WHEN VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT HUGO CH VEZ met with the Pope earlier this week, he assured Benedict XVI that he is a Christian. And he told the press that has a special friend who is one too. Sort of.
"Our Bolivarian revolution is very Christian and I have a friend who isn't Christian, but lately has said he is a Christian in the social aspect: his name is Fidel Castro," Chávez announced. "I talk to [Castro] a lot about Christ each time we see each other, and he told me recently, 'Chávez, I'm Christian in the social sense.'"
Chávez calls Jesus Christ a socialist and a revolutionary. And that's the kind of Christ he wants to follow. It is not clear how much the Pope was persuaded. The Vatican has criticized efforts by Chávez's revolutionary government to curtail the influence of the Catholic Church in Venezuela. Chávez has called the Catholic Church's hierarchy a "tumor," while Venezuelan Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara has accused Chávez of aspiring towards a dictatorship.
It will be no surprise if we soon see left-wing American clerics investing Chávez with a mystical reverence previously reserved for the likes of Fidel Castro and, during the 1980s, Sandinista honcho Daniel Ortega. Indeed, the canonization of Chávez in some quarters has already begun.
LAST FALL, Chávez addressed a rapturous crowd of fans at a United Methodist Church in Manhattan's swank Upper West Side. (Here's a photo.) Castro and Daniel Ortega have paid similar visits to liberal churches in Manhattan.
As he marched into the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, the strongman was greeted with loud applause and chants (in Spanish) of, "Chávez, friend, the people are with you." Chávez shared the pulpit with Jesse Jackson. Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who's never met an anti-American dictator he couldn't support, sat appreciatively in the audience. Also present were officials from the Cuban government.
"I felt a love for the Bronx and New York starting with my visit today," Chávez noted in the church, while wearing a red shirt that symbolizes the Bolivarian revolution. He pulled a crucifix from his pocket and declared himself to be an "authentic Christian" who serves the poor. He was preceded by a Methodist minister and Catholic priest, who praised the Chávez regime for its literacy and healthcare programs. Chávez himself introduced the local Methodist bishop, Jeremiah Park.
ACCORDING TO A SUPPORTIVE METHODIST CLERIC who was in the audience, Chávez said, "I preach the word of Jesus Christ. He was a revolutionary. Christ is the good news. A revolt of hope is taking place today--hope for justice." He continued: "Cuba and Venezuela are accused of being a destabilizing force in the hemisphere but the greatest destabilizing force is poverty. . . . I reach out my hand in friendship to the Bush administration, even though 'you are the lion and we are the lamb.'"
Earlier this year, in gratitude for his brand of Christianity, some church groups helped organize a National Solidarity Conference for Venezuela in Washington, D.C. Sponsors included the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns and the Methodist Federation for Social Action. In 2004 the Maryknollers sent a solidarity delegation to Venezuela, led by Fr. Roy Bourgeois. Bourgeois is perhaps best known for leading demonstrations against the U.S. Army's training school for Latin military officers at Ft. Benning, Georgia. While in Venezuela, Bourgeois met with Chávez and appeared on his daily television program, Aló Presidente.
After his visit, Bourgeois was enthusiastic about Chávez. "We've got a president and a government here that's on the side of the poor that is offering the poor a vision that gives them hope and promise for a better way of life," he explained, continuing:
[Chávez] recommends books. You know what one of the books was that he recommended? Noam Chomsky! He's recommending all these articles that he has read in the newspaper--he is a teacher! He is looking at Latin America like few have: through the underside of history. He is looking at it through the eyes of the poor and the oppressed. And when you do that you are going to have a lot of enemies. And he's got enemies.
Bourgeois warned that "the United States and George Bush are here to do everything they can to make sure that this revolution fails. Because if it succeeds, if the poor here will get justice, if there will be a real re-distribution of the resources here (especially the wealth, the money, the power) and in a country like Venezuela, this will spread to other countries. And so, what is at work of course and this is no secret, the U.S. is pumping money into Venezuela as we pumped money into Chile when Allende was there."
The American Religious Left is prepared to support Chávez. When Pat Robertson quixotically suggested--and later retracted--that the United States could assassinate Chávez, many mainline church officials responded with immediate outrage. Slamming Robertson for his latest inanity was no doubt a pleasure for them. Sadly, these clerics will likely view defending Chávez from more serious international criticism not just as a pleasure, but a duty.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.