K-12 Teaching Resources

Teaching About...Religion in Latin America

Newsletter of the Outreach Services of the African, Asian, Latin American, and Russian Studies Centers
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 910 S. Fifth Street, Champaign, Illinois 61820
Spring 2002, No. 86

Re-Printed Article by Ronnie Kahn

Religion and Politics in Latin America

Due to Spanish and Portuguese colonization initiated in the 1500s, Latin America and Latin Americans have been viewed as under the control of the Catholic Church. Fully 80% of all Latin Americans identify themselves as Catholic. While the Catholic Church is an important religious and political force within Latin America, it can no longer be seen as a monolithic force. Rather, the impact of the Church and its priests has been split between a more orthodox religious and political doctrine which supports the maintenance of social and political status quo, and a doctrine based on the philosophy of liberation theology, a blending of Catholic doctrine and social activism which seeks to redress the vast social inequality typical of most Latin American societies. Furthermore, the religious portrait of Latin America is further clouded, complicated by the continuing presence of syncretic religions such as indigenous religious practices or practices combining elements of Catholicism and African religions. Furthermore, in the past several decades, Protestant evangelism has made great strides in converting Latin American peoples away from Catholicism. The public and private faces of religion in Latin American Catholicism are complicated indeed.

Latin American Catholicism

Catholicism was introduced as part of the processes of conquest and colonization by both the Spanish and the Portuguese. As part of the response to the European Protestant Reformation, the Spanish crown in particular was closely aligned with the Papacy. Through the centuries, and even following the wars of independence, the Catholic Church maintained its monolithic presence throughout most of Latin America. With the overthrow of the colonial governments the Church maintained its relationship with the now-Creole elite at the expense of its relationship with other indigenous, mestizo and African sectors of the population. It closely aligned itself with the Conservative rather than Liberal parties in many countries which resulted in the severance of Church-state relationships in Ecuador, Brazil, Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Chile and Mexico. By the 1930s the Church found itself in the position of losing influence with the Latin American populace. Maintaining its links to the Conservative party and land-owning elites cost it support among the popular classes and it found itself in the embarrassing position of ruling over a populace which declared itself predominantly Catholic but with little adherence to the Catholic doctrine or participation in such central public rights as the Sunday Mass or central sacraments. The ratio of priests to practitioners dwindled to a dangerous low. Seeking to rectify this situation, the Church shifted its political stance. Through a program called Catholic Action, the Church sought to recruit lay members to extend its influence to grassroots groups such as peasant, proletariat and student organization. Church policy similarly shifted to include statements relating to social issues and many prominent clergy members aligned themselves with the newly emerging Christian Democrat party which sought to address social inequality and, at the same time, stave off the Communist Cold War threat.

The Post Vatican II Church

When Pope John XXIII convened the Vatican II conference in the 1960s, he was responding to global social unrest and criticism within the Catholic Church. He oversaw a massive redefinition of the form and roles of the Church, seeking to bring the alienated populace once again into the Church's fold. The rigid hierarchy of Church authority was altered to include a looser horizontal structure wherein local clergy and churches could participate in decisions. Rituals were redefined to become more meaningful and participatory for the laity. The doctrine of eternal salvation was augmented with positions concerning social justice, freedom, and human rights. The impact of Vatican II was probably greater in Latin America than any other region; the Conference itself spurred the formation of a regional conference in Medellín, Colombia where the doctrine of liberation theology was articulated. Drawing from the experience of radical priests such as Camilo Torres, a Colombian priest who joined the National Liberation Army and was killed in a shoot-out with the Army, some bishops advocated a stance even more radical than that articulated by Pope John XXIII. Followers of Liberation Theology explicitly expressed “preferential treatment for the poor,” social injustice was declared a sin, and in the case of some adherents, declared guerrilla warfare and resistance a just and necessary response to institutionalized violence. The proclamation of liberal theology was by no means embraced by all bishops at the Medellín conference; rather, it created a rift in the Catholic Church which profoundly influenced the Latin American Church in the modern era. In some countries, such as Chile, Brazil and Central American republics, the Church aligned itself with the radical stance. In Argentina, Colombia and Ecuador, however, the Church continued a somewhat uneasy alliance with the ruling elite. In countries where the impact of liberation theology was profound, Catholics were organized into a series of Base Christian Communities in which lay people were encouraged to study the Bible and seek ways to use scripture to address questions of social injustice. Base Christian Communities became a crucible for the formation of opposition leadership to state repression. Because of the shortage of priests within Latin America, Base Christian Communities also resulted in a democratization of Catholic leadership with lay people, both men and women, acting as lay catechists and discussion leaders. The leap from lay catechists to grassroots leader was a common. The impact of Base Christian Communities was perhaps most strongly felt in Brazil where participants in these communities led the protests which eventually resulted in the overthrow of the military government in 1985 and formed a core of the Workers Party which continues to threaten the Brazilian governmental structure.

Yet, liberation theology and Base Christian Communities was met with resistance both on the part of more conservative bishops and repressive governments. Through propaganda campaigns, priests and leaders dedicated to liberation theology were equated with radical guerrilla leaders. In some countries, open warfare was literally declared on “radical” priests. This is particularly the case with El Salvador which underwent a bloody civil war through the 1970s and 80s. Dozens of clerics were killed including four nuns from North American and six Jesuits at the Catholic University of Central America. Most shocking, of course, was the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero while he was saying Mass. While leftist critics maintained that the government through the Army was responsible for these killings, the government maintained that the killings were linked to right-wing fanatical death squads over whom the government had no control. In addition to the dozens of clerics assassinated, hundreds of lay preachers were slaughtered.

As the violent 1980s drew to a close, brokered settlements between governments and guerrillas became common (though settlements to the civil wars particularly in Central America have not been easily achieved). However, this has not resolved the rift between a more conservative Church versus a Church which promotes social justice. Given the more conservative climate in the Catholic Church as a whole under the papacy of Pope John Paul II, the conservative factions in Latin America have the benefit of international support. Prominent priest who continue to work for human rights still receive threats if not from the government from conservative sectors of the society. For example, Samuel Ruiz, archbishop of Chiapas, Mexico, has been serving as mediator between government officials and members of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation to resolve the uprising begun in 1994. Since he assumed the role of mediator, essentially protecting the indigenous and mestizo peasants who rose up against governmental and international economic policies, he has been nicknamed the Red Bishop and frequently receives death threats.

The Growing Effect of Evangelism

While the organized Church, particularly a more conservative stance, has had to deal with the effects of liberation theology and Base Christian Communities, a second wave of influence has also served to seriously threaten formal Catholicism. In the 1960s, in tandem with the rise of liberation theology, Protestant churches were perceived a filling the void for sectors of the population alienated (or never included) within the sphere of the Catholic Church. Some missionaries represented well-known Protestant sects such as the Assembly of God, the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches. Missionary groups first made inroads to indigenous populations in marginal areas of Latin America, for example, in the Amazon Basin. The Summer Institute of Linguistics founded by Kenneth Pike in the 1950s combined religious proselytization with scholarly endeavor. It was part of the Church's mission to translate the Bible into every known language. Scholar/missionaries were therefore sent out to learn the over 500 indigenous languages in Latin America with the express purpose of converting indigenous peoples. Other Protestant groups served as activists, addressing such issues as infant mortality or lack of health services in more remote areas of Latin America.

Yet, by the late 1960s, more traditional organized Protestant sects were giving way to evangelistic or Pentecostal religious sects which were much less commonly affiliated with a hierarchical or centralized church. Pentecostals or evangelists derive their religious forms from Biblical accounts of Pentecost, a celebration following the Ascension in which Jesus's disciples were visited by the Holy Spirit and given the gift of speaking in tongues in order to facilitate preaching or ‘evangelizing' to non-Christian populations. Evangelical churches have swept through Latin America; by 1990 40 million inhabitants identified themselves with evangelism. These churches are rarely aligned with a formal religious structure, but rather build their following through a single charismatic individual whether from Latin America or the United States. Evangelistic sects tend to be highly localized with little centralization or hierarchicalization linking these communities.

Evangelism in Latin America tends to define itself on opposition to the Catholic Church and practicing Catholics. Many aspects of Catholicism are singled out for criticism. Evangelists, for example, point to excesses of Catholic ritual, both public and private. The amount of money spent on rituals and the excessive drinking and eating are heavily criticized. Ritual behavior such as completing pilgrimages on one's knees is seen as foolish rather than as an expression of awe. Furthermore, Catholicism has been severely criticized for its inherently pantheistic rather than a monotheistic approach to religion. Latin American Catholicism (and indeed all Catholicism ) is populated by a series of deities: primary among them is Jesus Christ, but the universe abounds with such sanctified spirits as the Virgin Mary and hundreds of saints. Evangelism, in response, eschews most representations of the Virgin Mary and the saint, focusing nearly exclusively on Jesus Christ and his presence in the world and their lives.

The spread of evangelism then heralds more than just a change in religious practices because both Catholicism and evangelism structure more of life than public church rituals. Each set of religious beliefs brings ramifications throughout economic and political structures at the community and state levels. Catholicism has long been a structuring element, not only within the family and the household but within the community as well. Catholic celebrations such as the feast of patron saints provide structure to the public life of a community. More importantly, the Catholic Church has had a tremendous influence on domestic policies. For example, divorce is still not allowed in Chile. Abortions are difficult to obtain in most Latin American countries. The papacy has severely criticized those countries which allow and/or support the distribution of birth control. Many countries, however, have challenged the Church's teachings in domestic practice and have set up campaigns to extend birth control to the working class and poor sectors of the population. The Church, particularly those adherents to liberation theology have politicized the church's teachings, allowing Catholic priests and lay teachers to use the pulpit to condemn repressive governments or the military.

Evangelists similarly exhibit ties to economic and political structures. Many evangelist preachers have approached a community with a single message which promotes Protestant values of individualism over corporatism, sobriety over the public drunkenness often associated with Catholic rituals. Evangelists often seek to instill the notion of the Protestant work ethic, a work ethic which focuses on individual rather than communal labor and land. What is viewed as the excesses of the Catholic Church are often ridiculed. More seriously, the introduction of evangelism can literally split communities and families into two. Rural communities tend to split along religious rather than kin lines once evangelism has been introduced into a region. In the Maya community of San Juan Chamula in Chiapas, Mexico, the town council decided to expel evangelical members of the community and deny them access to communally held land unless the reconverted to Catholicism.

As evangelism preaches sobriety and individualism to the masses, they also preach an essentially conservative political message in response to what they deem the excessive radicalism of liberation theology. For the most part, evangelical communities did not lend their support to guerrilla fronts fighting Central American governments in the 1980s, but rather supported or tolerated the military. This would have disastrous consequences for some communities. In 1980, the small village of El Mazote in El Salvador elected not to abandon their town despite rumors that the Army was launching a major offensive against the guerrilla forces who controlled the region. Most of the 700 inhabitants of El Mazote were practicing evangelists and, therefore, were convinced that the Army would not bother them since they in no way supported the guerrilla movement. However, the residents of El Mazote calculated wrong. The Army invaded their town late one evening; twenty-four hours later nearly all 700 inhabitants were massacred.

The political structure of the evangelical movement has hemispheric overtone. Much of the support for the spread of evangelism throughout Latin American, especially since the 1980s, comes from sects in the U.S. which form the core of the country's religious right. Inroads have been made into Latin America through the training of local preachers and the use of media. Evangelism' s appeal lies often in the urban sectors of society with people who have been separated from a communal support base. In the countryside, people are attracted to Evangelism because of the promise of increased economic opportunities through the instillation of the Protestant work ethic. Evangelism has had a profound impact on the politics of Latin America, and has threatened the traditional ruling elite. Evangelical leaders, such as General Ríos Montt of Guatemala who seized power in 1982, have been able to attract a good deal of foreign capital to Guatemala through the support his usurpation of power drew from conservative churches and sects in the U.S. south. Although the majority of evangelical churches do not belong to strictly hierarchical organizations, they have served as links to a larger hemispheric system in new ways which may threaten the traditional elite systems for years to come.

Local Cults

Social scientists and others who study religion have long noted that while 80% of Latin Americans proclaim themselves to be Catholic, the rate of participation in the formal religious structures is much lower than that. The number of Catholics who attend weekly Mass, for example, is probably no more than 25%. However, Catholicism shapes daily lives in profound ways and Catholic doctrine and traditions serve as templates to private rituals and other aspects of daily life.

Evangelists and popular catholic cults can threaten the integrity of a community. For example, communities now break along religious rather than kin lines as religious conversion generally demands a alteration of lifeways beyond public religious participation. Lifestyle changes vary from cult to cult and sect to sect. Often these lifestyle changes are defined in direct criticism of Catholic practices. For example, many evangelistic sects demand literal or near-literal interpretation of the Bible. Because so few saints are mentioned directly by name in the Bible, Catholicism is cWednesday, January 11, 2006 1:19that is common with most Catholics. Rather, evangelical groups focus almost exclusively on the worship of Jesus Christ. The often excessive drinking and dancing associated with Catholic rituals is also eschewed, not silently but with much commentary concerning the behavior of Catholics. Though the houses of evangelists may be adorned with simple drawings depicting events from the Bible. Events drawn for the lives of the saints, however, are not seen as suitable for display but rather as evidence of Catholic excess and propaganda; altars which serve as a focal point in the houses of many Catholics are not utilized by Evangelical groups.

Some cults are formed not so much around an organized religious sect, but rather through one or a few person's interpretation of religious scripture. In Michoacan, Mexico, there is a growing community which is said to represent true Catholicism. The impetus for building a church and then a town came from a miraculous apparition to an elderly woman as she was returning from a day's labor in the fields. The Virgin Mary appeared to her and decried the excesses that had attached themselves to Mexican Catholicism. The Virgin asked the elderly woman to aid in bringing her message to others and to build a church in the spot where she appeared. If the church were built and the faithful came to live in the community, the Virgin would continue to appear to the faithful on a more or less monthly basis. The old woman told her tale to a (very conservative) priest who embraced the woman's story thereby giving it a validity she had previously lacked. He declared that a church would be built on the spot and that a community of faithful would build a community along the true principles of Catholicism as intended by Jesus Christ. The priest left his parish assignment in a larger community to lead the small congregation. He instituted a number of reforms which included abstinence from drinking, separation of the sexes within the church, a strict dress code, especially for women which included wearing a dress or a skirt and no make-up at all times, and a head covering while in the church. Even visitors to the community (who are made to feel very welcome) are made to adhere to these rules. Within the church and its grounds, a strict separation of the sexes occurs and is practiced to the point that when traditional dances occur men dress as women in order to perform. The community attracts a steady stream of converts who choose to settle there; the majority of converts appear to arrive from the megacities of Mexico, such as Mexico City and Guadalajara, victims of the hyper-urbanization of previous generations who found little support within the city. There is both severe criticism and support for this community among local individuals. Peasants complain that the community has moved into occupy contested ejido or communally owned land. They further suggest that those members who work outside the community are willing to work for substantially lower pay than the unionized workers who perform migrant and seasonal labor particularly as related to the sugar cane industry.

Web Resources Compiled by the Wabash Center

African Religions and Their Derivatives
This site provides a brief introduction to the religions of Africa, along with a collection of links to further Internet resources. Main headings: 1. Traditional Religions in Africa; 2. Overviews of Traditional Religion; 3. Culture-Specific Traditions; 4. The Diasporan Umbrella -- Ifa / Orisha; 5. Cuba -- Santeria / Lukumi; 6. Brazil -- Candomble / Umbanda; 7. Pan-American -- Kongo / Palo Mayombe; 8. Haiti -- Vodou (Vodun, Voodoo); 9. Biblical (Christian) Rastafarianism.

Global Connections: Latin America and the Caribbean
This site provides information about Methodism in Latin America. Maintained by the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church.

Mission Churches of the Sonoran Desert
Photographs of churches in northern Mexico and southern Arizona.

This site offers information on Santeria, a religion of African origin found in certain parts of Latin America.

Religion in Latin America
"This site provides information, research, discussion, and analysis of religion in Latin America. The site emphasizes history of Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, Evangelical, indigenous, and Afro-Latin American religions. Sources for religion and politics are treated in detail. References for theology of liberation and other Latin American theologies are given. Key documents and statistics about the Catholic Church are provided at the site." Maintained by Edward Cleary at Providence College.

Nan Volinsky also recommends the religion link of the Latin American Network of Information Center at the University of Texas. This page offers a large number of country, regional, and international resources that deal with religion and theology in Latin America and the Caribbean