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Honorable mention: College essay contest — Stephanie Clavijo

Stephanie Clavijo

When religion led to bloodshed in Argentina

By Stephanie Clavijo

Many examples could illustrate how religion is used as a political control tool and how it has led to the murders of millions. I’m going to focus on Argentina and how religion played a very important role in convincing the majority of a society to accept a dictator and became complicit in the human rights violations of the dictatorship that claimed to defend the values of the Catholic faith.

In 1976, there was a bloody coup in Argentina, the country where my parents and I are from. The slogan of the coup was “In defense of our Western and Christian way of life.” “Christian way of life” meant Roman Catholic and Apostolic. The coup plotters managed to divide society between “We, the Catholics, and them, the others.”

The dictatorship lasted seven years and took the lives of more than 30,000 people. General Jorge Rafael Videla, the first leader of the insurrection and possibly the most bloodthirsty of the members of the military junta, said in an interview shortly before he died that the Catholic Church advised the Junta on how to handle the situation of the detained disappeared (Desaparecidos) and that the ecclesiastical leadership helped in the control of the victims’ families. On repeated occasions, General Videla was seen receiving communion from the hands of the highest authorities of the Catholic Church. There are political sectors in Argentina that assure that the current Pope Francis, also known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is keeping silent as an accomplice of the dictatorship.

Although the dictatorship was another one of the CIA maneuvers in Latin America used to prevent the advance of socialism on the continent, the armed insurrection was sold to the Argentine people as the defense of the family values and Catholic traditions so deeply rooted in Argentine society. The Catholic Church was so powerful that divorce was still illegal (and we are talking about only a few decades ago). At first, most Argentines supported the dictatorship because the enemy was “atheism and communism.”

Even now, an important portion of Argentine society justifies the actions of the armed forces in the elimination of the unpatriotic and atheist enemy. Of course, those are ultra-conservative members of the Catholic Church who today brand Pope Francis a communist.

Although the slogan was the defense of Christian values, religion played another divisive role in separating Catholics and other Christians. Many members of non-Catholic Christian groups were persecuted and most non-Catholic religious practices were prohibited — not to mention the other religions that were not Christian.

For example, anti-Semitism grew out of control at that time, given the fascist tendency of the dictatorship. Other religious denominations suffered persecution for not following Catholic rites. For example, being a Jehovah’s Witness was prohibited and many members of that sect ended up spending time in jail.

After the disastrous defeat in the war against the United Kingdom for the possession of the Malvinas Islands, the dictatorship lost power, and its ally, the Catholic Church, lost influence in society. Its image was strongly affected when the role that the church played during the dictatorship was revealed. A democratic government was established in December 1983.

Although the new administration did not break with the Catholic Church, it was not influenced or intimidated by the church. A few years later, divorce law was enacted and a period of secularism began in the country. Limiting the influence of religion in government has allowed great progress in the rights of the LGBTQ+ community and the rights of women.

Last year, Congress approved a law that gives women the right to abortion. Argentina is one of the first countries in Latin America to decriminalize abortion at the federal level. Despite the control the Catholic Church once had over Argentina, we were able to grow without it and show more empathy. I hope we can continue on this path.

Stephanie, 23, attends the University of California-Davis.

“When my family and I lived in Argentina we didn’t have enough food to eat nor a place to call home, one of my first memories as a child is stealing mashed potatoes because I was starving,” Stephanie writes. “Life seemed bleak, but then we were able to migrate from Argentina to the United States, where my family was able to get many lucky opportunities. I’m the first in my family to go to a university and I will be getting my master’s in social work next.”