Secular Chile


Although Chile defines itself as a country where the church is separate from the state, there are countless signs that suggest the opposite.   The upcoming visit by Pope Francisco and the diverging positions expressed by the presidential candidates in these past elections have once again resurfaced the issue of whether or not the country is truly secular, a country where, curiously, very little research has been done on the impact of its secular culture.  

By Jennifer Abate C.

It is already a fact that this January 16 will be a holiday in the Metropolitan Region, and on the 17th in the Araucanía, and on the 18th in the Tarapacá Region.  The reason?  The visit to our country by Pope Francisco, which has rekindled an old controversy between those who think that a government should provide guarantees so that people can follow closely the visit of the head of the Catholic Church—even though the authorities have insisted that their measures only seek to guarantee freedom of movement and anticipate any emergencies associated with the visit—and those who believe that in Chile the authorities should not have a bias towards any creed in particular.

Sometimes it seems like the debate is obsolete, but the events surrounding the papal visit, as well as the more controversial campaign rhetoric espoused during the last presidential elections, reveal that the issue is more relevant than ever: Is Chile a secular state?

With the 1925 Constitution, which came to replace the one valid since 1833, the church and the state in Chile were clearly separated, and freedom of religion was established.  With this, the country guaranteed the expression of all belief systems, as well as freedom of conscience and the freedom to practice any religion that does not act out against morality.

However, according to Professor Olga Grau, PhD in Philosophy from the Philosophy and Humanities Faculty of the Universidad de Chile, this does not ensure the secular status of our institutional system.  “The Constitution of 1925, even though it reflected a difference with respect to the previous constitution, which favored the Catholic Church, did not formally or explicitly declare the secular condition of the state, even though it alludes to a division between the state and the church by guaranteeing diversity, pluralism, and equality in the exercise of all religions.  It became part of common sense that we were living in a secular state.”

But it depends on what is meant by this.  For Alejandro Ramírez, Philosopher, Vice Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities of the Universidad de Chile, and author of Epistemology and Atheism: Analysis of the Arguments and Justifications of Theism (2016), even though from a formal point of view it is possible to affirm that Chile is a secular state, since “the issue of secularism does not have to do with whether you have faith or not, but whether or not you belong to a religious order”, from a non formal perspective, “it is difficult to accept so easily that Chile has a secular state.”  The issue is that the state seems to be, in many ways, “committed” to religious interest groups, especially the Catholic Church, although certainly to varying degrees and in a multitude of ways.   What happened with the sexual education program “Jocas”, for example, should be considered; or the difficulties experienced when trying to implement public policies regarding abortion; or with government participation, representatives of state, in religious ceremonies, no matter how ecumenical they are; or the religious symbols that the armed forces utilize.”

The ambiguity that exists regarding this issue surprises Alejandra Araya, PhD in History and director of the Andrés Bello Central Archive of the Universidad de Chile, who claims that this “is one of the most postponed debates and the most avoided issues in our recent history.”  Araya claims that what the current constitution guarantees as a right is freedom of religion, the free expression of beliefs, and freedom of conscience, which ensures that “religious argumentation is valid in public debates, that it can function as an ethical norm and that, for example, the representatives of religions that have legal recognition are able to share their opinions in the public and private media”.  This is unthinkable in countries that have defined themselves explicitly as secular, affirms the historian, who uses the Mexican case as an example.  “When President Fox took office, in 1999, his family gifted him a crucifix during the public swearing-in ceremony.  He was admonished publically, since he is the head of state and it was a public state ceremony, and therefore inappropriate to publically manifest his religious preference.  In Chile, only in 2013 was a law passed to modify the oath taken by public administration authorities, which read, ‘Do you swear to God our Father and to these Evangelical Saints that, in your exercise as minister, you will defend the Constitution and the Laws of the Republic?’ and which after taking the oath reads, ‘If you so act, God help you, and if not, he demands it of you.’”

Public Affairs and the Church

The last presidential election was marked by issues related to “values”, as well as to other themes originating from particular religious creeds.  While candidates like Frente Amplio’s Beatriz Sánchez campaigned in favor of a secular state, saying at one point,  “I am, for example, a non-believer and I would prefer as President not to participate in an Evangelical Te Deum, or in the Ecumenical Te Deum organized by the Catholic Church,” the current president elect, Sebastián Piñera, stated as part of his campaign that “after God, the family is the most important.” Piñera himself, at the end of August, stated that he was willing, at the behest of conservative groups tied to the church, to “review” the law that partially decriminalizes abortion.  Meanwhile, the candidate José Antonio Kast, who after the first round election joined the Piñera campaign, incorporated into campaign television spots the influential pastor David Hormachea, who reaches millions of people through the 800 Christian radio stations that broadcast his program in Latin America and who endorsed Kast because he “loves marriage between a man and a woman, and is against abortion.”

The academic Olga Grau is completely against the intervention of religious beliefs into these kinds of debates.  “Not only should political campaigns, associated as they are with a secular state, be completely devoid of religious arguments or assertions, there should also be, within the political discourse itself, an absolute prohibition of references to any specific religion or church, which are espoused habitually as a sign of moral strength and integrity.  A positive feature of modernization was the differentiation made with regards to the dimension of faith, where religious beliefs are considered part of the individual realm and to the particular communities that are formed on this basis, and to the ethical realm, which is considered part of the political dimension where human beings live together in a society and where political debates are had on the basis of reason.”

This opinion is shared by Kemy Oyarzún, PhD in Philosophy, Professor at the Universidad de Chile and Coordinator of the Master’s Degree program in Gender and Cultural Studies, who claims that “political campaigns should not be marked by religious debates.   I was surprised the other day to hear in the president elect’s speech an invocation to the nation and to God, as a way of giving thanks for his electoral success.  I think that this is a huge step backwards.  Religious convictions have an impact in the cultural realm of a country like Chile.  That is inevitable.  What is also inevitable is the influx of the secular into our imaginaries through the study of history.  A presidential figure should not be “religiously partisan”.  Chile is a state that has multiple beliefs, customs, rituals, and practices.  It represents a space that has heterogeneous territories and subjectivities.  There should be room for all of us in these intersections of truths, within the open and plural crossroad that is the state.  Secular communities, ritualistic communities, scientific communities, faith communities, and agnostic communities all inhabit these lands.  And the presidency must invoke this plural totality, which is befitting an open society, and which is costing us so much effort to build.”

The Intellectual Debt with Secularism

Alejandra Araya is surprised at the dearth of articles related to secular culture, and the scarce number of intellectuals working in this area.  To engage in these discussions, she asserts, “is fundamental in order to establish the parameters of a democratic republic, really democratic, since it would allow us to deal with issues that directly challenge the respect for human rights, like the recognition of women as subjects, which we are unable to ensure when a religious conception of life prevents us from recognizing ourselves as owners of our own bodies.  Having this discussion, grounded in careful research, would endow the debate regarding the public sphere and public education with essential material for the building of a society of equals; when I hear “quality (education)” in the debate, it is not accompanied by a real capacity to discuss secularism.

Araya states that one of the major problems is that this debate’s watershed moments, its trajectory, its texts, and its authors are not understood in Chile.  Because of this, she announces, the Neruda Chair, which is the product of an alliance between the Pablo Neruda Foundation and the Andrés Bello Central Archive, has proposed a research study on the foundations of secular culture in Chile, in order to contribute to the aforementioned genealogy, and in order to bring the debate up to date, not just in the context of the proposed new constitution, but also as part of the huge debt contemporary intellectuals owe in this area.  “As Julia Kristeva has said, we have not been able to construct an ethics that is non-religious.  Secularism is not synonymous with being anti-religious, and religious is not synonymous with being Catholic.  The imaginary of fear dominates us in our everyday world and that is why it is taboo to refer to oneself as secular, and it is politically correct to refer to oneself as tolerant or plural, which is used in the majority of cases as a wild card in situations of conflict, though it doesn’t define anything,” asserts Araya.

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