Religion in Latin America Research Paper

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Prior to the 1960s, religion in Latin America was an understudied phenomenon. Most observers simply assumed that the Latin American Catholic church was a conservative institution that reinforced an antidemocratic, hierarchical, elite rule in what was generally viewed as a ‘Catholic continent.’ To the extent that the scholars studied the Latin American Catholic church at all, they tended to focus on formal church–state relations. The essay below reviews the major developments in Latin American Catholicism since the 1960s, as well as the rapid growth of Pentecostalism in the region, and notes the central debates among academic observers of Latin American religion.

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1. Catholicism

Several developments in the 1960s signaled to scholars that the conventional wisdom regarding Latin American religion needed reassessment. Vatican II (1962–5) launched far-reaching reforms within the international Catholic church in an effort to reconnect the faithful to the immediate and worldly relevance of Catholic belief. In Latin America, many younger priests participated in new initiatives such as worker-priest movements that resulted in a heightened social and political awareness of poverty. By the 1968 meeting of the Latin American Bishops Conference (CELAM) meeting in Medellin, Colombia, the winds of a new progressivism were blowing through the Latin American Catholic church.

The CELAM meeting in Medellin was a turning point for the Latin American Catholic church. Using the model ‘see, judge, act’ from Vatican II, Latin American bishops called on social scientists to paint a picture of Latin American ‘reality’ in order to better assess how the church might renew its relevance to people’s lives. The overwhelming image of Latin American society offered by Latin American economists, sociologists and political scientists was one of chronic and grinding poverty resulting from Latin America’s economic dependence on the United States, and backed up by military repression and US imperialism.

At the same time, progressive bishops, inspired by the writings of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1970) and liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez (1973), embraced a radical agenda of social justice, political democracy and economic redistributive policies. Liberation Theology, like other historical Christian movements, is based on the Old and New Testament prophesies of the coming of the Kingdom of God, at which time all humanity will live in peace, justice and equality. According to liberationists, traditional Catholicism supports the status quo of oppression and dehumanization by calling on the poor to bear the travails of this life in expectation of eternal salvation, and exhorting the wealthy to appease their consciences by giving to charity. Drawing on Old Testament examples of God’s willingness to reach into human history on behalf of His people (for example, the Exodus), liberationists call on the church to cast its lot against the ‘institutionalized violence’ of the status quo. From the New Testament, liberationists argue that Jesus chose to reveal his message to the poor and meek, linking Christian faith with solidarity with the poor and their temporal struggle for social justice. Unlike traditional Catholicism that relies on charity to the poor, liberationists call on Christians to embrace political reform, even the overthrow, if necessary, of oppressive and repressive regimes.

Influenced by the contributions of both academics and theologians, the Latin American church committed itself to a ‘preferential option for the poor’ at the Medellin CELAM meeting. The church also adopted a pastoral strategy centered on base Christian communities (or CEBs, the acronym for comunidad eclesial de base). CEBs are parish-level neighborhood groups in which clergy and/or pastoral agents attempt to raise social awareness through group discussions regarding the relevance of weekly Bible readings to members’ own everyday lives (Azevedo 1987). According to many observers, the 1968 CELAM meetings in Medellin signaled a change within the Latin American Catholic church from the traditional alliance with the landed elite to an activist and progressive agenda (Lernoux 1982).

The first scholar to examine the implications of changes within the Catholic church was sociologist Ivan Vallier. Vallier’s interest in the Latin American Catholic church was shaped by the concern for economic, political and social modernization that dominated US social sciences in the 1960s and 1970s. Unlike others who continued to view Catholicism as a hindrance to Latin American modernization, however, Vallier (1970) looked at different ways in which the Catholic church had affected historical development patterns across countries rather than the effects of a monolithic ‘Catholicism.’ Vallier’s work opened the way for a number of new country-specific studies examining the historical role of national Catholic hierarchies in twentieth century political and social development (Mainwaring 1986, Smith 1982, Williams 1989).

During the 1970s and 1980s, the dominant focus in US scholarship shifted from the challenges of economic and political modernization to the crises associated with military dictatorship throughout Central and South America. Between the 1960s and 1980s, democracy had failed throughout Latin America. In a number of countries (notably excepting Argentina and Colombia), the Catholic church’s commitment at Medellin (reaffirmed at the 1979 CELAM meeting in Puebla, Mexico) to serve as the ‘voice of the voiceless’ came to mean serving as a central conduit for opposition to authoritarianism and military rule. Under the progressive leadership of a number of highly visible and vocal bishops, national hierarchies in countries such as Brazil, Chile, and Peru supported a wide range of grassroots organizations whose purposes ranged from ensuring the survival of the poor, to protecting human rights victims of the state, to organizing massive prodemocracy mobilizations. The prodemocracy leadership on behalf particularly of the poor and political dissidents provided by bishops, priests, nuns and lay leaders made the church, itself, a target of military repression. The assassination of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, as well as the assassination and/or torture of thousands of priests, nuns and lay workers, were the price of church leadership during this period. Not surprisingly, the majority of studies during this period focused on church progressives and the host of new forms of social organization that grew under the protection and encouragement of progressive church structures (Levine 1992, Mainwaring and Wilde 1989).

Beginning in the 1980s, Latin American redemocratization allowed a reassessment of progressive trends in the Latin American Catholic church. On the one hand, the Vatican, under the leadership of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), has orchestrated a conservative reversal of much of the progressive political commitment made by Latin American hierarchies during the dictatorships. Pope John Paul II, a populist well-beloved by Latin America’s poor and dispossessed, nevertheless is a staunch opponent of church political activism on behalf of the poor. Of particular concern to the Pope and Cardinal Ratzinger is liberation theology’s use of Marxist categories of analysis for understanding Latin American conditions and liberationists’ calls to concrete political action, even to the point of joining forces with Marxist movements in some cases. Cardinal Ratzinger has moved to silence several well-known Latin American theologians, including Brazilians Leonardo Boff and Ivone Gebara, a noted feminist theologian. In addition, the Vatican has filled vacancies for new bishops and archbishops with strong church traditionalists who have withdrawn much of the church’s previous support for grassroots organizations and political organizing in favor of a traditional pastoral focus on individuals’ private morality, charity and individual sin. In addition, many have noted a certain desire, even among many progressives, for the church to withdraw from explicitly political, even partisan, activities and positions in favor of the spiritual and moral work that is the proper work of the church. In the 1990s, many younger clergy are drawn to a more traditional view of the role of the church in society than their counterparts during the dictatorships (Cleary and Stewart-Gambino 1992). Although the previous focus on progressives created the illusion of a new consensus within Latin American hierarchies, the return of democracy allowed longstanding tensions among bishops to reemerge, dividing national hierarchies and thus reducing their visibility in public debates and controversies.

The renewed debate within national churches regarding the proper role of the Catholic church in contemporary society shifted scholarly focus away from changes within the institutional Catholic church and their effects on Latin American societies, to the varying experiences of the faithful themselves. Recent studies, often authored by anthropologists and sociologists, focus less on national-level institutional behavior and more on local groups and how their religious identities shape their interaction with larger economic and political forces. Individuals and local groups differ substantially in terms of the way and degree to which their religious beliefs are influenced by official church programs and pronouncements. In turn, individuals and local groups differ in terms of how their religious beliefs shape their own political behavior, depending on such factors as local opportunity, both material and symbolic resources, and the like. Gender also affects the intersection of religious belief and individual religious, social or political behavior (Mariz 1994, Burdick 1998).

Also in the 1990s, the fall of the Soviet bloc returned US scholars’ attentions to perennial questions concerning the nature and requisites for democratic institution building. Like new post-Soviet states, many newly democratic Latin American nations lack a dense or complex civil society. Consistent with the recent focus on the neo-Toquevillian benefits of a densely organized civil society for democracy, some observers of Latin American religion have began to examine how religious life can foster democratic values and/or effective checks on the nondemocratic impulses of new regimes (Oxhorn 1995). With the decline of progressivism in the Latin American Catholic church, much of the search for religion’s contribution to civil society is found in studies of the continued growth and expansion of Latin American Pentecostalism.

2. Pentecostals

Perhaps the most dramatic change in Latin American religions in the latter half of the twentieth century is the explosion of Pentecostalism in the region. Pentecostalism is a twentieth century phenomenon, the roots of which date to a prayer meeting of Bible school students in Topeka, Kansas on January 1, 1901. The group prayed for an extraordinary sign of the Holy Spirit, whereupon one young woman began to speak in tongues. The intense euphoria and physical manifestations of the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’ spread to the other students, leading them to believe that they had experienced the Pentecost, the immediate experience of the Holy Spirit described in Acts 2. Five years later, a Pentecostal mission was founded on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, where thousands began to convert, beginning the rapid spread of Pentecostalism not only in the United States, but also around the globe. By 1916, Pentecostal churches were recorded in eight Latin American countries (Cleary and StewartGambino 1997). Latin American Pentecostal churches, always known for a central commitment to proselytism, steadily attracted converts throughout the 1920s and 1930s through the combination of public preaching, spirited and emotional worship, and claims to supernatural healing power of the Holy Spirit. The Assemblies of God, one of the largest Latin American Pentecostal churches, grew at an average of 23 percent per year from 1934 to 1964. By 1962, Brazilian Pentecostals alone numbered over one million members. At the time of writing, non-Catholic Christians in Latin America are estimated to number between 60–80 million, representing between 13–17 percent of the total population. Of these, between 75–90 percent are believed to be Pentecostal. Pentecostal growth has exceeded population growth for decades, although Pentecostal membership remains concentrated among the poor, and to a lesser extent the middle classes.

As early as the 1960s, a few academic observers pointed to the dramatic growth in Pentecostal membership. Like observers of Latin American Catholicism in the 1960s and 1970s who focused on larger processes of modernization, early observers examined Pentecostalism in terms of its potential contribution to democracy. Christian Lalive d’Epinay (1969) argued that Pentecostalism replicated the authoritarian values and social organizations of rural society, thus attracting peasants relocated to mushrooming urban centers. According to this view, Pentecostalism reinforces nondemocratic political forms and hinders modernization. On the other hand, Emilio Willems (1967) argued that the lack of hierarchy or formal theology, coupled with individuals’ free access to the Holy Spirit, makes Pentecostalism an inherently democratic belief structure that attracts the poor as a symbolic protest against the traditional social order.

Debates about Pentecostalism’s implications for larger social and political developments were highlighted again with the 1990 publication of two studies, by David Martin (1990) and David Stoll (1990). Like Lalive d’Epinay, Stoll’s examination of Pentecostal growth in countries such as Guatemala, where the greatest growth occurred during the brutal dictatorships and civil war of the 1970 and 1980s, leads him to the conclusion that Pentecostalism reinforces political authoritarianism and repression. Moreover, Stoll argues that overt and covert support for Pentecostal missionaries from both US churches and government demonstrates the insidious imperialism at the core of Latin American Pentecostalism. On the other hand, reminiscent of Willems’ more optimist interpretation, Martin stresses the egalitarian and participatory nature of Pentecostal congregations that can contribute, although indirectly, to strengthened democratic values and empowerment of the poor.

Pentecostal membership appears to be particularly powerful for the most vulnerable; for example, the addicted, ill, or other social outcasts. Yet, recent studies show that the stereotypes of Pentecostals as simply the poor or vulnerable are false. For example, while scholars agree that Pentecostalism attracts primarily the poor, some in the middle class are drawn to the doctrines of hard work, sobriety and clean living that bring God’s spiritual and, especially, temporal rewards. Solid analysis is replacing other stereotypes as well. In the past, Pentecostals’ tendency to eschew ‘politics’ was interpreted as an inherently conservative, even authoritarian bent; however, with the return to formal democracy throughout much of the region, Pentecostals have shown themselves to be as divergent in political persuasion as the population at large.

Over time, as churches strengthen and institutionalize, many Pentecostal pastors and congregations are demonstrating an increasing willingness to enter the political arena, in spite of a general distaste for ‘temporal’ commitments outside the missionary zeal common to all Pentecostal groups. The assumption that Pentecostal belief, with its emphasis on traditional family patterns with strong male leadership, damages the cause of women’s rights also has been questioned. Pentecostal congregations typically do exhort women to submit to their husbands and dress in a plain, conservative manner; however, several observers find that women whose husbands convert feel that their lives have improved dramatically. Pentecostalism’s model for male behavior is a sober, responsible and faithful husband and father. To the extent that Pentecostal men forsake drinking, womanizing and domestic violence often associated with traditional, machista cultural values, women find that their domestic incomes increase and their marital and family burdens lighten (Garrard-Burnett and Stoll 1993, Cleary and Stewart-Gambino 1997, Smith and Prokopy 1999).

3. Other Religions

Although the Catholic church still continues to dominate the Latin American religious landscape, the region has always housed a range of non-Catholic, non-Christian and/or syncretist religious forms, especially those of African descent in areas such as the Caribbean and Brazil. Among the better known are Brazilian umbanda and candomble, Afro-Caribbean santeria, Haitian voodoo, and others. Given the Catholic church’s historical inability to provide even the most basic of pastoral services adequately to the majority of urban and rural poor, Latin American popular religious forms always have flourished at the margins of institutional religion. So-called ‘popular religion,’ or religious forms that lie outside of official, institutionalized religion, are expressions of the desire of common people to find and recreate religious meaning in their everyday lives. Popular religion arises out of people’s own oral traditions, ancestral roots (native American, African, Iberian or other), class identities, community memories, and individual and collective creativity. Not surprisingly, a vast range of forms of popular religion endures, thrives, and mutates over time in Latin America (Burdick 1998).

The persistence and even growth of different forms of Latin American popular religion, in addition to the extraordinary rise of Pentecostalism in the region, has diminished the once hegemonic position of the Catholic church. There is, now in the twenty-first century, a far greater degree of religious pluralism in Latin America than ever before. Religious pluralism, in turn, will cause further changes within Catholicism and Pentecostalism as institutional churches struggle to maintain their memberships and appeal to new converts in the context of a broadened Latin American religious marketplace.

4. Conclusion

Future research on Latin American religious institutions and belief likely will head in several directions. The apparent retreat of many national Catholic hierarchies from political activism in the wake of recent transitions to democracy masks the fact that bishops throughout the region are trying to clarify the proper role of the church in changed national circumstances. How national Catholic churches will contribute to or undermine Latin American democracy remains a live question. Tensions between bishops’ view of the proper role of the church and grassroots religious experience further complicate church–society relations, as do issues of gender, class and race. Examinations of both national Catholic churches and local-level case studies will contribute to our understanding of the evolving role of the Catholic church in Latin America. At the same time, the continued growth of Pentecostal and other non-Catholic religions will strengthen Latin American pluralism, to which all religious institutions will have to respond. Not only will Catholic hierarchies have to adapt to a more competitive religious ‘marketplace,’ but differing strains in Pentecostalism also will become clearer as some groups strengthen and institutionalize, while continuing schism fragments others.

We need to know a great deal more about individual Pentecostal churches, however, before adequate national or theological generalizations can be made. In addition, comparatively little is known about a wide range of popular religious forms found throughout Latin America. Beyond institutionalized religion and religious elites’ decisions, we need to know more regarding people’s lived religious lives and how their religious belief intersects with the workplace, family, and community. Moreover, how do changes in national economic strategies that profoundly affect people’s daily lives intersect with individual religious belief? It is often said that religious belief and sentiment are widely held and deeply rooted in Latin American cultures. What this means in changing political, economic and cultural conditions will help shape future trends in Latin America in ways that we do not yet fully understand.


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