The phenomenon of religious fundamentalism is gaining an increasing presence on the Cuban scene. This matter is of ecclesial, political and academic interest. The readings about it are dissimilar, as are the understandings about its character and scope.
Based on that integrative perspective, I talked with D.Sc. Maximiliano Francisco Trujillo Lemes, professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and History of the University of Havana, who has studied the religious phenomenon in Cuba for some time.
What characterizes religious fundamentalism in Cuba?
Religious fundamentalism in Cuba has had significant growth, especially since 2018, after the discussion of the constitutional draft, definitively approved in 2019 as the Constitution of the Republic, by the way, with variations in certain postulates of the civil aspect, such as the concept of marriage, although this fundamentalism was not without prior visible manifestations. It is an attitude that brings together the essential features that this trend manifests almost anywhere in the world.
Fundamentalism is generated, basically, in those religious systems that have a sacred book and where literal readings of them are usually made, in this case, the most common in Cuba are the manifestations of fundamentalism in certain evangelical and protestant churches, where literal readings of the Bible are common and it is intended that the world be constituted, explained, manifested, exists and also be governed and structured according to those principles.
In Cuba, it is obvious, the basic leitmotiv of the manifestation of fundamentalism, but not the only one, is linked to matters of a moral aspect. It is a fundamentalism that is expressed, for the moment, against those practices, those attitudes that seek to defend the ways of loving each other of human groups that do not fit within the heteronormative canon of Christian religious morality, allegedly vindicated by sacred texts.
Religious fundamentalism has various ways of expressing itself: within state structures, semi-state, or extra-state, the latter form is consummated where the de facto powers of these churches can have some influence on the institutions and the functionality of the State, but they are not part of it. It can also be expressed at the community level. Although in Cuba the first form is not evident, there are individuals within society who are beginning to feel that they can have some influence in decision-making, in certain policies of the Cuban State. This idea starts being revealed as a cautious, tenuous political actor, but with some influence in certain decision-making in public policies, especially in matters of civil rights of sexual minorities and pretending to do more.
The most common thing in Cuba is that this fundamentalism is expressed essentially in the community sphere. In fact, in this area it is having relatively significant success, because there are many denominations registered in these positions that have created true networks for organizing social life in their communities, many of them characterized by being vulnerable in terms of access to goods and show symptoms of poverty. The relative success in their management has been achieved, above all, because they assist these human groups not only with material help, but also with some spiritual assistance. That is important to keep in mind. This contributes to the fact that many of these churches, of these denominations, insist on changing the dynamics of the apprehension of the religious in the community, and tend to direct that apprehension towards traditional forms of national identity, which they judge as alienating or demonic. Little by little they are creating fifth columns that tend to intolerance, to violence against those groups and social structures that within the nation do not correspond to their creeds or ethical, philosophical, theological positions, and even of an aesthetic nature.
For example, the attacks of these fundamentalists are basically directed, as part of the Cuban religious scene, at religions of African origin, which they constantly demonize in their discourse. This is having an impact on certain social sectors. In addition, these fundamentalists on the island are aspiring to participate in the spiritual and real education of citizens, they do so now, above all, in the community support structures they have created. But they aspire to more, they can aspire to enter the formal educational systems and transmit their word there. It is important not keep it in mind.
There are researchers who speak of the possible formation in the future of veritable evangelical neighborhoods, where, with the mobility of certain resources, with the existence of charismatic leadership in some of these churches, these groups can strengthen their power of convening in the communities, at the neighborhood level, even beyond the neighborhood level. It is found that they are succeeding in that, to refute the positions of others, or try to demonstrate that their own positions are valid.
We are facing a fundamentalism that for the time being has had a lot of notoriety in the community sphere, first in rural areas and in the eastern part of the country, where it blossomed in the 1990s, spreading today to the entire nation, above all in disadvantaged neighborhoods and areas. Without alarmism, but with concern, they can be considered and are a social, spiritual and even political actor, to be taken into account.
Can we also talk about other fundamentalisms, not only religious?
In addition to religious fundamentalism, there are other expressions of this phenomenon: the economic, the political, even the aesthetic. They exist where a human group or certain leaders seek to demonstrate to others that their truths or their codes are the only ones that are adequate, the only correct ones, and the only ones that everyone should follow or respect.
We live in a world where this trend is successful in spheres that are not only religious, which is dangerous because when they enter the sphere of politics and begin to have multiple followers, they create attitudes of intolerance towards other political positions or attitudes that can lead to deregulation of democracy, wherever it exists, or strengthen authoritarian or dictatorial positions, where there are regimes with that character, which are almost always based on fundamentalist political assumptions.
In other words, if in religion this fundamentalism can be represented by a pastor, an ayatollah, a rabbi, a bishop, a priest, in economics it can be an opinion leader, an economic researcher who has become a champion, or in politics it can be a charismatic political leader. There are all kinds of fundamentalisms and all of them are dangerous because they are intolerant, because they demand a literal reading of certain texts that they consider sacred or almost sacred, and that should be respected clearly and without any objection to comply with their assumption of truth.
Talking about conservatism is synonymous with fundamentalism, or are they different issues?
Religious conservatism cannot be confused with religious fundamentalism. However, a very thin line separates them. They are not necessarily the same, although in some aspects they may coincide and become confused. Conservatism allows contextual interpretations of its sacred texts, in certain aspects of theological reflection. In other words, there are conservative positions in religion that can have well-structured interpretations on such a complicated issue, from a theological and conceptual point of view, as the problem of the Trinity. That is, they do not make a literal reading of the Bible to understand the Trinity, but they seek an explanation, an interpretation, in relation to their theological or denominational tradition.
It can manifest itself, for example, around the presumed holiness of Mary, the mother of Jesus (in the world of Christianity, and Catholic in particular, where Mary has followers). Diverse readings on the sacred nature of the Mother of Jesus are traditional, in that aspect they allow interpretations of texts or oral or written traditions. But, when it comes to principles of faith, or when it comes to postulates of a moral aspect, for example, they can be very conservative, very defenders of the so-called tradition. These types of presuppositions, which are not necessarily of a theological nature, but of a functional representation, of the existence of the religious community, are defenders of the attitudes that presumably vindicate the sacred texts or, on the contrary, in the case of Catholicism, where conservatism is very common, not so in fundamentalism (although it has a presence), respect for the word of the most significant figures of this Church, such as the Pope, the bishops, etc.
That is to say, conservatism occurs where there are attempts to preserve certain norms or traditions that the religious institution considers to be unquestionable. This is fundamentally aimed at the maintenance of moral conduct, the preservation of certain social or political structures with which these conservative religious institutions can feel identified, or the preservation of principles that they consider inviolable. These positions of conservatism always exist in fundamentalism, in one way or another. What distinguishes fundamentalism is that, moreover, it does not allow any interpretation of the sacred texts. They always demand a literal reading of the sacred texts as previously mentioned, and they say that the religious community must act, must operate based on that reading.
What relationship can we notice, in the Cuban context, between faith and politics?
Talking about this relationship makes it inexorable to go into history. We must begin by remembering that, for 400 years, between 1510 when the colonization of Cuba began and 1898 when it ended, the Spanish State that operated on the island was confessional, therefore, with an official religion: Catholicism. The Spanish considered it a guarantee of the uniqueness of the Hispanic spirit, and for this reason it accompanied them until their entry into modernity as the spiritual entity that fitted the political structures of the monarchy. This, with ups and downs, was enthroned in the colonial political system for Cuba.
Then came the U.S. occupation, after the 1898 intervention. During the years of occupation, the State that was instituted in Cuba, for the first time, was secular, that is, it separated religion from the State, as it was in the dominant nation. With the new occupation, an interesting process of Protestant evangelization of the nation is systematized, especially with American missionaries. They conceived that the acceptance of Protestantism in Cuba could be an element of acculturation of U.S. influence in the country. That process had successes and setbacks. There were sectors within Cuban society, especially political sectors, that discovered the danger that the Protestant expansion could have on the island.
The arrival of the Republic in 1902, with the Constitution of 1901, once again declared the secular nature of the State and formally, both in this Constitution and in that of 1940, religion was considered an entity separate from the State, but with precisions. Both constitutional models required citizens to comply with Christian morality as a presupposition of their civic behavior. There was a certain subordination of the civic attitude, therefore, to a certain extent of the political attitude, to certain standards of the Catholic tradition present in the country, which again and again generated concerns in other sectors of the religious world on the island. This showed that, although the State was going to operate independently of religion in decision-making, it was not going to disregard the influence that religion could have in controlling the behavior of citizens.
After the 1959 Revolution, especially as of the 1960s, religion-State cohabitation was tremendously reviled. A very atypical process began to operate in the history of political constructions in Cuba, and that is that within the constructions of political identity and political affiliation to the new government, the rupture or denial of all religious faith was required almost as a condition. Therefore, religion began to operate not as a structure that accompanies the State, but as a structure that is denied by the State. An attitude that became political in the nation as of 1975, with the First Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, and in 1976, with the new Constitution, considered the first of a socialist nature in our history. Its careful reading reveals its deeply atheist roots.
As of the 1990s, first the constitutional reform of 1992 and then the approval of the new Magna Carta in 2019, a new relationship between the State and religions is relaunched, assuming secularism and not atheism as an attitude in the political organization of the nation. But since no complementary law has yet been approved in the country to guarantee the secular nature of the State, it may be venal, that is, it may be at the mercy of the discretion of certain officials. Although without a doubt, in recent years there have been significant advances in terms of religious freedom and respect for the practices, institutions and religious faith of citizens. But since there is no regulatory legal framework, there is a risk that religion will begin to enter the public sphere, not only the private sphere, as is constitutionally provided for, and this makes the very secular nature of the State very confusing, another phenomenon that would have to be taken into account. There again there is a certain mixture of politics with faith, very discreet, but I could perceive it in some aspects.
What has happened in recent times, with the fundamentalist groups that I spoke about earlier, but also with conservative religious groups, is that they are trying to influence politics based on certain “truths or presuppositions of faith.” And it can happen and discreetly there has been a convolution of the relationship between faith and politics in Cuba, not to be neglected!, which will have to be carefully observed and addressed in the coming years.