Matthew Butler, “Revolutionary Religion? Liberalism and Catholicism in Post-Revolutionary Mexico.”

Dr Matthew Butler (University of Texas, Austin) continued our lecture series on 18 April 2012, with a fascinating examination of radical religious movements in Mexico during the period of political, economic and socio-cultural upheaval after the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century. Having joined our group for the earlier workshop on Liberalism and Religion: Secularisation and the Public Sphere in the Americas, Butler discussed his new work on the schismatic religious movement led by Father Pérez in the 1920s and its relationship to the transformed place of liberalism within Mexican political cultures in the post-revolutionary era. You can watch the full lecture and ensuing discussion session on our youtube channel.

Connecting his lecture to our previous discussions in the workshop, Butler began by explaining that constitutional Catholicism and Church reform movements had long been an integral part of Mexican religious identity at both elite and popular levels of society. Although there had been considerable conflict between more radical liberal governments and the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century – over issues of Church property and clerical fueros in particular – many liberal administrations had adopted more co-operative relationships with the Church and the majority of the population continued to identify strongly with Catholicism in many areas, and the revolutionary governments’ policies towards the Church provoked a violent reaction from Church supporters, known as the Cristero War or the Cristiada (1926-29).

The “schismatic” movement that Butler explored in most of his lecture represented a combined agenda of popular Catholicism, agrarianism, popular liberalism, and anti-clericalism and was centred in the rural regions of Guerrero, Puebla, Chiapas, Veracruz and Tlaxcala during the mid to late 1920s. The anti-clerical aspect of the schismatic body, known as the Mexican Catholic and Apostolic Church, represented not a rejection of religion but a reformulation, being primarily directed against Ultramontanism, seeking to eradicate corruption and abuse of hierarchical authority from the Mexican Church, and creating a more interactive, mutually beneficial relationship between the clergy and their flock.

Not only was the schismatic church an attempt to build a more patriotic and abuse-free church to serve the Mexican people and nation, but the movement also acted to sacralise some aspects of the Revolutionary reform agenda – particularly regarding agrarian reform and social engineering projects seeking to improve the living conditions of the Mexican peasantry and to structure the moral universe of the ordinary population around ideals of citizenship, virtue and patriotism. Butler emphasised that the schismatic church had vibrant popular support in local communities, which strongly shaped how the schismatic church operated at local level. This was partly due to the schismatic body being able to step into the vacuum left by the suspension of official Catholic Church services from 1926, when the episcopate effectively announced a clerical strike in protest against Plutarco Elías Calles’ policies against the Church. But the support for the schismatic church also emanated from the synergy with particular local concerns and with the broader agrarian, community autonomy, and popular religion agendas that were widespread in the areas where the schism took hold. Later in the lecture, Butler explored in considerable detail how this schism impacted at different local levels, comparatively examining communities to the north of Mexico City in the valleys of Texcoco and Teotihuacan and rural areas in the Sierra Norte del Puebla and around Veracruz to the south.

You can listen to the full recording of Butler’s lecture on our youtube channel - and please leave us your thoughts in the comments section below.

Liberalism and Religion: Workshop

The fourth workshop in our series, Liberalism and Religion: Secularisation and the Public Sphere in the Americas, took place on 18 April 2012 in London. The workshop series brings together scholars who work on different parts of the Americas to examine themes related to the history of liberalism in a comparative context.

Following the pattern of previous sessions, the workshop was wholly discussion based: our commentators, Dr Austen Ivereigh (Catholic Voices) and Dr Natalia Sobrevilla Perea (University of Kent), opened the sessions with some reflections and questions about the papers that participants in the workshop had been able to read in advance. Papers were contributed by Prof. Roberto di Stefano (Universidad de Buenos Aires), Dr Trevor Stack (University of Aberdeen), Prof. Ricardo Martínez Esquivel (Universidad de Costa Rica) and Dr Gregorio Alonso (University of Leeds). Download the Programme (18 April) for further details.

The papers and the discussion helped to shine a critical light on several important issues and to highlight research areas that needed further investigation. Overall, the workshop participants emphasised the need to turn away from an oppositional conception of liberalism and religion in the context of Latin American state-building and to understand the overlapping and intertwined spaces that liberalism and Catholicism occupied in the public sphere in the nineteenth century. In addition, several avenues for future research were indicated, including how the relationship, by turns co-operative and conflictive, between liberalism and religion operated within local political and social institutions. Above all, the comparative framework of analysis helped discussants to think about the larger origins and consequences of Church-State conflicts across the region in terms of political discourse, institutional structures, and social identifications.

Download the full conference report for further information. And please leave a reply in the comments section!

Prof. Linda Colley, “Liberties and Empires: Writing Constitutions in the Atlantic World, 1776-1848″

ISA welcomed a distinguished guest to take part in our Liberalism in the Americas lecture series on 21 March 2012: Shelby M. C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton University, Linda Colley. A recording of the lecture, entitled “Liberties and Empires: Writing Constitutions in the Atlantic World, 1776-1848″ is available to watch on our youtube channel. There was a big turnout for Colley’s lecture, which was generously co-sponsored by the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies and by the University of London’s John Coffin Memorial Fund.

Colley’s lecture was impressive in its geographic breadth and its depth of analysis of the swift expansion of constitutional practice throughout the Atlantic World, and even beyond. The decades following the American Revolution were marked by an increasingly self-conscious mobilisation of written texts and print culture to inform, display, extend and justify political power around the world, in what Colley referred to as “public and political writing-ness”. One of the core tenets of her argument was to show the multiple contexts within which written constitutions were produced, and the multiple ends to which they were put. In particular, the lecture emphasised the centrality of written constitutions to imperialist projects – American, French, and British – as well as to nation-states; to monarchist systems – in Haiti, Portugal, and Brazil for instance – as well as to republics. With these points, Colley’s lecture echoed conclusions that were made during one of our previous workshops on Liberalism, Monarchy and Empire: Ambiguous Relationships, and the argument put forth by Max Edling in the workshop on Liberal Constitutionalism in the Americas, that the federal constitution of the United States had been designed to strengthen the authority and reach of the central government throughout the union, particularly regarding the settlement of intra-union disputes and the management of international relations.

This perspective was also used to challenge the assumption that British politics was largely unaffected by the wave of constitutionalism and “writing-ness”. On the contrary, Colley pointed to figures such as John Cartwright and Jeremy Bentham who participated in an internationalist dialogue of constitutionalism, penning constitutional proposals for different parts of Europe and Latin America. Much of this activity was underpinned by the assumption that Anglo-Saxons were better equipped to design governing systems and political structures than other peoples, an idea that simultaneously justified and reinforced imperial expansionism on both sides of the Atlantic.Therefore, Colley noted, constitutions, as ”engines of improvement and freedom, sometimes merged… with the ambition to manage, control and even invade”.

Colley also identified several fascinating issues that would make productive avenues for future research: in particular, her research has uncovered an extensive body of “amateur” constitution writing across the globe (including a radical figure in New South Wales, who composed a blueprint for a democratic, republican, and imperial Australia in the 1850s), which could yield numerous insights into the transnational circulation of political ideas, local political cultures, print cultures, and alternative visions for political organisation that were on the agenda but never codified into law. Another fruitful avenue Colley suggested was investigating the broader print and literary culture – both elite and popular – of the era, and how constitutions compared to other types of texts designed to inform, reform, control, and demarcate boundaries. This is a particularly important subject given the self-conscious awareness that many constitution-makers of the era had for the “potential of language and texts to mould and to manage”.

Colley’s lecture was followed by an energetic question and answer session. Within this discussion Colley emphasised that, along with many of their contemporaries, British politicians – even as they disavowed constitutionalism proper – recognised that written constitutions were a vital means of legitimising particular political systems, or even particular administrations. This helped to make Colley’s lecture a fitting conclusion to the discussion held earlier in the day at the Liberal Constitutionalism workshop, regarding the central importance of establishing or consolidating legitimacy as a motivation for writing constitutions – a detailed report of this discussion can be downloaded here.

Watch the recording of Linda Colley’s fascinating lecture once more, and please give us your thoughts in the comments section below!