Since the election of Pope Francis, it has become not done to be an unbeliever in Argentina. This situation brings back memories of the past to lawyer Oscar Martínez. Journalist Peter Scheffer reports from this Latin American country.

Not getting a job because you do not believe in God. This happened to Oscar Martínez from Tigre, a suburb of the capital city of Buenos Aires. Fresh from university and a young lawyer, he applied for a job with a small law firm in 1998.

Oscar remembers the interview in question as if was just yesterday. “It was a strange interview. They weren't interested in my qualifications at all, just my religious beliefs”, Martínez says. He found that his prospective employer was a strict Catholic. He did not like the fact that Oscar was an unbeliever. Two days after the interview, he received a telephone call: “We regret to say that you would not fit into our team”, he was told.

The church and the state
Saying that you are an unbeliever has become taboo in social or professional circles again today. Since the election of the Argentinean Pope Francis, religious belief has regained its former popularity.
The influence of the Roman Catholic church in Argentina had previously been declining for many years. One example of the above was the removal from the constitution in 1994 of the article that required the president of the country to be a member of the Roman Catholic church. The presidential couple, Néstor and his wife (and successor) Cristina Kirchner, put further distance between themselves and the church —in both word and deed.

Néstor Kirchner decided not to attend the annual Easter Mass in the cathedral in Buenos Aires any more as of 2003. As Kirchner himself said, he felt that the church and state should be separate and that it was not appropriate for the head of state to attend any religious celebrations at all.

His wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, chose not to attend the Easter Mass either. This situation did not change until Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio was elected Pope on 13 March 2013. An Argentinean at the Vatican, as the representative of God on earth. The next Easter Mass found Kirchner dutifully back in place in the cathedral, listening, full of emotion, to the sound of the choir singing the Te Deum.

Proud Argentinean
“So, I don't take any exception to the fact that the President has very close links to the Vatican”, says Martínez while sifting through some old newspapers that he keeps in a cardboard box. “Look”, he says while pointing to an old front cover of the La Nación newspaper, “I'm a proud Argentinean too”. Tapping the paper with his finger, he points to the photo of Pope Francis presenting himself to the masses on the balcony in Rome.

While neatly filing away the old newspaper again, Martínez says that it has become unacceptable to talk about politics and religion since the dictatorship came to an end. “You never know what the consequences will be if you do. You can lose friends as a result”, says the now 41-year-old lawyer. His rejection following the job interview mentioned above is not something that he considers unusual.

His wife, Isabel —who refers to herself as 'spiritual'— worked as a domestic help for a local elderly couple for a while. They used to pray at meal times and Isabel would not take part. “One day, the lady of the house told me that my services were no longer required. She said that I clearly hadn't been brought up properly and was not grateful to Our Lord for my life", she tells me while rolling her eyes. “We had a heated discussion and several days later everyone in the area knew about it. Some neighbours still look past me, as if I'm a witch”, she adds.

The euphoria of having a fellow countryman at the Vatican has not made it any easier to talk about the question of belief —and the activities of the Catholic church in particular. Journalists who raised questions about the role played by the Catholic Church during the military dictatorship under Jorge Videla (1976-1982) in the days following the election of Francis were brushed aside as whingers and nitpickers on Argentinean TV.

Human rights activists asked the new Pope to open the archives in the Vatican in the hope of finding out more about the fate of priests and other political opponents that went missing during the dictatorship. They left feeling cheated; the Pope kept the lock on the archives and remained silent.

Evangelical movements

Despite the above, the Catholic church is losing its grip on young Argentineans in particular. According to research by the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), less than 10 percent of Argentineans under the age of 30 go to church. However, figures also show a significant growth in membership of Evangelical movements originating from neighbouring country Brazil in particular. Although these new churches do not interfere with politics directly, they do preach a strong Christine doctrine to their members. Members of the congregation are expected to donate part of their income to the church and progressive themes like abortion, same-sex marriage and transgenderism, are rejected or openly disputed.

These churches take care of poor people from the slums - who have poor prospects for the future. According to the UBA, members of the congregation offer practical help to the poor: in the form of food, clothes and blankets. In this situation, loyalty to the Evangelists and their beliefs is a small price to pay. “You don't need to believe in God, be more Roman Catholic than the Pope or be a good President; a listening ear alone is often enough”, Isabel says.