More evidence that separation of church and state is essential for democracy


Valley of the Fallen – referenced in the report on babies stolen from Spain and the Franco era.

Thousands of Spanish children were taken from hospitals and sold to wealthy Catholic families. This is the story of Ana Belén Pintado.

This article from The NY Times magazine is the story of one person discovering the true story of their childhood and the people they thought were their parents. Nicholas Casey tells the story of Ana Belén Pintado and a chapter in Spanish history that the country is still grappling with.

(The link should allow entry via the Times paywall – it’s also available in audio form – around 55 minutes.)

A bit of context:

… Pintado took a closer look at the birth certificate. She could see that someone had ripped off the top third of the paper, leaving behind a jagged edge. His birth certificate had been falsified; there had been something here that someone wanted to hide. “I knew it couldn’t be my mother,” she told me. “And that’s when I thought I might be a stolen baby.”

Pintado was long known of the phenomenon of babies stolen from hospitals in Spain. The thefts took place at the end of the regime of Francisco Franco, the right-wing dictator who ruled the country until 1975, and even today the disappearances remain a subject of mystery and debate among scholars. According to the birth mothers, the nuns who worked in the maternity wards took the infants soon after they were delivered and told the women, who were often single or poor, that their children were stillborn. But the babies were not dead: they had been sold, quietly, to wealthy Catholic parents, many of whom could not have families of their own. Under a pile of false papers, the adoptive families bury the secret of the crime they have committed. The children who were abducted were known in Spain simply as the “stolen babies”. No one knows exactly how many were kidnapped, but estimates suggest tens of thousands.

The stolen baby phenomenon was only part of a national nightmare that began in Spain with Franco’s rise to power. Commander of the right-wing army, Franco was part of a group of military officers who plotted to overthrow the Spanish government during an army rebellion in 1936, starting the Spanish Civil War. Overnight, Spain went from an elected democracy to a country where death squads rounded up and executed leftists and intellectuals. When Franco’s nationalists could not subdue the Basque Country, they called in Nazi Germany warplanes which razed the town of Guernica, inspiring the famous painting by Pablo Picasso that bears his name. The cruelty was typical of a new form of authoritarianism that began to topple democracies one by one in Europe in the 1930s. But unlike Adolf Hitler, Franco survived World War II. The Spanish regime lived as an enduring fascist state in the heart of modern Europe.

The story tells of Pintado’s realization that there are things the people she thought were her parents had never told her, and it wasn’t until after they died that she began to suspect which turned out to be the truth.

Along the way, the story recounts cooperation between the Catholic Church and the government in a scheme that had as nominal justification, the idea that children of “leftist” parents could be raised as “clean” citizens. ‘they were raised by the kind of people who fit into the myth that fascism in Spain was promoting:

As supreme leader of Spain, Franco assumed the title of Caudillo, or “strongman”, and soon began to suppress social freedoms in the country. Until the early 1930s, Spain was one of the most progressive countries in Europe, allowing married couples to divorce and women to have abortions. Under Franco, these rights were quickly abrogated. Contraception was banned, adultery was criminalized and women lost the right to vote. Newspapers were censored and many books were banned altogether, including those by Federico García Lorca, Spain’s most renowned poet and playwright. (Lorca had previously been assassinated by Nationalists during the Civil War.) Franco’s political movement, the Phalange, even once published a schedule for housewives outlining times for taking children to school, laundering clothes, and preparing dinners.

If any of the above sounds like what some groups and individuals believe is necessary to “take back America”, well….

But one of the most enduring abuses of the time was suffered by children. In the late 1930s and 1940s, Antonio Vallejo-Nájera, a prominent regime psychiatrist trained in Nazi Germany, promoted the idea of ​​a Marxist “red gene” carried by the children of Franco’s left-wing opponents. The gene, he said, could be removed by removing children from their mothers and placing them in conservative families. Franco’s men soon began large-scale kidnappings. They targeted children orphaned by Franco’s firing squads and took newborn babies belonging to women who had given birth in prison as political prisoners. All were sent to be raised by regime loyalists. The era of “stolen babies” had begun.

The Francoist government has found a willing partner: the Catholic Church:

Franco’s reign also marked a dramatic turning point for the Catholic Church, which allowed its nuns and priests to become partners in the right-wing regime. They commanded the education system, where children were to be instructed in Catholic values, learning to read from the Bible. Franco also ceded oversight of parts of the public hospital system to the clergy. Nuns often sat alongside senior hospital management, helping to select staff and overseeing the budget. But their influence was perhaps strongest on the charity floors of hospitals that cared for the poor. There, nuns were often deployed to encourage single mothers to give their babies up for adoption to married couples.

We tend to forget that fascism was alive and well in Spain long after being overthrown in Germany and Italy. While Franco maintained relations with the Axis powers, he never really entered into a formal alliance with them. Spain did not actively participate in the Holocaust – but that does not mean that Jews found Spain as a sanctuary. As with stolen babies, it is difficult to reconcile what happened with what people are willing to acknowledge.

Eventually, Spain began to change. In the 1960s, the country began to be more open and liberal; it was possible for a single mother to raise children rather than have them taken away from her. But the continued demand for babies has led to a black market where babies have been stolen from their mothers who were told they died at birth or shortly thereafter. Nuns, doctors, midwives, nurses collaborated in the program for profit as well as for “values”; money changed hands from people desperate to adopt.

The story goes that something similar happened in Argentina under the military junta which ruled from 1976 to 1983. Unlike Spain however, Argentina eventually developed a truth and reconciliation program to try to reconcile what had happened. Spain has chosen official amnesia about the whole plan – as well as other atrocities that took place under Franco – although it is starting to fall apart.

Pintado began a quest to find his biological mother, as did thousands of other stolen children. Women who were told their baby had died during this time are also beginning to dispute what they were told. Many of the original authors are now elderly or deceased. Official records have never been kept; collating the available information is sketchy at best. Judges postponed and delayed the cases. Pintado ultimately defied the odds, despite resistance from friends and family who were uncomfortable with his efforts.

When religion and right-wing government mix, the results can be more of the devil than of God. The death toll in Ireland of children born to single mothers and the abuse suffered by their mothers is appalling. The Pope apologized for what happened to Indigenous children in Catholic schools across Canada, as well as for the financial settlements. In both cases, government funding supported these institutions – but without the accountability that secular institutions might have expected.

It is entirely possible to have a government that incorporates religion into its structure, but it will not be a democracy. When authority is based on the Will of God (in practice, whatever leaders say is the Will of God), it is not possible to challenge it, take it to court, or reject it.

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They don’t even try to hide it.

The Dobbs ruling from a now conservative-dominated Supreme Court raised the specter of what other rulings could be imposed on the country depending on the religious lights of the judges. Talking Points Memo has an explainer by Sarah Posner on the rise of Christian nationalism and its embrace by the Republican Party. It touches on various aspects of Christian nationalism, with the final section looking at how Republican leaders are using the movement:

The Bible is just a prop for Donald Trump, and like autocrats throughout history, he uses religion and religious leaders to shore up support from delighted followers. It doesn’t matter that Trump himself is a Christian nationalist, since he is a salvific figure for Christian nationalists, someone who can achieve their long-sought goals of crushing the “ungodly left” and empowering them. A top contender for Trump’s successor, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, is abusing his current position to engage in fascistic crackdowns on migrants, public education and LGBTQ children while making outspoken Christian nationalist appeals . In recent political speeches, DeSantis has used a verse from Ephesians 6 (“Put on the full armor of God, that you may take a stand against the plans of the devil”), but with a notable substitution: instead of “of the heck,” he said, “the left.” The meaning is not lost on evangelical audiences, who are familiar with the actual words of the verse.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the 2024 GOP presidential primary will be a competition to choose not only the party’s standard bearer, but also its Christian nationalist battle-commander.

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“Wrapped in the flag and bearing a cross…”

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