation (from 11 percent in 1986 to 20 percent today).

This should not be construed as a clamoring for atheism or a call to burn down all the churches. Rather, it is quite possibly Latino culture’s gradual realization of the need for balance.

And perhaps it is the recognition that going to church and worshipping really hard is not sufficient to raise our standard of living. Maybe Hispanics are learning that, you know, God helps those who help themselves.

August 2020

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