Christianity and Conflict in Latin America
National Defense University Washington, D.C.
The Pew Forum co-sponsored a symposium with the National Defense University’s School for National Security Executive Education on “Religion, Conflict and the Global War on Terrorism in Latin America.” A panel entitled “Christianity and Conflict in Latin America” featured Paul Freston, of Calvin College, and Virginia Garrard-Burnett, of University of Texas, Austin, who examined the political mobilization of Christian movements in Latin America, including recent social and political conflicts between evangelical Protestants and traditional Catholics, and the implications for U.S. security policy in the region. The panelists also discussed case studies in Brazil, Mexico and Guatemala.
Other symposium speakers focused on “Islam and the Global War on Terrorism in Latin America” and “Religion, Security and the Future of Latin America.”
Paul Freston, Professor of Sociology and Byker Chair in Christian Perspectives on Political, Social and Economic Thought, Calvin College
Virginia Garrard-Burnett, Senior Lecturer in History and Latin American Studies, University of Texas, Austin
David Spencer, Assistant Professor, Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies
The discussion was part of a joint project on religion and security undertaken by the Pew Forum and National Defense University’s School for National Security Executive Education. Although the event was off-the-record, the speakers agreed to make their remarks available online.
Remarks by Paul Freston:
Thank you very much, David. Good afternoon everybody. We’re starting off this first panel looking at the Christian side of the intersection between U.S.-Latin American relations and changes in Latin American religion. Obviously, the Latin American religious field is interesting to look at not just as a possible staging ground for Islamist groups, but because Latin America, in many senses, is the heartland of the Christian world today. At the same time, it is interesting to note that the BBC has just done a series on how the U.S. “lost” Latin America. So, I think it’s important to understand that Latin American Christianity cannot be understood in terms of North American Christianity – that goes for both Catholicism and Protestantism.
Christianity in the 20th century, of course, has shifted markedly towards the south of the globe and has become a predominantly non-Western religion. Therefore, it’s become much more distant from power and wealth, much more associated with poverty and not necessarily imitative of or dependent on the Christianity of the developed West. So, I would suggest that global Christianity is just as important as global Islam for understanding religion’s impact on politics around the world.
Now if Christianity has grown impressively in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of East Asia, in Latin America it has been significantly transformed and revitalized. Latin America has been one of the main areas of expansion of evangelical Protestant Christianity and is, perhaps, the last bastion of a serious Catholic-Protestant divide with the exception, maybe, of Northern Ireland. Ironically, Latin America has become the heartland of Catholicism at the very time that Catholic hegemony there has been eroded. However, for every two people who leave Catholicism – cease regarding themselves as Catholics – only one becomes Protestant. So, I would suggest that the religious future of Latin America is much more pluralist and not, as some scholars have suggested, Protestant.
The letter of invitation to this event talks of increased Protestant-Catholic social and political conflict. I think one needs to nuance that. Despite fears of a war of religion, which might harm democracy, this war hasn’t in fact happened very much. Guatemala would be the place for it. It has the largest proportion of evangelicals in Latin America. But even there you haven’t really had a war of religion, if only because evangelicals conspicuously lack unity. In Brazil, there have been two types of religious conflict. One is regarding ownership of important media stations – the Globo television network against the Record television network, which one of the new neo-pentecostal churches, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, acquired. And secondly, there has been a conflict between pentecostal churches and the Afro-Brazilian religions. But that conflict has rarely been violent. It has been, if you like, a full-blooded religious dispute between social equals at the grassroots level. There has, of course, been Catholic-Protestant conflict in Chiapas in Mexico, but I’ll leave that to Dr. Garrard-Burnett.
I would suggest that the changes in the religious field of Latin America have had other implications, one of which is pluralization, including the growth of people who consider themselves to have no religion. This implies a painful transition for Latin American states to understanding the new nature of the religious field and how to relate to it. At the same time, there has, in a sense, been a grassroots revitalization of Christianity in various forms – pentecostal, Catholic charismatic, liberation-theology base communities – making Christianity perhaps more rooted in the masses than it ever was when it enjoyed state protection. Catholicism is no longer integral to Latin American identity. There is this clear division there now almost throughout the entire region. The religious field is no longer similar to that of Latin Europe and has become partially more similar to that of the United States.
As far as the Catholic world is concerned, obviously Latin American Catholicism gave the world liberation theology and the base communities. But they have been in decline since the 1980s, both for internal and external reasons – internal and external to the Church. Within Catholicism, now the most vital movement is the Catholic charismatic renewal. And in any case, liberation theology never became hegemonic anywhere in Latin America. In some countries, it never got beyond isolated groups. In others it became more mainstream and retains some influence, but never on the level that it had 25 years ago.
National churches reacted very differently to dictatorships in the ’70s and ’80s and have behaved very variedly under the formal democratic systems which prevail now. The Christian democratic parties, almost without exception, have declined markedly in recent years in Latin America. The official Catholic project now is the New Evangelization, which aims not at a Christian social order through concordats or Christian parties, but at an evangelization of culture through a deep penetration of civil society. But recent analyses are pessimistic about the Catholic Church’s capacity to do that, especially in view of its weakening vitality as a religion of personal salvation.
There are many other Catholic movements involved in politics besides those inspired by liberation theology. The major challenger to Lula in the forthcoming Brazilian presidential elections is a man who is linked to Opus Dei, the very conservative traditionalist Catholic movement, which is also very strong in Peru. The Catholic charismatic movement has also become more and more politically active.
As for Protestantism in Latin America, Latin American Protestant identity was forged strongly in opposition to the dominant Catholicism; and, therefore, the political operationalization of a specifically Protestant identity has been more marked there than in the rest of the world in recent decades. By the turn of the century, Protestantism had become the religion of perhaps 12 percent of all Latin Americans. In Brazil it’s over 15 percent; in Guatemala it’s over 20 percent. In countries like Uruguay, it’s probably still below 5 percent. Protestantism, and especially pentecostalism, is disproportionately associated with the poor, the less educated and the darker skinned. Membership is predominantly female. And although it doesn’t have the classic Protestant work ethic and operates in a very different economic context, there is significant evidence for individual economic improvement as disorganized lives become more organized and the capacity to survive increases markedly.
Political involvement by Protestants is not recent. But since the 1980s, it has increased tremendously, especially with the involvement of Pentecostal denominations. Two Protestant presidents have governed Guatemala, and in some countries, such as Brazil, there have been large Protestant congressional caucuses. Over 20 political parties of Protestant inspiration have been founded in various countries, although none has achieved much success. Much Protestant political activity has been very conservative and/or oriented toward institutional aggrandizement, leading in some countries to a significant worsening of the public image of Protestants as a whole.
I think one can definitely say that Latin American Protestant politics is a phenomenon of democratization. Whether it’s also a phenomenon for democratization – deepening it – is an important query. But it has certainly played a role in incorporating grassroots sectors into the democratic process and has provided a significant route for individuals of lower social origin to achieve political visibility.
The political implications of Protestantism, especially pentecostalism, have been appraised in very varied ways by scholars. On the one side are authors who emphasize the repressive and corporatist nature of the pentecostal churches and see them as reproducing traditional authoritarian political culture and social control. Other authors stress Protestantism’s democratizing potential, talking of a vibrant civil society. They contend that Protestant churches offer a free social space, an experience of solidarity and a new personal identity, as well as responsible participation in the community and, for some, the development of leadership gifts.
On the whole, I would say that evangelicals have been less useful in democratic transitions than in phases of democratic consolidation or democratic deepening. But on the whole, they have been kept within the democratic track. There are very few who have nondemocratic theocratic projects. In any case, they’re so divided that they could never implement any such project. Also, the more they grow, the more they penetrate the mainstream and become more similar to the general society.
In some countries, notably in Brazil, in the last 15 years there has been a marked shift towards the left – or at least towards the center-left – on the part of the evangelicals. This, I think, has many causes. Partly it’s due to a change in the perception of where the Catholic Church is located politically. It’s also, in some cases, of course, due to the class aspect, especially of pentecostalism. There has been a growing evangelical social discourse with an emphasis on justice, partly resulting from an increased participation in social projects. Also, there have been many left-wing politicians who have converted to evangelical churches and have continued their left-wing militancy in their new religious identity.
And finally, of course, the new left in Latin America is usually extremely nationalist, and evangelicals are often very nationalist too, which is not surprising when you consider that they’re usually very nationalist in this country also. Therefore, there is often considerable doubt about the idea of a free-trade area of the Americas. There has been considerable pentecostal support for Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Evangelicals do not seem to be very worried about Evo Morales in Bolivia, at least not so far. Another factor is evangelical penetration of the indigenous communities in the Andes and Central America, and that also has taken a strong political connotation in many areas.
Finally, I would say that at the level of civil society, very often the contribution of evangelicals has a rather different feel to it from what one might perceive looking at the parliamentary and party level. For example, it’s often said that in the favelas, the shantytowns in Brazil, there are really only two things that function. The state is virtually absent. The Catholic Church is virtually absent. There are really only two things that function. One is organized crime. The other is the evangelical churches. And there’s a very interesting relationship there, in the sense that evangelicals are having an impact on communities that are very crime-ridden. In as much as such ungoverned areas are, of course, vulnerable to all sorts of illicit activities, there is a very interesting evangelical presence, which is based very much on the idea of exorcising the demons of violence and what have you, and also preaching in the prisons.
So, I would say that clearly Latin American evangelical Protestantism is not tributary to U.S. evangelicalism. It’s not an extension of American soft power, as some authors have portrayed it. There were no Venezuelan evangelical terrorists willing to assassinate Hugo Chavez at the behest of Pat Robertson, for example. What about violence on the other side?
Well, I would say that in Latin American evangelicalism, there is some marginal use of violence. For example, there was a lot of evangelical involvement in the peasant patrols in the highlands of Peru against the Shining Path guerillas. There have been some evangelicals, it seems, involved in the Zapatista guerilla movement in Mexico. And, of course, the Ríos Montt presidency in Guatemala in the 1980s was extremely violent. At the same time, there is considerable anti-Americanism in sectors of Latin American evangelicalism. I would say anti-Americanism of the policy type, if you like, rather than of the cultural or geopolitical type – that is, an anti-Americanism driven by disagreement with specific policies.
But I would also say that there is – so far, anyway – no conflation of violence and anti-Americanism perceptible in the Latin American evangelical world. There is, as I said, considerable policy-driven anti-Americanism, especially with regard to the war in Iraq and, to some extent, the so-called war on terror in general. In fact, there would seem to be something of a geopolitical chasm between Latin American evangelicals and U.S. evangelicals. It was interesting to observe at the time when the Iraq war was just starting how all Brazilian evangelicals, however conservative they were in many other things and however wild and woolly some of their churches were, were all to a man totally against the Iraq war. So, I would say that Brazilian evangelicals at least – and I think in most of Latin America this is true – are closer, perhaps, to U.S. mainline church positions than to U.S. evangelical positions on this.
And just a final comment. It’s important to note, of course, that the vast majority of illegal immigrants in the United States are Latin American Christians, either Catholic or Protestant. About 30 percent of them either are already or become Protestants. I have done studies on Brazilian evangelicals in this country, the majority of whom are illegal. It’s interesting to see how these churches develop what you might call a theology of the undocumented based on theological, historical and pragmatic arguments.
Remarks by Ms. Garrard-Burnett:
I wanted to thank you for inviting us here today. It’s an exciting opportunity to be able to present before an audience like this, which is very different from my usual audience of 20-year-olds at the University of Texas. When people begin to ask questions about religion and security in Latin America, what almost certainly comes to mind is liberation theology. Liberation theology is, of course, a Catholic movement, which provided a fundamental reinterpretation of the place of the poor in the kingdom of God. It made political activism a godly virtue. Liberation theology played a clear and arguably very decisive role in the wars of liberation in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s. And it was, without doubt, an important mobilizing force for thousands of campesinos, many of whom became part of the revolutionary movements.
Liberation theology, of course, has declined significantly in its importance as a political and social movement with the defeat – at least perhaps a temporary defeat – of the left in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s. It is still present in Latin America, but without much of its political content. Liberation theology today tends to be very much focused on family and social issues, concerning itself with things like alcoholism, domestic abuse, poverty alleviation and things of that nature.
Catholicism in Latin America today presents, as Dr. Freston said, a much more conservative face. Many of the cardinals who were named by Pope John Paul II are members of the Legion of Mary and of Opus Dei and other very conservative movements within the Catholic Church. Grassroots Catholics within Latin America tend to be much more likely than before to be involved in nonpolitical church movements, such as the charismatic movement. This, I think, is indicative of two long-term trends. One is the “effective” repression of the radical church by Central American governments in the ’70s and ’80s. The other is the hard rightward push from the Vatican, beginning with the papacy of John Paul II and continuing presumably on through the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI.
Had we had this conversation 20 years ago, we would have talked at a time when pluralism in Latin America was in its very early stages. Having said that, Latin America is still overwhelmingly Catholic. That being said, there has indeed been a very dramatic increase in religious pluralism over the past 20 years. Specifically, there has been a very rapid rise in Protestant conversions to the extent that some countries in Latin America, such as Brazil, Guatemala, Chile and Honduras, have very large Protestant minorities. Looking at the chart you can see Guatemala has about a third – well, close to a third – El Salvador, 25 percent. Belize is a British colony so it’s not surprising it’s 27 percent Protestant; Honduras is 22 percent. Notice – we’ll talk about his later – Mexico is only 6 percent Protestant. And the figures are more symbolic than actually correct, but they give you a sense. In the case of Central America, much of this conversion took place during the 1970s and 1980s during the era of the civil wars. I don’t want to put too fine a point on this or overstate it, but Protestant conversion was to some extent during this period a reaction to the violence and upheaval of the era.
There is a continuing perception, or series of perceptions and misconceptions, that certain Protestant values are very tangible things – almost tangible currencies – within Central America. That is, Protestants tend to represent in people’s minds anticorruption, honesty, trustworthiness and clean living. They are thought of as being good citizens and very good with money. There are a number of studies that show that many of these attributes, particularly in the matter of affluence or relative affluence, are not quantifiably true but this perception still continues to inform people’s thinking about Protestantism.
This brings us to the matter of religious conflict. As Dr. Freston has indicated, there is an obvious venue for conflict between radical Catholics and conservative Protestants or simply Catholics and Protestants within Latin America. I think what’s really remarkable is how rarely that contestation has turned violent. Having said that, I’m going to talk about a case that is violent, and that is the case study in the Mexican state of Chiapas.
Mexico, as my previous chart indicated, is one of the least Protestant countries in Latin America. But there are indeed pockets of Protestantism in parts of the country, and one of those pockets is the state of Chiapas in the far south of Mexico. Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, violence did break out in highland indigenous villages between Mayan traditionalist Catholics and new Protestant converts. Violence has broken out on a fairly large scale, particularly in this cluster of towns in Chiapas.
Violence broke out largely over the Protestants’ failure to pay what Sheldon Annis has called a Catholic cultural tax; that is, their failure to participate in fiestas and to contribute to community funds and to engage in communal farming, and things like that. The competition in these villages ramped up into outright armed violence in the late 1980s and early 1990s and resulted in the expulsion of large numbers of Protestants from their village, who then moved on to the slums outside of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, which is the capital of Chiapas. The Zapatista movement, which started in 1994, is one of the first and only post-Soviet, post-modern guerilla movements to emerge in Latin America. Many of the original Zapatistas were and still are disaffected Protestants.
In December of 1997, there was an extremely unfortunate event in the highland village of Acteal, where 45 men, women and children who were Catholic pacifists were murdered while saying mass. Now, who committed the murders? It’s not all together clear. It has been attributed variously to the PRI, the governing party in Mexico at that time, to paramilitary groups and – I think most implausibly – to hostile indigenous Protestants. We’ll say that this charge is highly uncharacteristic of Protestants in general, but it does give you a sense of the highly charged religious atmosphere in Chiapas. A couple of years ago, Chiapas elected a Protestant governor, and since he has been in power – Pedro Salazar – there has been at least a truce between Catholics and Protestants. This truce remains to this day and will probably remain at least as long as Salazar remains governor. He has about two more years.
I wanted to mention, too, something that is somewhat unique to Chiapas. There is a theory – I don’t think either of us particularly subscribe to it – it’s called the religious marketplace theory. The idea behind the theory is that people pick and choose their religion. They see it as a commodity and they make religious choices just like you would choose a brand of toothpaste in a grocery store. Although I think the theory itself may demand a little further scrutiny, it does seem clear that once people leave the Catholic Church, which for them is an enormous rupture culturally and socially and in every other way, they are much more likely to engage in what sociologist Henri Gooren has called “conversion careers.” That is, they’re much more likely to change their religions to suit changing life circumstances. In the case of Chiapas, this has also meant conversion to Islam, particularly among the expulsados, the people who have been evicted from their villages.
It’s not at all clear to me what this means. This is not a large-scale movement, but it has, in fact, happened. I think it’s safe to say that if they are not more doctrinaire Muslims than they were Christians, maybe, in a global sense, it really doesn’t mean anything at all. There have been efforts by a group of Spanish, that is, Iberian, imams to open a madrassa in San Cristóbal De Las Casas in order to bring the Islamic converts closer into orthodox Islam and to internationalize Islam. It’s not at all clear where this is going and, again, I think it’s doubtful that it’s a significant trend. But I think it certainly bears watching, particularly in a place where you have a very liminal character such as in Chiapas.
The second case study that I would like to discuss today is Guatemala and the Ríos Montt regime. We’ve had a little prelude to this. Ríos Montt was a Guatemalan general who served between 1982 and 1983 as head of state. Guatemala is arguably the most Protestant country in Latin America. Perhaps as many as a third of the people in the country are Protestants. The vast majority of that conversion has taken place since 1976 when a catastrophic earthquake hit the country and many missionaries came into the country in its wake. But it’s also the point – ’76 – when the guerilla war really escalated dramatically.
When Ríos Montt took power in 1982, he oversaw the scorched earth campaign in the largely indigenous highlands that virtually eliminated the URNG guerillas. It also destroyed, along with it, 450 indigenous villages and may have killed as many as 100,000 people in 18 months. Ríos Montt was also a born-again Christian. I don’t know how many of you read Spanish, but the headline here says, “God put me here, says President Ríos Montt.” He appeared on TV every Sunday night offering what were called Sunday sermons, in which he very freely mixed evangelical language and anti-communist rhetoric. He demanded honesty and accountability from his government.
This is actually a public service ad during the Ríos Montt era: “This government has committed to change. I don’t lie.” This is the pledge that every public servant was required to take: “I don’t lie. I don’t steal. I don’t abuse.” Three of Ríos Montt’s singular points that he made again and again and again in his discourses – his Sunday sermons – were pledges against corruption, in favor of law and order and respect for the proper authority. Ríos Montt remained a very powerful political figure in Guatemala up until very recently. His idea of there being these evangelical values, these Protestant values, is still an idea that has strong salience in Guatemala and has a tremendous amount of political capital.
The issue of evangelicals has been brought to bear in recent times by a series of events in the community of San Lucas Toliman. I took this map off, of all things, an evangelical website. This is a Mayan village on the highland lake of Lake Atitlan. In this village, something new has emerged within the last year or so, and it is that a group of Christian leaders in the town decided to initiate a policy of what they actually called, in so many words, social cleansing.
The project of social cleansing probably began around 2004 or 2005. The village itself was damaged very badly as a result of Hurricane Stan in October 2005, which is what this picture of devastation is about. The Hurricane certainly has exacerbated the policy of social cleansing. There are a group of evangelical vigilantes who have named themselves the moral arbiters of this Mayan village. They have closed down bars and have exacted sin taxes from businesses they consider to be sinful. They send Bible verses and threats out to sinners in the community, and in a small village, you know who the sinners are, right? Beginning in July 2005, they began to go onto city buses with lists of people who they considered to be sinful and needed to be called down for it. Actually, that was a very common practice in Guatemala in the ’80s when the death squads would get on buses and take people off. But they get on buses and pull people off and either rough them up or in a couple of cases kill them. In July of 2005, there was a case where a group of vigilantes got on a bus and pulled off a serial adulterer and executed him in full view of everybody on the bus. Seven of the vigilantes of this group were arrested in February of 2006, but there are many more of them.
Now, I should say that the events in San Lucas Toliman are part of a larger vigilante movement in Guatemala that has nothing particularly to do with religion. In 2005, there were 3,000 people killed in Guatemala by vigilantes. Vigilantes in Guatemala enjoy the support of the general population, who believe that they enforce order in the face of what would otherwise be a chaotic and lawless society. What I think distinguishes the San Lucas Toliman case, of course, is the religious element, which I think may actually be part of an emerging trend. This is not, in fact, the first incidence of Christian vigilantism in Guatemala. A couple years ago in the village of Almolonga, which is also a Mayan village, a group of men from a church killed two teenage boys who they accused of having brought un-Christian values into the town. I think, specifically for the Guatemala case, it raises the possibility that people may want to see a return to the Ríos Montt-era law-and-order mentality through the enforcement of evangelical values, but without the return to the politics and the excesses of Ríos Montt himself.
In terms of security, the case of San Lucas Toliman, I think, is particularly concerning for two reasons. Number one – vigilantism of any kind indicates the absence of the rule of law. The soaring incidences of lynchings in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America, especially in El Salvador – and I will say, I’ve heard unsubstantiated cases of Christian vigilantism in El Salvador as well – points to the dangerous disintegration of civil society that had built up in these areas since the region’s civil wars came to an end. And certainly, this sort of disintegration provides an opening for all kinds of self-appointed enforcers and power struggles in the absence of a functional rule of law.
Second, the presence of self-appointed moral enforcers suggests that the Talibanization of fundamentalist Christianity, at least in this one corner of Latin America, may be starting. While this presents a very different kind of security issue than does fundamentalist Islam, radicalized Christian fundamentalism is very much like radical Islam in the sense that it seeks to repudiate the ills of modern society that people associate with a post-modern West: excessive consumerism, rampant sexuality, disregard for authority, family disintegration and the like. Down the line, this would seem to have very serious implications for how people feel about the kinds of cultures and values that they associate very strongly with the United States, rightly or wrongly. It is too early to say whether this is a trend or not, but it most certainly bears watching. Thank you.