The threads of the debate on religious fundamentalism in Cuba are varied. The recent appearance on television of a leader of the Western Baptist Convention has made this issue reappear. As part of the reflections and positions generated by this, I talked, once again, with Adiel González Maimó, theologian and activist, who has been a person of faith and his practice has been Baptist. From this perspective, he helps to look more comprehensively at the issue of religious fundamentalism and some of the fundamental actors and postulates in Cuba today.
What is the Western Baptist Convention? What is your biblical-theological doctrine?
The Baptist Convention of Western Cuba is a denomination that is part of the broad Cuban Baptist family, also made up of the Baptist Convention of Eastern Cuba, the Free Baptist Convention of Cuba, and the Fellowship of Baptist Churches of Cuba, and even other smaller groups not yet officially recognized in the country.
Baptists are an evangelical movement that emerged in the Netherlands in 1608, when an emigrated English pastor, John Smyth, founded the first church with that name in Dutch lands. They then spread to England and from there to the United States, where they became, between the 19th and 20th centuries, the largest Protestant denomination. Currently, Baptist churches work in almost every country in the world, and are organized in different conventions, unions and associations.
What distinguishes Baptists from the rest of the Christian churches?
In addition to upholding the same basic doctrines of Protestantism, such as the supreme authority of the Bible and the dominion of Jesus Christ, other more specific ones are included, such as believers’ baptism by immersion in water, congregational government and the autonomy of local churches (the latter is important since it means that each congregation is free to define what position to assume on a specific issue without external interference, from any higher authority, on the decision of the local church), the separation of the Church and the State (key in the debates we are having today in Cuba) and my two favorite distinctive principles: freedom of conscience and the universal priesthood of believers. Both principles affirm the ability of the individual to ultimately determine what to believe, how to act, what position to take, based on his personal relationship with God and with absolute respect for his conscience, which must not be coerced by no one.
Baptists arrived in Cuba with preacher Alberto J. Díaz, a Cuban émigré and patriot who was involved in the war of independence. This man found the Protestant faith in the United States, and in 1883 he arrived in Cuba as a biblical colporteur.1 He later adopted the Baptist doctrine and in 1886 he established the first Baptist church in Havana.
In 1898, with the American intervention in the war of independence, the different Protestant denominations existing in the United States also arrived in Cuba to “evangelize” it, implanting the same doctrines and government structures that they had there. The churches that were already established in Cuba and that until then were directed by Cubans, passed into the hands of the new missionaries. It seemed that for the Protestant mentality Cuba was becoming an integral part of the U.S. territory.
In the case of the Baptists, the North and South Conventions of the United States (separated in the 19th century due to the issue of slavery) divided the island into East and West, respectively. Thus, the South, more conservative than its northern counterpart, gave rise in 1905 to the Western Baptist Convention.
This denomination preserves, at least formally, the distinctive principles of the rest of the Baptist movement that I mentioned earlier. At the same time, in Cuba they had theological influences from currents such as Landmarkism, which posits, to put it simply, that Baptists are “the true church founded by Jesus” and that any non-Baptist ecclesiastical act is invalid. For this reason, Western Baptist congregations practice what is known as “closed supper” (they administer the sacrament or communion only to members of Baptist churches, excluding those who are not from participating), and re-baptism (re-baptize a person who wants to become a Baptist, even if he or she has already been baptized in another Christian denomination). Of course, these sectarian practices, typical of a denomination contrary to ecumenism such as the Western Baptist Convention, do not occur in the same way in all the congregations belonging to it, due to the autonomy of local churches.
To all this, I would only add that the Western Baptist Convention is a church that prohibits women from being ordained to the pastoral ministry. That is an exclusive distinction for men, which gives the measure of what conception of gender equality this denomination has.
In 2020, the Baptist Convention of Western Cuba had 538 churches established mainly in the provinces from Pinar del Río to Sancti Spíritus, and a membership of 27,620 people.
What relationship would their postulates have with the affirmation of a Secular State?
As I said before, Baptists defend the separation of church and state. Rev. Bárbaro Marrero recognized it even in the controversial program “Palabra Precisa,” although he later added that the “Church” is called to radiate light, influence and regulate society. And the truth is that in the mentality of this type of fundamentalist churches, when one speaks of “influencing society” one is really thinking of exerting an ideological interference that can (and longs to) reach all levels of control and decision-making in a society, including school education, political power, and the media.
For a Christian fundamentalist, the principle of Church-State separation only reaches the point where the State cannot intervene in any way in the doctrines or decisions within the Church, something that I totally support. But for them the separation ends there. For a fundamentalist, the Church has a “divine calling”: it has the duty to pressure, influence, condition the public policies of the State, even control them, so that they adjust to their worldview of life and society, because they feel that “their beliefs are the best for everyone, for the proper functioning of a country,” and must be applied absolutely, thus endangering the rights of those groups that do not conform to their way of seeing reality.
And for me there is a serious problem if it is not recognized that religious fundamentalism is also a political movement that wants to have control of society. In the Latin American region, we have plenty of examples of what happens when they succeed. So I think we should be very careful when giving “too much wing” to these churches. Not everything we do in the name of democracy ends up being for its good.
In a secular state, all churches must be distanced from government decisions. They cannot influence the policy of any government, because a government legislates for the entire society, which is plural and diverse, and goes beyond Christians and their doctrines. Christianity, like any other religious or ideological-dogmatic system, cannot dominate the politics of any country, because it would end up violating the rights of those who do not “fit” into its closed system of thought.
What do you consider to be the characteristics of this Convention that suggest a fundamentalist position?
Christian fundamentalism is a movement that emerged in the early 20th century in the United States as a reaction to modernism and liberal theology. It is a movement that encompasses various churches and denominations, which share common characteristics and beliefs: literal interpretation of the Bible and accentuation of biblical inerrancy2; suspicion and rejection of many scientific advances (such as those related to bioethics), sexual and reproductive rights, and the rights of the LGBTIQ community; traditionalism and dogmatization of the Christian faith; certain complex of moral superiority and also of persecution; victim mentality and fear of being “annihilated” by secularity; intolerance towards those who think and live differently; defense of gender stereotypes and the heteropatriarchal family; puritanism and complex of “the chosen”; etc.
The Western Baptist Convention, as well as the Eastern Baptist Convention, the Methodist Church, the Evangelical Pentecostal Assemblies of God Church, and the Evangelical League, just to name the five best-known examples in Cuba, share all or the vast majority of these characteristics. Therefore, they are fundamentalists.
What link exists, in your opinion, between faith and politics?
Politics encompasses the entire life of a society. It is everything that concerns the functioning and organization of a people. Therefore, it is up to every citizen to get involved in politics, even if they pretend not to do so or does so unconsciously. Undoubtedly all of us get involved in politics, because we are all interested in our life in society functioning properly.
I believe, therefore, that Christians are also called to participate consciously and responsibly in the political life of our country, and to do so from our Christian faith, which undoubtedly is and has been a militant faith throughout history. It is our civic duty to participate in politics, and there is no inconsistency with our religious faith to exercise it.
But I believe that this duty must be exercised in a personal capacity and not as a Church (as an institution). I believe that the Church should give its members freedom to participate in politics based on what their conscience dictates. Even the “institution Church” can have an official position on a certain topic (sometimes it is good that it has it for greater transparency and clarity of its membership and of secular society), but it must always leave room for those who disagree with that official position do so freely and exercise their civic duty without having major consequences (such as being condemned and expelled from the Church).
Another aspect that I think it is necessary to take into account is that Christians must participate in political life always remembering our place in society. We are not called to regulate it, nor to dominate it, nor to control it, nor to impose our cosmovision of the world on all the people. We are called to accompany, to share our vision with humility and without pretensions of superiority. We cannot yearn to have dominion over the State, nor expect it to legislate based on our dogmas. Our role is to stay on the side of those who suffer, of the oppressed, of those who are victims of abuses and violation of their human rights. Our duty is to give our vision, our critical opinion, but knowing that it is not “THE” vision, but only “ONE” vision, one more opinion that can shed light on a broad debate that is enriched with the lights of other people and groups that also have something important to say.
You have been a member of the Baptist community for a long time. How do you live your experience of faith in relation to the critical vision that you share here, being, in addition, a social activist?
Indeed, all my life I have been a person of Baptist faith and practice: first 20 years as a member of the Western Baptist Convention, and then 12 years as a member of the Fellowship of Baptist Churches, my current denomination. In addition, I have been an activist for the rights of the LGBTIQ community for more or less nine years. I have always developed this activism from my religious faith, openly and affirmatively assuming my identity as a Christian gay man. And although it is a contradictory question for many people, in reality it is not.
From whom I first learned that activism is necessary was Jesus of Nazareth. Apart from being, for me, the Son of God, and Lord and Savior of my life, Jesus is my role model for being a revolutionary. He overturned all unfair regulations of the society in which he lived, opposed the religious and political powers of his time, and transgressed what was established by Jewish Law that oppressed, discriminated and marginalized dissimilar people. And he did everything getting into trouble with the leaders of that time. But he didn’t care. He cared more about people’s lives, their comprehensive well-being. That is my biggest inspiration to do activism.
I do not have to nor can I conform to the dogmas established by any religion, by any church (not even mine), as long as those dogmas marginalize, cause pain, suffering and unnecessary guilt in the lives of people, believers or not. Why? Because nothing that causes pain, suffering and death in life (like the one I experienced for many years in the Western Convention being a repressed and guilty homosexual) comes from God, who offers us life in abundance and freedom to love.
I do not have to and cannot conform to the status quo established by any religious scheme, by any church (not even mine). Why? Because the Lord Jesus, whom I follow and in whom I believe, did not do it, but fought to the death to transform society into a better place, to make the Kingdom of God of peace, justice and love a reality in the life of the people.
In this I believe, and for this I live and act daily.
1 Someone who sells or distributes books. They came to Cuba to distribute Bibles
2 Biblical inerrancy is the doctrine that, in its original form, the Bible is completely free of contradictions, including its historical and scientific parts.