• What Guatemala explains about Roy Moore

    Two seemingly unrelated events converged in November. On the 9th the Washington Post reported that Alabama Republican Senate candidate and dogmatic Christian conservative Roy Moore allegedly sexually assaulted young women and girls (14-18) in his early 30s. On November 14th Guatemalans and those critical of US intrusions in the Americas marked the anniversary of the beginning of the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996).


    (On the left Roy Moore, on the right Rios Montt) 


    The tolerance for and rationalization of Roy Moore as a legitimate candidate in part has its origins in Reagan era counterinsurgency tactics deployed in Guatemala. Inspired by cold war fervor prominent Christian figures played significant and visible roles in the José Efraín Ríos Montt's brutal Dictatorship. The fight too, “eradicate communism” in Guatemala by any means necessary played a distinct yet overlooked role in weaponizing the political ideas of US Christian fundamentalism at a formative point.


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    The presence of Vice President Pence in the White House shows that Christian fundamentalism is at an unprecedented level of influence in the United States. Therefore, it is necessary to take advantage of what history teaches us about the slowly encroaching theocratic tendencies of the leadership of the Christian right to better appreciate how threatening President Trump, Vice President Pence and candidate Roy Moore, among others are.  

    A CIA Coup Sparks the Guatemalan Civil War

    The Guatemalan Civil War stems from a coup orchestrated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) against democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz (1950-1954). The coup started a pattern of CIA support and direct orchestration of overthrows of democratically elected regimes in the Americas.

    Brothers John Foster and Allen Dulles were the intellectual architects of the overthrow of Arbenz. John Foster Dulles was the Secretary of State, and Allen Dulles was the director of an early and emerging CIA. Declassified CIA files described by journalists Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer in their classic account of the coup, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup, in Guatemala evidences that Arbenz’s land reform plans caught the attention of the Dulles brothers.

    The Dulles brothers hand long manipulated dynamics in Guatemala. While working for a New York law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, John Foster Dulles negotiated a sweetheart on behalf of between United Fruit Company with longtime Guatemalan dictator General Jorge Ubico (1931-1944). Allen Dulles worked at the same firm and represented United Fruit in other cases; he eventually would serve on their board. The term, “Banana Republic,” is a reference to United Fruit wielding unchecked influence throughout the region while producing bananas.

    In Professor Cindy Forster's book, The Time of Freedom: Campesino Workers in Guatemala’s October Revolution, she argues that General Ubico was toppled primarily by the indigenous Maya peasant sector marking the beginning of the “Time of Freedom.” The activism, organizing and mass protests that forced out a dictator radicalized the extent to which the leadership of the “October Revolution” and the Arbenz administration would mediate land relations on their behalf.

    The Arbenz administrations modest but unprecedented land reform program intended to expropriate fallow arable land to offer to Campesino collectives. Since United Fruit held most of the unused arable land, the Dulles brothers were compelled into action to protect the interest of a former major client. Owing to the Cold War fervor of the time, the Allen Dulles led CIA suspected that members of the communist PGT party were gaining more extensive influence over Arbenz necessitating the full force of the CIA to limit the encroachment of communism and the USSR.

    Immediately following the coup, junior officers loyal to Arbenz left to Chiapas, Mexico to spare their own lives as repression swept the country. On November 14th, 1960 they returned from self-exile to fight the first of a series of military dictatorships becoming the first members of the Guerrilla movement.

    José Efraín Ríos Montt: An Theocratic Regime Takes Power in Guatemala 

    In Guatemala, competing visions of governance among military elites led to open conflict as coup’s and counter-coups characterized the entire 36-year civil war. The ascension of General José Efraín Ríos Montt was no different. In late March 1982 junior officers frustrated with the repressive and increasingly corrupt Presidency of General Lucas Garcia organizing a coup that led to the installation of a military junta. Dispute promises and calls for a presidential election General Montt seized power and quickly consolidated his control. Montt had the support of Washington, described by President Reagan as being, “totally dedicated to democracy.”


    (unattributed photo. Rios Montt on the left. Ronald Reagan on the right)


     A Christian fundamentalist vision for governance became weaponized through the Theocratic dictatorship of General Efrain Rios Montt. Montt was a born-again Christian, and an ordained minister of California based, Church of the Complete Word. Montt’s weekly addresses to the country resembled sermons speaking against the evils of advancing communism perpetrated by the guerrilla movement. In a declassified CIA intelligence assessment entitled, "President Jose Efrain Rios Montt and the Spiritual Rebirth of Guatemala" an unnamed analyst explains that “Rios Montt has used his highly sanctioned moral guidelines to justify extreme measures.” In more detail the assessment observes,

    Armed with the certainty of his faith, Rios Montt will not tolerate interference with his mission for his country. Encouraged by the young military officers who brought him to power and who consider the guerrilla war the greatest threat to their government and strengthened in his resolve by his religious conviction, we believe Rios Montt is capable of escalating his armed response as the situation warrants.

    Montt articulated the world and the role of government through the binary of religious fervor, thereby justifying the escalation of the extreme violence that defined the period.

    Montt’s administration was the most zealous of the Civil War in targeting “subversive” indigenous Maya perceived to be allied with and supporting the guerrilla movement. Death Squads routinely massacred whole Maya communities in the highlands in an expanded role of the military in civil society. The brutality was unprecedented. During his almost 17-month dictatorship security forces systematically murdered half of the approximately 200,000 state-sponsored killings attributed to the 36-year civil war.

    US-based evangelical advisors had a guiding and substantial presence in the Montt regime. Along with the interests of the Reagan administration and the Vatican itself, evangelical leaders advocated for strong responses against Catholic-oriented liberation theology. Religious distinctions became weaponized and served, as a way to identify and eliminate perceived enemies and threats. For a period in the early 80s national government issued ID cards marked religious affiliation.

    Mostly Catholic liberation theology articulated a vision of Jesus as an activist against the exploitation of the Roman Empire; Jesus’ death understood as a political murder of a dissenter. Liberation Theology interpretations of the “gospel message of justice“ offered Maya peasants a framework to question the economic relationship with their oppressors and fight for a “heaven on earth.” In neighboring El Salvador, a slogan originating from the military Junta was, “Be a Patriot: Kill a Priest.” Adherents and advocates of Liberation Theology were routinely tortured and assassinated, encouraging many to flee into exile.


     (Archbishop Romero minutes after he was shot celebrating mass at a small chapel located in a hospital called "La Divina Providencia" at around 6:30pm on March 24, 1980. NSA Archive)


    Montt proved to be no puppet of soldiers that brought him to power but instead installed himself as the supreme ruler of Guatemalan, worsening tensions among factions in the military. Furthermore, the presence and intrusion of state affairs by US evangelical leaders eventually made Montt a target of junior officers wary of his religious fanaticism. Therefore, to calm relations with the international community and pure th Guatemalan presidency of US evangelicals, Montt was depose

    The influence of the evangelical community in Guatemala was not tied exclusively to Montt. Evangelizing Maya away from the impact of liberation theology remained a tactic of the Reagan administration. Christian gains into the indigenous highlands arrived under the cloak of disaster relief. US Christian orthodox aid workers and their surrogates found an eager audience for their promises of meals and new homes. Relief Organizations such as Christian Emergency Relief Teams (CERT) were taxpayer funded through US AID. Activists in Guatemala argue that the turn towards Christian fundamentalism in Guatemala is the second conquest of the Americas as the majority of converts were Catholics.

    “Christian Values” to the Ballot Box

     Largely absent from political life US Christian conservatism began articulating a vision of governance as a response to the social liberalization of the 1960s and panic caused by Roe v Wade. The fear of the encroachment of “godless communism” controlling Latin America created further useful urgency. Christian leaders such as Jerry Farwell were able to use panic to move devotees from the pew to the polls.


    (By Unknown or not provided (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


    In his infamous “evil empire” speech to the National Association of Evangelicals President Ronal Reagan was able to capture the energy of religious fervor:

    Whittaker Chambers, the man whose own religious conversion made him a witness to one of the terrible traumas of our time, the Hiss-Chambers case, wrote that the crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which the West is indifferent to God, the degree to which it collaborates in communism’s attempt to make man stand alone without God. And then he said, for Marxism-Leninism is actually the second-oldest faith, first proclaimed in the Garden of Eden with the words of temptation, “Ye shall be as gods.” 

    Reagan’s speech articulates the belief that the increasing presence of “Marxism-Leninism” was a threat to western civilization and the spiritual health of the world. The message was clear only; mobilized Evangelicals could bring salvation to a world on the brink of disaster.


    (Photo: AFP)


    Orthodox Christians and evangelicals were not new to the White House. There have been evangelical Presidents including Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. Christian norms and language are ubiquitous within national discourse. However, what distinguishes the current era is the Christian fervor and fundamentalism coupled with an apparent disregard of the law. Has award-winning journalist, Jane Mayer explains in, The New Yorker, regarding the influence of Prince and his religiosity,

     At the White House, Pence has been hosting a Bible-study group for Cabinet officers, led by an evangelical pastor named Ralph Drollinger. In 2004, Drollinger, whose organization, Capitol Ministries, specializes in proselytizing to elected officials, stirred protests from female legislators in California, where he was then preaching, after he wrote, “Women with children at home, who either serve in public office, or are employed on the outside, pursue a path that contradicts God’s revealed design for them. It is a sin.” Drollinger describes Catholicism as “a false religion,” calls homosexuality “a sin,” and believes that a wife must “submit” to her husband. Several Trump Cabinet officials have reportedly attended the Bible-study group, including DeVos, Pompeo, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In a recent interview with the Christian Broadcast Network, Drollinger said that Pence “has uncompromising Biblical tenacity” and “brings real value to the head of the nation.”

    Trump's tolerance of Pence and vice versa is rooted in their usefulness to their respective political ambitions, despite well-documented moments of tension. Pence gave Trump legitimacy and a bridge to an increasingly important Christian conservative base. Trump gave Pence a path to the White House. Buzzfeed News quotes the notorious Steve Bannon describing the selection of Pence as, “An unfortunate necessity.”

    The Christian moral crusade has surprisingly found common cause with a former enemy, Russia. The 2016 election revealed that the Cold War antagonism between the former USSR and the United States has now thoroughly melted. The general hardline stances of Putin’s Russia and in particular the explicit homophobia continuously draws the attention and admiration of United States conservative forces. As the Washington Post reports,

    About the same time in December 2015, evangelist Franklin Graham met privately with Putin for 45 minutes, securing from the Russian president an offer to help with an upcoming conference on the persecution of Christians. Graham was impressed, telling The Washington Post that Putin, “answers questions very directly and doesn’t dodge them like a lot of our politicians do.”

    We have yet to discover how closely allied the Trump administration and Russia are, and to what extent there was collusion during the election. As details emerge, their cozy relationship will only become more evident.

    Conclusion: Salvation by any Means Necessary

    On May 10th, 2013, Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity. A sense of jubilation spread across communities in Guatemala as recognition of their history and pain had finally held Montt accountable. However, this comfort was short-lived when a dubious higher court decision reversed the ruling and trial. The court also established that Montt could be convicted but not sentenced due to his increasing age and deteriorating mental state due to dementia. The Montt dictatorship was responsible for the bloodiest period of civil war when the military and its subordinates committed itself to genocide. Despite being military factions leading to a coup against Montt he is still an officer. The control the military still wields over the government of Guatemala managed to protect one of their own since accountability for one might be accountability for all.

    Montt's Christian orthodoxy rationalized the disposal of undesirable indigenous Maya. Those that got in the way of his earnest yet utterly distorted vision of salvation for Guatemala were murdered mercilessly. Montt was quoted describing a government program designed to pull Maya away from the guerrillas, “if you join us we will feed you, if not we will kill you.” There are hundreds of pages of testimony in truth commission reports that reveal acts of brutality against entire villages, for survivors a trauma that will not heal, carried over into generations.

    It is not useful to say that the same Montt's theocracy will happen in the United States. The point is that the religious fervor that is stoked by fear and paranoia can lead to unsettling consequences that are hard to understand, predict and measure. It appears that Trump has riled a base that is hungry for recognition of their concerns and worldview.

    Within this fervor and its ascension to the national stage, it is not surprising that someone like Roy Moore has emerged. Similar to Montt in Guatemala, a lurking and unseen enemy is attacking the moral virtue of a national project for biblical morality. At Magnolia Springs Baptist Church in Theodore Alabama on December 3rd, Moore is quoted saying, 

    They’ve done everything. When I say they, who are they? They’re liberals. They don’t want conservative values. They’re the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. They’re socialists who want to change our way of life, putting man above God and that government is our God. They’re the Washington establishment who simply wants to keep their job

    Instead of bridging differences to find clarity the likes of Moore, Trump and Pence weaponize bias and prejudice to motivate unity and loyalty to pursue their interests without concern or regard for whom they manipulate. Trump may not sustain his presidency through probes and investigations. However, Moore and Pence might survive and get ever closer to their vision of an unflinching theocracy. The point is to take their intention and commitment seriously, not to swat it away as outdated religious meanderings. Their words have an audience but more importantly, a sense of victory over communism and most importantly a determined flock.

    -Filiberto Nolasco Gomez

  • Comments on this post (1 comment)

    • Mark J. Hainds says…

      Fascinating article! If you are not scared of the religious right, you should be. They have near total hegemony in the Deep South, and they enforce their doctrine through any channel available. They believe the ends justify the means, and I have experienced their hate and retribution firsthand. Yesterday, we dealt them a blow by denying Roy Moore a Senate Seat, it will be interesting, and scary, to see how they respond to this affront.
      Mark J. Hainds

      on December 13, 2017

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