In Central and South America —an expanse two times as large as the continental United States—Spain and Portugal tried to build empires. Conquering so vast a continent seems an impossible enterprise. Only people of great ambitions could have the firmness of decision and the mystical push to face such a challenge.

The Spanish had that kind of firmness and mystical push. The Spain that sought political conquest also served as powerful patron of the Christian religion. Consequently, the vast expanse that saw cruelties of conquest and exploitation (which still affect Latin America) also witnessed heroic faith and spiritual zeal (which still cradle the popular piety and culture of these lands).

So this question puzzles us: How could one nation conquer the New World using both faith and violence, without apparent contradiction?

The Crusades Continued

The Crusades against Islam, begun in 1096, marked the first time the people of medieval Europe attempted to act together in a Christian cause. Most of the Crusades ended in defeat, however, and the eastern campaigns were interrupted about the year 1291.

But on the western borders of Christendom the conflict with Islamic power continued for two more centuries. On the Iberian Peninsula—home of modern Spain and Portugal—the battle against Islam had started in the eighth century and continued to the fifteenth century. During eight long centuries of struggle against the Muslims, military tenacity and religious zeal melted together.

This combination of elements—political and religious—rendered possible Spain’s conquest of the Americas. One writer put it this way: “The religious unity became a political program and national unity a religious passion.”

John A. Mackay, in his The Other Spanish Christ, ...

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