On Saturday, as I was getting ready to watch the México-Russia Confederations Cup futbol match, or soccer for the uninitiated, I noticed Javier “Chicharito” Hernández praying before the match. (By the way, México beat Russia 2 goals to 1!) I had seen Hernández pray frequently before soccer matches, but this time it reminded me about something that has bothered me for years, the controversy in the United States, and less frequently, in England over public prayer. It has bothered me because the United States espouses a Christian-centric culture and yet it has an ongoing controversy over public displays of religion.
For me, it has become even more interesting to see the ongoing public debate about prayer in schools and sports because the Evangelical Christians were instrumental on the election of Donald Trump. The public prayer debate has been confusing for me since I first became aware of it.
I grew up in a country whose public policy agenda is considered to be dominated by Roman Catholic dogma. Speaking to my U.S. friends about the issue of government and religion, many found it surprising that I argued that Mexican public policy was not sectarian. As a matter of fact, there was a strict separation between religion and government in México for many years. Priests were not allowed to wear their religious garments in public, nor were they officially allowed to perform public services. Parochial education in México was prohibited. The Roman Catholic Church was prohibited from owning property, churches, in México.
It wasn’t until the government of Salinas de Gortari enacted constitutional changes that restrictions against religion, specifically the Catholic Church, were relaxed in 1991. The legislation ended 70 years of what the Catholic Church had dubbed “hostility” towards the Church. A war was even fought between the believers and those intent in ensuring that religion remained outside of the debates for public policy.
Growing up, I didn’t think much about the separation of religion and government. Religion was all around me. I saw it on the streets and in the churches. People talked about it. People prayed in private, in church and in the streets. It existed, although separate.
I always assumed the United States was sectarian and I found it interesting that there was a raging discourse over whether people could pray publicly. I was curious because I do not understand the controversy. I mean that both past and present. I don’t understand the controversy.
The United States embraces the notion of the separation of religion and government and yet it has “in God we trust” on its currency. Public policy is dominated by the Protestant dogma and yet citizens complain about prayer in sports. The biggest problem is that religion is officially supposed to be separate from the government, but, yet religion plays a significant part in policy, for example Planned Parenthood.
I understand fully the dangers of religion in government. The history of México is replete with examples of the Catholic Church run amok over public policy until the Mexican Revolution put an end to that. Although religion was severely limited, it nonetheless, continued to play a part in the public policy of México unofficially, yet strongly.
As many, I saw it as a strict separation of powers without allowing the belief systems to play a part in policy making public debates. Although parochial schools were prohibited, the religion ideal continued unimpeded as the basis of the politicians’ decision-making processes. Although, officially, public services were prohibited, church worship continued unimpeded. More importantly, in México I never witnessed anyone telling someone they could not pray in public. Examples of public prayer are common place. Chicharito is an example of this.
In the United States, the opposite is true. I regularly witness debates over public prayer or religious practices. What is most curios to me is the ongoing argument against public expressions of Christianity in a country whose currency is embossed with “in God we trust.”
Although the limits against religion in México were relaxed, there is still a clear separation of church and government. Civil marriages are only valid in México. But, the religious ceremony is still practiced. Couples first get their marriage license through the government, and then they marry at the church. However, the only legal marriage is the civil one.
Religion in México remains apart from government public policy, but it is not hidden or argued about. Religion clearly plays a part in the public policy, but it is not part of the public debate. And yet, religion is not hidden or kept in the churches.
In México, religion is understood to be part of the country, but it is not governed by it. Although predominantly Roman Catholic, other versions of Christianity are allowed as well as other religions. I am not Catholic as I grew up Episcopalian in México. Imagine that.
As I watched Chicharito pray I remained puzzled over the dichotomy of the part religion plays in United States public policy. I remain confused over the never-ending debate about public displays of religion in the United States.
It as if, the U.S. citizens are embarrassed by their religious roots.