The Garden

A blog by Marijn van Hoorn

Is every national leader in the Americas a Catholic? (No.)

Marijn van Hoorn
The presidents of the US, Canada, Brazil, and Colombia.
The leaders of the four most populous countries in the Americas are all Catholics. All photos in this composite are government works except that of Jair Bolsonaro, which is by Isac Nóbrega and licensed under CC-BY 4.0.

In the midst of the recent inauguration of US president Joe Biden, you may have heard claims similar to the one made in this tweet:

It's official. Every single nation in the Americas has a Catholic ruler.

From Canada to Chile, from Boston to Buenos Aires.

The dream of the Conquistadors has been fulfilled. An entire hemisphere united under the One True Faith.

Deus Vult! Flag of Vatican City Flag of Vatican City Flag of Vatican City

I saw this, and thought — “Well, hang on, there’s thirty-odd countries in the Americas, that can’t possibly be right.” So, i did what any reasonable person would: i dismissed it and went on with my day.

I’m just kidding; i made a giant spreadsheet of every national leader on the American continent and tracked down their religions because we’re all still stuck indoors and i have nothing better to do with my life.α

So, was Tyler right?

No. In fact, you can’t even draw a line from Canada to Chile without passing through a country with a non-Catholic leader.

But he’s more correct than you would think. The list of Roman Catholic leaders includes the prime ministers and presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Grenada, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, the United States, and Uruguay, a group of countries making up a vast majority of America’s landmass, population, and GDP.

So, who are these mystery non-Catholics? Well, first on the list are the people for whom i couldn’t pin down a denomination one way or the other. This small grouping consists mostly of the leaders of small Carribean countries: Antiguan prime minister Gaston Browne, Belize’s Johnny Briceño, Saint Lucia’s Allen Chastanet, and Vincientian prime minister Ralph Gonsavles. It also includes the outlier Francisco Sagasti, currently serving as acting president of Peru.β Most of them live in countries whose populations are majority- or plurality-Catholic, and i suspect they might be as well. The exception here is Mr. Gonsavles; a quick Google search for “ralph gonsavles church” suggests he might be either a Methodist or a Seventh-day Adventist.

Then, of course, there are those who just… aren’t Catholic. Bahamian prime minister Hubert Minnis is an Anglican, Barbados’s Mia Mottley is a Methodist, Trinidad and Tobago’s Keith Rowley is a Baptist, Haiti’s Jovenel Moïse is (i think) a Charismatic Christian, and the leaders of both Jamaica and Saint Kitts and Nevis are Seventh-day Adventists. Two leaders aren’t even Christian: Irfaan Ali, president of Guyana, is a Muslim, and Chan Santokhi, president of Suriname, is a Muslim.

The final (and most interesting) category is that of the leaders who were once practicing Catholics, but have since, for one reason or another, lapsed.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, president of Mexico.
Photo by the Mexican government, licensed under CC-BY 2.0.

The first is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, president of Mexico. At the time of his first (failed) presidential bid in 12006, he identified himself as a Roman Catholic, though speculation abounded of him potentially being a Protestant. By the time of Mr. López Obrador’s third go around, however, he identified himself more non-denominationally:

When I am asked what religion I adhere to, I say that I am a Christian, in the broadest sense of the word, because Christ is love and justice is love.

Yo cuando me preguntan de qué religión soy, digo que soy cristiano, en el sentido más amplio de la palabra, porque Cristo es amor y la justicia es amor.

Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvador.
Public domain photo by the United States government.

Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvador, has family members with ties to every Abrahamic religion. His grandmother was Catholic, and his grandfather was Orthodox, but his father converted to Islam and became an imam; Mr. Bukele’s wife, Gabriela Rodríguez de Bukele, has Sephardi Jewish ancestry. Mr. Bukele considers himself an irreligious believer in God and Jesus Christ:

Personally, I am not a person who believes much in the liturgy of religions. However, I believe in God, in Jesus Christ. I believe in his word, I believe in his word revealed in the Holy Bible.

Yo no soy una persona que crea mucho en la liturgia de las religiones, sin embargo soy una persona que cree en Dios, que cree en Jesucristo, lo he aceptado. Creo en su palabra, creo en su palabra revelada en la Santa Biblia.

Nicolas Maduro, president of Venezuela, was raised Catholic and identifies himself as a Christian,γ although he has also been reported to be a follower of the Indian mystic Sathya Sai Baba.

Raúl Castro, first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba.
Photo by the Russian government, licensed under CC-BY 4.0.

Finally, Raúl Castro, first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, was raised Catholic and taught in a Jesuit school, but lost his faith and became an atheist. In 12015, however, after the Vatican served as an intermediary in restoring relations between Cuba and the United States, Mr. Castro said he was considering returning to the church:

I read all the speeches of the pope, his commentaries, and — I said to Renzi — if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the Church. I am not joking.

Yo me leo todos los discursos del papa y, sobre todo, los comentarios que él hace. Y a Renzi le dije: si el papa sigue hablando así, comenzaré a rezar y volveré a la Iglesia. Y no lo digo en broma.

So, in summary: No, not every leader in the Americas is Catholic. But it sure is a lot of them.