The man who will very likely be elected the next president of Mexico in Sunday’s vote is not only a political populist but also a religious one. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, like nearly 90% of Mexicans born in the mid-twentieth century, was raised Catholic, even serving as an altar boy at his parish church in the southern state of Tabasco. Although his own Christian denominational affiliation is unclear, he has wrapped himself in the cloak of Guadalupismo in an effort to win a good chunk of the vote of the 81% percent of the population who identify as Catholic.
The acronym of his political party, MORENA (National Regeneration Movement), was intentionally named after la Virgen Morena or the Brown Virgin, Guadalupe. Along with 19th century president Benito Juarez and la Catrina Calavera, the satiric Skeleton Dame, the Virgin of Guadalupe is one of the three totems of Mexican national identity. The refrain “Mexicans are 90% Catholic but 100% Guadalupano” captures the paramount importance of the Mexican matron saint in the nation that has the second largest Catholic population on earth after Brazil. If it weren’t enough to incorporate la Virgen Morena into the name of his political party, the charismatic career politician launched his presidential campaign on December 12, the feast day for Guadalupe.
Beyond cloaking himself in Guadalupismo, left-of-center AMLO has diverged from many in his own inner circle and the Mexican left in general by refusing to publicly back gay marriage and legal abortion, the former being legal only in Mexico City and few states and the latter solely in the Mexican capital. Whatever his personal sentiments may be on these hot-button social issues, he has strategically decided not to champion gay marriage and legal abortion in order to avoid alienating centrist voters who like his anti-corruption message and economic nationalism yet are more socially conservative. Indeed his political alliance with the right-of-center Social Encounter Party (PES), founded by a homophobic Pentecostal pastor, could signal that even as president he might not be willing to endorse social issues that are near and dear to the Mexican left.
Despite his Guadalupano populism, AMLO has been demonized by the Catholic right as dangerous socialist ally of President Maduro in Venezuela who would put the country on the same ruinous path as the South American basket case. In fact, some of my Mexican relatives in the city of Leon, the heartland of conservative Catholicism, regularly post all kinds of hysterical anti-AMLO propaganda on Facebook warning that if he is elected it will be Mexican Revolution 2.0 with a persecuted Church and possibly even concentration camps for the faithful who resist.
My family in Leon isn’t manufacturing such anti-AMLO propaganda themselves but rather disseminating Fake News generated by their political party, the PAN (National Action Party), which was founded by conservative Catholics in the 1930s and has always been closely allied with the institutional Church. PAN presidential candidate Ricardo Anaya has run a much better campaign than his rival José Antonio Meade from the ruling PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) but stands to get trounced by AMLO on Sunday.
Returning to AMLO’s own ambiguous denominational identity, there is speculation that he converted to Protestantism over a decade ago. In 2007 he began appearing in public with a bible under his arm and when asked by reporters about his confessional affiliation he gives vague responses about being a “Christian in the broadest sense.” It should be noted that in Mexico and throughout Latin America over the past couple decades “Christian” has replaced “Evangelical” as the preferred term for Protestants, both among themselves and even among Catholics.
Mexican Protestants, the majority of whom are Pentecostal, are significantly more conservative on social issues than the general population. In light of AMLO’s alliance with the right-of-center PES party, with its Pentecostal roots, and his reluctance to endorse gay marriage and legal abortion, it’s not far-fetched to imagine that he is a stealth Protestant in the mode of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. Whatever AMLO’s confessional affiliation may be, he has deftly drawn on the deep wells of Mexican Marianism to appeal to the broadest swath of the populace possible. On Sunday we will find out if AMLO’s MORENA appeals to sufficient Guadalupanos at the ballot box.