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The 2002 CESNUR International Conference

Minority Religions, Social Change, and Freedom of Conscience

Salt Lake City and Provo (Utah), June 20-23, 2002

Strategies, Rules and Alliances among the Minority Religious Groups in Aguascalientes

by Genaro Zalpa
(Universidad Autonoma de Aguascalientes, Mexico) 
A paper presented at CESNUR 2002, Salt Lake City and Provo. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

The city of Aguascalientes is the capital of a homonymous state located in the Mexican region where Roman Catholic traditions are best integrated, to the point that they are a part of the self-perceived Mexican identity: to be Mexican is to be Roman Catholic. In this setting, religious diversity finds a hostile field to grow in. Nonetheless in Aguascalientes - a city of a half million people - there are more than a hundred registered non Roman Catholic religious denominations. The aims of this paper is to examine the strategies that these minority groups employ in order to insure themselves a place in the religious field of Aguascalientes. That is to say to be accepted as legitimate religious options by the population of Aguascalientes.

Although the recurrent data of the census show that more than 90% of the Mexican population declares to be Roman Catholic they also show regional differences: in the South Eastern part of the country this percentage is around 75%, while the percentage of the population that declares itself to be Protestant - in the census there are not disaggregated data by denominations - grows from a general 7% to around 12%. Statistical data show a similar process of religious diversification in the Northern border of the country and in the major cities as Mexico City and Guadalajara (Fortuny Loret de Mola, 1999). This is not the case, however, in the Central Western region of Mexico that comprises the states of Jalisco - with the only exception of Guadalajara - Guanajuato, Michoacán, San Luis Potosí, Querétaro, Colima, Nayarit and Aguascalientes, where the statistical data show that around 95% of the population declares to be Roman Catholic.

More important than statistical data, however, is the qualitative interpretation about the relationship of the national identity with the religious one. According to Giménez (1988), a multi-secular process made Roman Catholic religiosity to permeate Mexican culture to the extent that they are at the present mutually coextensive. Perhaps, Giménez says, "to say that Catholicism defines Mexican identity in a similar way as it does in Poland and Ireland is to say too much" (Giménez, 1988:5), but certainly, the author admits, it can be true for some Mexican regions (ibid), as the Central Western region of Mexico where Aguascalientes is located. The reason for this is historical.

Shortly after the end of the Mexican Revolution a religious war - La Cristiada, 1929-1932- took place, which focused precisely in the region we are talking about. How this historical fact has permeated regional identities has been analyzed by a number of scholars from a variety of theoretical perspectives (see, among others, Padilla Rangel, 1992; 2001; Serrano Alvarez, 1992; Vázquez Parada, 1999). An important point to be underlined is that in spite of the fact that the religious war was fought in the name of Cristo Rey - the Kingdom of Christ - cultural and social identification is not specially with Jesus Christ but with the Catholic religiosity in general and particularly with a number of Virgin Mary devotions such as the Virgin of Guadalupe - which is an important part of Mexican identity - and with the regional devotions to the Virgins of Zapopan, Talpa and San Juan de los Lagos. That is to say that for the population of Aguascalientes to be Mexican is to be Roman Catholic and devoted to the Virgin Mary devote and, whereas conversion to "Protestantism" - as people labels all Christian religions other than Catholic - means the negation of Mexican identity.

It is understandable that in this setting religious diversity finds a hostile environment for growth. In analyzing the situation under the light of the concept of "field" proposed by Bourdieu (1971), it has to be said that in this region there is no an already constituted field in which religious denominations compete with each other for the improving of their relative positions. Instead, as it happens in other Latin American regions (Mariz & Machado, 1998) the struggle is for the constitution of the field. In a situation where Roman Catholic Church has a privileged position of hegemony the struggle of other religious denominations is not for better positions, but for the very right to participate in the religious competition. They struggle for the right to be accepted by the population as legitimate religious alternatives.

Renée de la Torre (1995) analyses the successful discursive strategies of a Mexican Pentecostal Church in Guadalajara to overcome the identification of the Roman Catholic Church with Mexican national identity and, in this way to be itself accepted by the population as a legitimate religious option. In a similar way I analyze a number of strategies employed by the minority religious groups in Aguascalientes in order to constitute the religious field. This analysis is made with the help of game theory.

My first question is about the actual number of players. Should I consider that there are 107 players - 108 to include the Roman Catholic Church - or can this number be reduced? The answer to this question was found in the course of field work when I took notice of the existence of a Ministerial Alliance among a number of evangelical churches. In a collective interview with the leaders of the Alliance they explained that this is not an alliance of the same type as the federations or confederations of churches of a unique denomination as, let’s say, the Federation of the Mexican Churches of Disciples of Christ. The alliances of churches of the same denomination imply the sharing of common beliefs, while the Ministerial Alliance is a strategic alliance among churches of a variety of denominations with no common beliefs, but who share the idea that they need to play together if they want to succeed in their efforts to be accepted as legitimate religious options by the people of Aguascalientes.

They informed that there are 36 churches that formally participate in the Alliance, while a not specified number participate in some eventual collective activities like The Life Festival carried out in March of this year. Does that, then, mean that there are only two players in the game for the constitution of the religious field: Roman Catholic Church on the one side, and the Alliance on the other? Once again the answer came from field work. In interviews with pastors and ministers of various denominations I learned that there are two churches which perceive themselves and are perceived by others as totally different and totally apart from the rest of the churches: the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They do not make alliances with other churches, nor with each other. They consequently have to be considered as two more players, thus making a total of 4 players in the game.

There are in Aguascalientes 5 other churches that deserve a specific consideration: the Lutheran Church, the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the 7th Day Adventist Church, and The Light of the World. The Lutheran, the Methodist and the Presbyterian Churches see themselves and are seen by others - even by the Roman Catholic Church - as a part of the so called "Historical Protestantism". They are by this very fact considered by the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church - although not by people - as legitimate religious options, meaning that they have not to be counted as players in the game for the constitution of the religious field, but as players already competing for the religious definition of reality.

Because this is a report based on a research still in course, I must say that I have not yet studied the cases of the 7th Day Adventist and The Light of the World churches. I know through other researchers’ work (De la Torre, 1995) that The Light of the World - a Pentecostal Church of Mexican origin - is a similar case as the Latter Day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, that is to say that it should be considered as a distinct player. I still know nothing under this aspect about the 7th Day Adventist Church. Hence I see by now a 4 players game with the possible inclusion of two other participants.

As for strategies I will not consider the discourse and activities of the Latter Day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Instead I will concentrate on the strategies of the Roman Catholic Church and of the Ministerial Alliance of the Evangelical Churches.

As I said before players in the game do not have equal force, and strategies take this uneven force into account. Thus, as the most powerful player the Roman Catholic Church’s discursive strategy consists only in reminding people from time to time that to be Mexican is to be Roman Catholic, and particularly to be Guadalupano - Our Lady of Guadalupe devote. Priests and sometimes the local bishop also periodically label other churches as sects and warn people against their "pernicious" doctrines which according to them are contrary to Mexican essence. The Bishop’s words are usually reproduced by the media. Besides this routine, in a year and a half of field work I only observed two extraordinary facts: a conference by father Flaviano Amatulli, a specialist in defending Catholic faith against sects’ propaganda, that was attended by very few people, and the reaction of priests to the Life Festival organized by the Ministerial Alliance. Apparently the Roman Catholic Church estimates that this is enough to keep other churches off the religious field.

The observed strategies of the Ministerial Alliance are the annual participation in the official commemoration ceremony of a national hero: Benito Juárez , and the involvement in the celebration of a special event: The Life Festival.

There is the strange circumstance that a number of the more important Mexican national heroes are also Catholic priests. This is the case of father Miguel Hidalgo, and father José María Morelos, both important leaders of the independence movement. However, if one could categorize heroes by hierarchical order, Benito Juárez would perhaps come in second, immediately after father Miguel Hidalgo. As the initial leader of the independence movement, father Miguel Hidalgo was excommunicated by the Catholic Church, but this historical fact is not taken into account by Mexican people and is also conveniently forgotten by the Catholic Church. Father Miguel Hidalgo is usually represented bearing an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and his memory is celebrated in Catholic schools as it is also in public - state owned - schools.

This is not the case of Benito Juárez, a freemason of indigenous origin who was President of Mexico at the end of nineteenth century and who besides of resisting the French invasion - origin of the fifth of May celebration - also carried out church and state separation, confiscated Catholic Church goods and properties, and banned religious doctrines from public schools. Needless to say that he is not a beloved hero for the Roman Catholic church and that Benito Juárez’ memory is not celebrated - or at least not enthusiastically celebrated - in catholic schools. As reported by De la Torre (1995) The Light of the World church took advantage from this situation and successfully implemented a strategy aimed to show that it is not true that to be member of a church other than Roman Catholic means to cease being Mexican. They adopted national secular remembrances as their own, and gave particular importance to the Benito Juárez’ day throwing light to the fact that he is not a hero for the Roman Catholic church which, hence, does not truly identify with Mexican essence: being Catholic is not being Mexican.

The Ministerial Alliance of Aguascalientes tries a similar strategy. Each year on the twenty first of March they participate in the official celebration of Benito Juárez’ Memory in their character of a religious non Catholic organization. Their participation begins with a walk from central town to the statue of the hero leaded by the head of the Alliance whom carries a national flag. Once in the place of the celebration, they participate by delivering an official speech to honor the hero in the presence of civil authorities. The journey concludes with a gathering in the down town’s plaza to celebrate religious freedom. This year the march was attended by very few people. I counted around a hundred marchers. The speech was given by the general secretary of the Alliance and it was a celebration of the vision of the hero who made religious plurality possible. He also complained that non Catholic state workers were some times annoyed by their Catholic bosses. Also the final gathering in the central plaza, in front of the Catholic cathedral, was attended by very few people and besides of a speech to celebrate religious freedom, it mostly consisted in the singing of religious hymns and the preaching of religious sermons. One could therefore conclude that the strategy, although similar to that of the Light of the World is in fact not the same because it is not explicitly oriented to make clear that one can be member of a evangelical church without the lose of the Mexican identity. And the strategy was weakened by the fact of the scarce attendance of members of the evangelical churches. Some of the pastors that attended complained of the lack of engagement of the members of the Alliance. The participation in the official act of remembrance was also weakened by the fact that the only other participants were the freemasons, who are seen by Mexican people as a suspicious secret organization and enemies of Catholic church. At the end of the day a Catholic priest pleaded for the forgiveness of those "poor brothers" that according to him wanted to annoy mass celebration by their gathering in front of the Catholic Cathedral. In this way what can be considered a poor strategy concluded.

The Life Festival was an extraordinary activity organized by the members of the Alliance and International Horizon, an interdenominational evangelical organization with headquarters in San Diego, California. It consisted in three days of public activities which central acts were the daily afternoon festival of music and religious celebrations in the bullfight ring of the city. This is a place often used by the Catholic church for its own activities, like the solemn and massive pray or the rosary, the gathering of members of catholic organizations, etc. It was therefore very significant that for the first time a number of non catholic churches had such a public presence. It was like saying "here we are, as legitimate religious alternatives". In other words they made themselves visible in the religious field of Aguascalientes. An they succeeded in doing that. For a long time, perhaps two months before the Festival they had a public presence in the media and in the Catholic discourse. Some media warned against penetration of foreign sects, and catholic priests asked Catholics not to attend while the rightist government had to explain their permission for the Festival in radio spots that alluded to the religious plurality of the country.

Although it cannot be formally confirmed Catholics actually did not attend the Festival. I informally asked the opinion of some of the organizers and they also had the impression that the attendance was mostly of already members of the Evangelical Churches. However, predication asked for conversion and a number of volunteers were prepared and ready to assist converted people. It is important to say that predication once and again underlined that this is not a religious movement, that the participant churches are not religions, and therefore that they did not ask for a religious conversion, but to convert to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. As it is known, this is a common tenet of most of the evangelical churches, but during the Festival it was particularly emphasized as a part of the strategy.

At the same time, during the mornings local festivals were carried out in other areas of the city and in other cities of the State. Some were very successful in marking the public presence of the evangelical churches, like the one organized near a very busy street market in the city with music, puppets, clowns, children nursery, medical assistance, etc. Others were not so successful, as the one that consisted mostly in religious services and did not attract attention of passers-by.

All together, however, contributed in making the presence of religious alternatives to the Roman Catholic church very public. To date, one can still see the big posters announcing the Life Festival and, hence, the presence of these alternative religious options.

In a competition there are rules. Sometimes they are explicit but most of the time they are implicit rules. All churches in Aguascalientes agree on the prohibition of physical violence but they do not exclude the use of symbolic violence (Bourdieu, 1975) consisting mostly in throwing light on other churches worst aspects. They are for instance labeled sects by each other and are shown as having a life faraway from the evangelical commandments. This however is not made in the presence of the adversaries, but it is a discourse addressed to the own church members.

It is important to show that there are also rules that apply to regulate the relationships between the members of the Alliance. They are on the one hand the more formal written rules, and on the other the informal rules that in a game regulate behavior of the members of a coalition. They, for instance, could regulate whether there are or not transferable payoffs within the members of the coalition, and could define penalties for defection. To date I only learned about the banning of what they call "ship trade" or "ship robbery" which consist in convincing members of an evangelical church to attend another evangelical church. I however need more field work in order to discover other non written rules.

To resume, my paper is the presentation of a research still in course on religious competition in Aguascalientes. I therefore will gratefully accept any suggestions you may have for me.


Bourdieu, Pierre (1971) "Genèse et structure de cham religieux". Revue Francaise de Sociologie, XII, 295-334.

Bourdieu, Pierre y Jean-Claude Passeron (1975) Reproduction. In Education, Society and Culture. London, Beverly Hills: Sage.

De la Torre, Renée (1995) Los hijos de la luz. Discurso, identidad y poder en La Luz del Mundo. Guadalajara: Iteso.

Fortuny Loret de Mola, Patricia (1999) Creyentes y creencias en Guadalajara. México: Conaculta-Inah, Ciesas.

Giménez. Gilberto (1988) Sectas religiosas en el sureste. Aspectos sociográficos y estadísticos. México: Ciesas.

Padilla Rangel, Yolanda (1992) El catolicismo social y el movimiento cristero en Aguascalientes. Aguascalientes: Instituto Cultural de Aguascalientes.

Serrano Alvarez, Pablo (1992) "Catolicismo, religión y acción social regional. El caso del sinarquismo en el bajío mexicano (1937-1952)", en C. Martínez Assad (coord) Religiosidad y política en México, pp. 261-278. México: Universidad Iberoamericana.

Vázquez Parada, Lourdes Celina (1999) Testimonios sobre la Revolución Cristera: Hacia una hermenéutica de la conciencia histórica. Tesis de Doctorado. Universidad de Guadalajara.


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