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Is Latin America Turning Protestant? The Politics of Evangelical Growth by David Stoll
University of California Press, 424 pages, $24.95

Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America by David Martin
Basil Blackwell, 352 pages, $32.95

On the morning of March 23, 1982, a group of young Guatemalan army officers brought a retired army general, Efrain Rios Montt, to power in a coup d’etat. Rios Montt, an evangelical Protestant and member of the Word Church, was president of a Catholic country in Catholic Latin America. The U.S. media sat up and took notice. More recently, another election in Guatemala as well as elections in Colombia and Peru have again brought Latin American Protestants into the media limelight. In the latter country, massive evangelical participation in Cambio 90 (“Change 90”) fueled the upset victory of Alberto Fujimori (a practicing Catholic) as President. The gains for the evangelicals included the second vice president, fourteen members of the lower house of parliament, and four senators.

Protestantism—mostly of the Pentecostal and conservative evangelical variety—has expanded in Latin America since the 1960s to an estimated 10 percent of the population. This is a change of enormous magnitude for Latin America, but because of their as yet minor political role, Protestants south of the Rio Grande have received little publicity in this country. The vanguard of religious change is assumed to reside with the “liberation” struggle, led by the radical wing of the Catholic Church. The import of the Protestant movement is assessed positively or negatively to the degree that it is seen either to further or hinder the liberation agenda. In this light, it is generally characterized as a retrograde movement of minor consequence.

In Latin America, however, the Protestant expansion has gained the attention of the Catholic hierarchy, the liberation theologians, and the secular left. For these three parties, the phenomenal success of the Pentecostals and evangelicals with the poor has raised especially vexing questions. Although the questions for each are different, all have, in various ways and at various times, posited a similar theory to explain the Protestant attraction and organizational achievement.

The “invasion of the sects” theory begins with the premise that evangelical growth is not a genuinely popular movement but rather the result of external agents, i.e.. North American missionaries and money. Many go further and suggest that the U.S. government is actually the source of the funds, using evangelicals to advance its political interests. A 1984 pastoral letter on ecumenism by the bishops of Panama, for example, cites an article in Vida Nueva that attributes to Nelson Rockefeller the view that “it was very useful for United States policy to strengthen conservative sects” since the Catholic Church had ceased to be a trustworthy ally and guarantor of social stability (needless to say, the 1969 Rockefeller Commission report cited recommended no such policy). Even a 1986 Vatican report on “Sects or New Religious Movements: Pastoral Challenge,” in its discussion of the conditions that mediate the rise of new religious movements. includes among the significant elements powerful “external economic and political factors.” One commentator has suggested that this reference, not otherwise elaborated on in the document, can be read as an “oblique nod to the conviction in some Latin American church circles that the spread of Pentecostal and conservative evangelical churches in that area is a covert extension of American foreign policy.”

David Stoll, in Is Latin America Turning Protestant?, argues that while such explanations are “inadequate,” the fears they reflect are “well-founded.” The burden of his book is to demonstrate that Protestantism in Latin America does not have “predictable political implications,” that it is a “generator of social change whose direction is not predestined.” In a situation of continuing economic deterioration, Stoll believes, the evangelicals might be forced to broaden out from questions of personal morality to questions of social justice—a process already to be discerned in some evangelical circles. Hence it is just possible that a rapprochement might come to pass between the Pentecostals/evangelicals and their arch-competitors, the theologians of liberation. The clear and present danger to this desired evangelical evolution is, according to Stoll, the U. S. religious right with its propensity for confusing Christianity with American empire.

One is not quite sure what to make of a book whose goals are (1) to soothe those alarmed by evangelical growth by showing that its political impact is open-ended, while (2) dramatizing for Latin American evangelicals the danger of being yoked to the militaristic U.S. religious right. It is unlikely that either the evangelicals or those alarmed by them will appreciate the favor. The evangelicals themselves will be understandably slow to take guidance from a self-described (in the Christian Century) “secularized middle-class intellectual” who hears in liberation theology what he wants to hear about religion: “It harps on the struggle for social justice, not on hellfire and how to behave.” Seemingly unable to maintain a respectful tone, Stoll, an anthropology student at Stanford, displays a marked lack of sympathy for, and understanding of, the evangelicals’ religious concerns.

For those unnerved by evangelical growth, however, Stoll’s analysis is unlikely to be soothing. Those in the liberation theology camp are told that they have frequently missed the actual needs of the poor and proposed solutions the poor could not live with, that they have generally worked to undermine popular religiosity, and that they are religious professionals with professional interests. As for the Catholic hierarchy, it is told that clerical authority is the key to understanding how the Church has inadvertently been provoking evangelical growth. According to Stoll, “what has flung open Latin America to evangelical Protestantism . . . is the Catholic Church’s inability to decentralize its system of authority.” Finally, both liberationists and Catholics are informed that as “Protestant churches become more Latin American,”—a process very far advanced—“many have become more authoritarian and mystical, with leaders who remain under the spell of ever more reactionary North American mentors.”

In Tongues of Fire, David Martin, a British sociologist of religion, comes at the issue of Protestant growth from a sociological perspective that is far more enlightening. His sociological considerations, centering on the cultural logic of evangelical Protestantism, cast great doubt on Stoll’s proposition of an evangelical rapprochement with the liberation theologians. (The doubt grows as one considers the obvious theological differences between the liberationists and the evangelicals.) Paradoxically, addressing Latin American Protestantization at the cultural level rather than the political may provide the most important clues to the future direction that evangelical political involvement will take.

Martin’s thesis is an application to the Latin American case (with comparisons to other areas as well) of a larger theory developed in his 1978 book, A General Theory of Secularization. Briefly, that theory argues that as modernity advances, religion and politics differentiate into specialized spheres with religion increasingly focused at the cultural level and on the personal concerns of individuals. In Latin America, Martin sees this process underway as the political and religious spheres, hitherto intertwined, are coming apart in the wake of rapid economic and social change.

Catholicism, with its tradition and organic approach to whole societies, resists this differentiation. By contrast, voluntaristic, enthusiastic, and participatory forms of Protestant religion, developed first by the Methodists in England and then in greater measure by their U.S. stepchild the Pentecostals, thrive precisely when religion focuses on the cultural/individual level. The attraction of Pentecostal and evangelical Christianity is most acute in those environments in which the preexisting social system has most thoroughly broken down—for example, in the shanty towns of Latin America’s mega-cities, where Protestant Christianity offers new relationships in voluntary networks of mutual support, and among the most rootless of the poor, the millions of abandoned and mistreated women. Within the Protestant enclaves, elements of the classic Protestant ethic are realized, including family values, discipline, and sobriety.

The Pentecostals and evangelicals are culturally committed (if not always rhetorically so) to the differentiation of religious and political spheres. They seek the freedom that will allow them to practice their faith in peace and preach the Gospel without interference. They are highly suspicious of politics and of church-state arrangements. As Stoll demonstrates, even in the case of Rios Montt, the Word Church had not previously been politically active and the Word elders agonized over the question of Brother Efrain running for president in the 1982 elections (and finally advised against it). The operative view is that men of God should stick to the spiritual realm.

In point of fact, the Pentecostals and evangelicals have little to gain from either the right or the left in Latin America. Because the religious and political spheres remain interwoven in many societies, however, they are drawn into positions they might not otherwise choose. This frequently leads to false assessments of evangelical intentions, particularly the notion that they are bastions of the status quo. Although evangelicals are generally apolitical, they are not necessarily so. In Chile, for example, many evangelicals supported Allende’s party. But it is especially their activity in the realm of culture that shows them not to be conservative stalwarts. Their deep aversion to violence, along with the domestic and religious values they aggressively inculcate and the role they are playing in the breakup of the Catholic Church’s religious hegemony, add up to a revolution that bids to alter radically the face of Latin America.

Martin is rightly cautious about extrapolating from the Protestant impact in the most anomic situations to the whole of society and about predicting a revolution toward modern economic growth fueled by a new Protestant work ethic. Nonetheless, massive social change is underway; whatever its ultimate outcome, Latin America will he transformed.

In Martin’s view, the evangelicals are opting out of the all-encompassing religious-political system that has obtained in Latin America, and they will not participate with those who seek a new comprehensive integration. In many ways, the liberation theologians share with the Pentecostals and evangelicals a Protestant ecclesiology, emphasizing decentralized authority and egalitarian participation. Unlike the Pentecostals/evangelicals, however, the liberationists share with both the Catholic Church and the secular Marxists—with whom they have historically concurred in their social analysis—the pretension to make all-inclusive claims, that is, to make statements about, and issue norms for, all of society. Evangelical Protestantism in Latin America, by contrast, lacks an overarching theory of society. Moreover, the evangelicals’ intense focus on the local church, their fissiparous approach to leadership, the voluntary nature of their association, and their deep aversion to being co-opted by this-worldly concerns all preclude the establishment of a comprehensive Protestant framework.

Given the cultural logic sketched by Martin, what direction might social and political involvement by Pentecostals and evangelicals take in the years ahead? As we have seen, Stoll hedges his bet by emphasizing the open-ended nature of the evangelical proposition. He is surely correct in saying that the direction of Protestant political participation in Latin America is not “predestined.” On the other hand, it may not be as open-ended as he suggests. Since the Protestantism that is so rapidly gaining adherents in Latin America comes by way of the United States, the political objectives of evangelicals in this country might shed some light on the goals that Latin American Protestants will seek in the political sphere in the immediate future.

One U.S. commentator has characterized the organized political involvement of evangelicals and fundamentalists in the United States in recent years as an “aggressive defense.” Greatly concerned by limitations on religious freedom—e.g., the ban on prayer in public schools—and the sense that secular humanists (through the media, courts, public schools, and so on) were imposing on them, and especially on their children, a comprehensive ideology deeply at odds with their Christian faith, these evangelicals and fundamentalists have become active political players. It is true that most of the time these people function in the political process more or less like others of their status and situation. But in seeking to protect their families and faith communities by turning back destructive social and political tides, they adopt an aggressive and more organized role. Still, it is a role that is essentially defensive in nature.

The Pentecostals and evangelicals in Latin America are situated in a very different cultural environment, yet their participation in politics in the years ahead may follow a similar model: behaving politically on most issues like others of their status and situation but aggressively engaged with those issues that a defense of the family and religious community requires. In the Latin American setting, evangelical political activity can be expected to focus on greater religious freedom and social equality This will likely involve—indeed, has already involved—at least two major outcomes.

First, where possible, aggressive steps will be initiated, or opportunities exploited, to eliminate state favoritism toward the Roman Catholic Church. In the recent Peruvian election, Cambio 90 parliament member Guillermo Yoshikawa Torres called fellow evangelicals to exercise their citizen’s rights “with all conviction.” “Discrimination will be eliminated,” he wrote. “Our children will be able to study in the schools of our choice without having to keep our evangelical faith secret . . . Our churches will enjoy exemptions and preferential tax rates, which the law grants now, but only on paper. [Our] pastors will enjoy the same privileges as other clergymen.”

Second, anti-religious efforts by state authorities will be resisted. Although many evangelicals were supportive of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, others suffered at government hands and opposed the Sandinistas. Even among supporters, there was some resistance to Sandinista mass organizations and mandatory military service. Neither of the dual postures toward government taken by evangelicals—obey your earthly rulers; obey God rather than men—is absolute. The adoption of one or the other will tend to be read through the lens of religious freedom. In keeping with their divisions, however, the Nicaraguan experience suggests that evangelicals will not work as a united block even in this limited area. Finally, although Latin American Pentecostals and evangelicals do not cooperate with the Catholic Church, resisting state-initiated intolerance or discrimination is perhaps one area where at least some segments of the churches might make common cause.

In general, the evangelicals will continue to agitate for the religious/political differentiation that is essential to the social space they need to practice their faith and to the breakup of the social system they have opted out of. Their longer-term strategy is to transform society from the bottom up. “Change the individual first,” an evangelical in Ecuador told Stoll. “That will change the structure.”

Given an “aggressive defense” posture by evangelicalism and the role that the Catholic Church plays in Latin America, what the Catholic Church does in the years ahead may play the largest part in shaping the scope and intensity of evangelical political activity That activity is not predestined, but it may be heavily contingent. With the position on religious freedom adopted by the Catholic Church since Vatican II, it is hard to see how the Catholic Church can plausibly claim special status in the face of calls for non-discrimination. Nonetheless, the response (or responses) of the Catholic Church to the Protestant challenge is a truly open-ended proposition.

Joseph E. Davis is a program director for a private foundation in Michigan. His articles on religious freedom issues have appeared in various publications.