Rewriting the Book of Daniel

  • Share
  • Read Later
Miguel Alvarez / AFP / Getty

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega

The Daniel of the Old Testament prophesied a new earthly kingdom, but was thrown into a den of lions as punishment for his faith. No fate so dramatic awaits his Nicaraguan namesake President Daniel Ortega, although the controversial Sandinista leader is convinced the lions are circling.

"They only criticize, criticize and criticize; they are dedicated to criticizing and speaking badly about everything," Ortega says of his political opponents, whom he recently began upgrading from "Judases" to "devils."

Ortega's unlikely political rebirth, which saw him regain the presidency in 2007 after 17 years in the proverbial political desert, has been accompanied by an even unlikelier religious awakening. Ortega, pundits say, sees himself as a messianic figure sent to deliver the poor of Nicaragua to the "promised land," as his past campaigns have promised.

And in the face of mounting criticism, Ortega has escalated his religious rhetoric, even adopting holy titles for government programs: His new microcredit program is called "In the Name of God!" — making any attempt at criticism akin to blasphemy.

"The infamy, the defamation, the lies!" Ortega thundered during a recent speech. "Who was slandered more than Christ? Who was defamed more than Christ?" Ortega reminded his followers that "we are a faithful nation...God gives our families the strength to find happiness and to overcome the most difficult moments."

Despite her husband's attempts to appropriate Christian symbolism to his own cause, Ortega's wife, Rosario Murillo, subscribes to a jumble of religious beliefs that might be euphemistically described as "New Age." Murillo — known to be an eccentric intellectual and spiritual influence on the president — has created a perplexing religious culture based on strange symbolism, superstition and fear. A disciple of the miracle-working Indian guru Sai Baba, Murillo has mixed mystic spiritualism with the teachings of Jesus Christ and the home-cooked philosophy of Gen. Augusto Sandino, and added a pinch of native indigenous beliefs to serve up a curious concoction of religious syncretism unrecognizable to most theologians.

The end result might be disorienting to some of the Sandinistas' more traditional Christian base: Ortega, dressed in pastels in order to channel positive energy, delivers a meandering speech on the danger of devils and the love of Christ and of Sandino, while sitting in front of psychedelic painting of an eyeball in the center of a hand surrounded by snakes — a colorful mural painted by Murillo behind Ortega's chair in Sandinista headquarters, to protect him from evil.

The contrast with the religious experience of the first Sandinista government, during the 1980s, couldn't be starker: Back then, some of the leading figures in the movement, and in Ortega's cabinet, were Catholic priests who championed Liberation Theology — the leftist interpretation of Christian scripture as a revolutionary call for activism in pursuit of social, political and economic justice. The Sandinista priests were rebuked by Pope John Paul II over their involvement in politics; the pontiff's public scolding in 1983 of then Culture Minister Father Ernesto Cardenal coming as a major blow to the Sandinistas' standing among their predominantly Catholic citizenry.

When he began seeking reelection, Ortega realized he needed to make nice with the conservative church hierarchy, so he reconciled with one of his staunchest opponents from the 1980s, the head of the Nicaraguan Catholic Church, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. Ortega took communion from Obando y Bravo in 2004, and then asked the cardinal to preside over his marriage to Murillo.

Today, the church appears willing to overlook some of the more esoteric elements of Murillo's faith, having gained a presidential couple that publically embraces the Church's leadership, and shares its conservative social values including a ban on abortion.

Ortega's courting of the Catholic hierarchy, however, alienated some traditional Sandinistas.

"A true revolutionary government of the left tries to transform the image of God to support a cultural transformation based on equality and social justice," says María López, author of various theological works, including Just Jesus and Another God is Possible. However, she says, the Ortega government is fostering a conservative "religion of dependence" based on the image of a mysterious and powerful God.

Still, cynics note that Ortega's reinforcement of such a dependency is a savvy political move.

"When a person is accustomed to viewing history as a process that is out of his or her control, that person can easily accept a political or religious leader who plays the role of God on earth," said Andres Perez Baltodano, a Nicaraguan political science professor at the University of Western Ontario.

For some religious figures, it's too much to stomach. "This is a great sin of religious and political hypocrisy," Father Cardenal told TIME. "[Ortega] wasn't a believer before, and he isn't now. His message is pure opportunism."

Ortega, however, is still exploring whether his embrace of the Church, and his wife's supplemental beliefs, will bring his people any closer to the new earthly kingdom he promised. In Nicaragua, as he would have it, the book of Daniel is still being written.