Barack Obama and Óscar Romero

By Christopher Jones

Just over a week ago, I returned from a restful and relaxing vacation in El Salvador, where I enjoyed the beach, fantastic food, stress-free post-comps reading (in a hammock, no less), and spending time with family. I also spent a day in Santiago de María, a relatively small town located in the mountains of Usulután where my mother-in-law grew up (and where some of her family still lives). Among my favorite things in Santiago de María is driving down Ave. Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero, named after the martyred Catholic archbishop whose assassination at the hands of U.S.-backed death squads in 1980 helped trigger the outbreak of the Salvadoran Civil War (Romero's brief stint at Bishop of the Diocese of Santiago de María immediately preceded his advancement to Archbishop of El Salvador). I noticed this time that the mural of Romero downtown had been touched up since my last visit there, with a note indicating that it had been done as part of last year's commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Romero's death.

My visit to El Salvador came almost exactly one month after President Barack Obama's visit to Central America's smallest country--a trip that included a much-heralded stop at the tomb of the deceased Archbishop. In large part because of the events in Lybia and elsewhere turned Americans' attention elsewhere, Obama's trip to El Salvador and Romero's tomb received little attention from pundits and commentators--an unfortunate oversight for those interested in the intersections of religion and politics on the international stage. I've been able to track down two insightful pieces reflecting on the significance of the event. The first, authored by Greg Grandin and published at The Nation, uses the opportunity to decry the immorality of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, concluding by offering his hope that
Obama finds inspiration in Oscar Romero’s life: Romero, after all, started his public career as a cautious moderate who believed he could quietly work with El Salvador’s ruling class to coax needed reform. The reality of Salvadoran society forced his conversion into an outspoken, confrontational leader who directly attacked those who perpetuated what he called “structural sin:” “When the church hears the cry of the oppressed,” Romero wrote before his murder, “it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.” If Romero was alive today, he would recognize CAFTA’s Chapter 10, along with the broader, disastrous policies Washington is pursuing in the Mexico-Central America-Colombia security corridor, as prime examples of “structural sin.”

The second article, posted at Religion Dispatches by Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, who speculates on the potential affect Obama's visit might have on Romero's candidacy for beatification, but who ultimately sees "Obama’s visit as symbolic of a shift in US attitudes toward Central America":
Gone I hope is the era of intervention and manipulation. The Central America of today is different from the one that saw Romero’s blood shed while saying mass. Some would argue that the crisis of gangs and drugs that is engulfing this region is leading to a crisis that will eclipse the civil wars of the 1980s and 1990s. And yet in spite of the growing violence, figures like Romero give us hope.
As Romero prophetically stated, “I should tell you that, as a Christian, I don’t believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.” The Salvadoran people today, the Catholic Church as a whole, and all who stand as defenders of human rights and denounce injustice should take after Obama and spend a moment remembering this modern-day martyr who did not die in vain but whose dangerous memory continues to empower and inspire us today.
While both of these scholars know much more about Latin American politics and religion than I, their reflections only scratch the surface of this all, and questions regarding the significance of Obama's visit to Romero's tomb remain. (Among the least-significant but most-perplexing is how on earth right-wing pundits did not jump on this opportunity to smear Obama by linking him anew to liberation theology). We're left to wonder with Maldonado if Obama's visit may in fact play any part in Romero's potential beatification (and the contested politics of memory and memorialization more broadly). And what, if anything, does Obama's visit reveal about his own Christianity? Perhaps most significantly, what does all of this mean to the Salvadoran people (including the million-plus Salvadoran immigrants in the U.S.)--those to whom Romero devoted his own ministry?