Churches and Religious Institutions

Belize Table of Contents

The interaction of churches and religious organizations with the government and political system was informal, but nonetheless powerful. The schools were a key element in this influence. Churchrun schools had been the norm in Belize since the early colonial era, and both major political parties continued to endorse the church-state partnership in education. This partnership placed most primary and secondary schools under church control. Thus, the various Christian churches and denominations in Belize did not generally adopt a high political profile, but their schools served as a key adjunct to religious services and their gatherings as a locus for church influence. The most prominent example of such influence was the role that the Jesuit-run secondary school, Saint John's College, played in preparing the leaders of the nationalist movement in the 1940s. Religious influence, especially traditional Roman Catholic social thought, continued to affect Belizean political life in 1991.

Some also attribute the PUP's early anti-British and pro-United States outlook and its predisposition toward the Roman Catholic countries of Central America, rather than toward the predominantly Protestant English-speaking islands of the West Indies to the influence of the Jesuits and the Roman Catholic Church. Whereas the mainline Protestant churches, such as the Anglican and Methodist churches, were institutionally tied to Britain and the English-speaking West Indies, the Roman Catholic Church in Belize was once a vicariate of the Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Jesuits from the United States staffed key positions in the Belizean church. Foreign influence in the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches and schools in Belize had been much criticized. In recent decades, however, Belizeans have increasingly come to occupy leadership positions. By 1990 the top leadership of the country's Roman Catholic Church was Belizean, and a Belizean Jesuit was president of Saint John's College.

No political party or movement in Belize organized itself on the basis of religious affiliation, but Roman Catholics historically were considered to lean more toward the PUP. Protestants, allegedly being more pro-British, leaned more toward the PUP's opposition. Nonetheless, the top leadership of the UDP included many Roman Catholics, including Philip Goldson and Manuel Esquivel. Indeed, the UDP's 1984 victory would not have been possible without strong support from the country's Roman Catholic population.

The existence of a "Roman Catholic vote" in Belize is open to question. Still, politicians avoided taking positions that overtly contradicted Roman Catholic teachings because they feared a reaction from both the hierarchy and the laity. Thus, the presumption of the religious community's opposition to abortion kept the issue of legalizing abortion out of the political debate even through the Roman Catholic Church never sponsored an antiabortion campaign. Furthermore, no politician called for fundamental changes in the church-state partnership in education, which enjoyed strong support across the religious spectrum.

Liberal political movements, such as liberation theology, had not taken root in Belize, and the Roman Catholic Church avoided the split between the so-called "traditional" and "popular" churches that divided Roman Catholics in other Central American countries. Moreover, politicians probably overestimated the ability of the Roman Catholic Church to respond as a monolithic institution, and their perception of so-called "Roman Catholic" positions often lacked an awareness of current Roman Catholic thought and practice. The generally conservative outlook of the Belizean Protestant churches, which shared the traditional Roman Catholic position on many moral and social issues, perhaps reinforced politicians' consciousness of religious interests.

Since the 1970s, missionary activities by evangelical and fundamentalist denominations and sects, including the Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Jehovah's Witnesses, have been changing the religious composition of Belizean society. Although these groups, unlike the mainline Protestant churches, generally had strong ties to mother organizations in the United States and were often considered to be politically conservative, their political impact was negligible at the national level. At the local level, however, the proliferation of denominations and sects, many of which were hostile to one another and to the Roman Catholic Church, could be undermining the sense of common identity within communities. The alcalde system of village government, for example, has been disrupted in some KekchÝ villages, when the village's Protestant members (who were opposed to the close ties of the traditional leadership with the Roman Catholic Church) refused to participate in elections or abide by village court decisions.

More about the Government and Politics of Belize.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress