Below is an overview of Latin America’s Pentecostal history and politics, one of the regions included in a global survey released in October 2006 on Pentecostal and charismatic Christians.
In the recent years, a significant part of religious and political landscape of Latin America has been Pentecostalism. The region has seen a remarkable growth in the number of Pentecostals since the 1960s. Of the five hundred and sixty million Latin America populations, Pentecostals represent seventy five million or thirteen percent. This is according to World Christian Database figures released in 2005. About fifteen percent of the population or eighty million individuals compose the charismatic members of non-Pentecostal denominations. In Latin America, this population is predominantly catholic. As early as 1970, only four percent of the region’s population was represented by the combination of both Pentecostals and charisma tics.
Latin America has other “evangelicos”, a name used to refer to Protestants within the region. Mainline churches like Anglican, Presbyterian and Lutheran established in nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by European immigrants also represent the Protestant community in the region. However, the rapidly growing sector of Latin American Protestantism is represented by the Pentecostals (Garrard-Burnett, 1993). Brazil, which in absolute terms has Latin America’s largest protestant population, has recorded a significant growth in the number of Pentecostals. According to the national census, Pentecostals recorded a growth from less than half of Protestants in 1980 to sixty eight percent in the year two thousand. In Central America, the figure stood at more than fifty percent by the 1980s from thirty seven percent in 1965 (Frestona 2004: 228). Currently, of all Latin American Protestants, Pentecostals compose seventy three percent.
The growth of Pentecostals is not uniform. It significantly varies from country to country. Countries which have recorded high growth are Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala, Chile, Nicaragua and El Salvador. In each of these countries, Pentecostals represent a figure slightly above ten percent of the national population. However, countries with relatively minimal Pentecostal population like Peru, Mexico and Colombia are experiencing a remarkable growth in Pentecostals (Freston 2004a: 229).
Pentecostalism has had a tremendous impact on the religious landscape of Latin America. For instance, in the important urban centers, the number of Pentecostal churches has increased dramatically. Sixty one percent of all the existing churches in Brazil’s Greater Rio area were Pentecostal according to a 1992 survey of religious institutions. This survey also noted that the proportion was increasing rapidly with nine in every ten congregations being Pentecostal churches. This was registered in the period between nineteen ninety and nineteen ninety two. In Greater Rio within a Catholic diocese, Protestants outnumbered Catholics by two to one with regard to places of worship. The ratio goes up to almost seven to one in the poorest districts (Freston 2004b: 231).
The rapidly expanding Latin America’s Pentecostal community ever since the early nineteen eighties has exhibited an increasingly significant role in public life. For instance, within the political life of Guatemala, two Pentecostal presidents have held office. In Brazil, an evangelical congressional caucus has been formed which is largely composed of Pentecostals including about ten percent of the countries parliamentarians. In Chile, there is an annual Independence Day celebration hosted by Pentecostals and attended by the head of state. Pentecostals also founded a political party in Nicaragua which has fielded candidates for the presidency besides winning seats in congress.
The current spate of Pentecostal politics has been stimulated by several factors. One of the main factors is demographics. With the dramatic increase in the population of Pentecostals, political representation and a greater share of public influence have been sought. In some countries in Latin America, the number has increased from twenty five percent to seventy five percent of the population. They therefore feel the need for public and political representation.
Another factor is democratization. Few countries were considered free in Latin America and the Caribbean in 1976. The countries which were considered free according to Freedom House were only nine for both Latin America and the Caribbean. Eighteen others were considered either not free at all or partially free. However, twenty two countries in the region by 2006 were considered to be free while only eleven are partially free or not free. As such, many groups in Latin America which includes the Pentecostals have been offered greater opportunities through enduring and widespread democratization to politically organize and influence their governments.
The political privilege of Catholics has also stimulated the current spate of Pentecostal politics. Many Latin American governments until recently have given certain special benefits to the catholic church which includes control over religious education in public schools, direct subsidies and monopoly on chaplaincies. In some cases, such privileges are still going on (Sigmund 1999: 1-8). One of the reasons which Pentecostals have involved themselves with politics is to abolish such benefits or make them available to the protestant community as well.
Religion in Latin America remains conservative when it comes to issues such as homosexuality and abortion. As such, it does not suffer from the mini culture wars experienced in United States. However, groups in some countries have pushed for serious proposals meant to liberalize government policies in issues which concern morality like abortion and homosexuality. The proposals have facilitated Pentecostal political mobilization. For instance, the political involvement of Pentecostals in Brazil was motivated by the aim to block the proposed liberalization of homosexuality and abortion.
The attention of most prominent politicians has been drawn by the growing presence of Pentecostalism in social and political arena. In the runoff to Brazil’s general elections in October 2002, the president, Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva openly sought for the support of Pentecostal and other evangelical voters. In the following election of October 2006, his party forged an alliance with another party which owes its foundation to one of the largest Brazilian Pentecostal churches. In 2006, the Workers Party formed an alliance with the Brazilian Republican party. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God which appears among the largest Pentecostal churches in Brazil helped in the organization of the Brazilian Republican Party. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who got elected to office in 2005, has set up a new religious affairs office in response to concerns by Pentecostals and other Protestants for equality in government’s treatment of diverse religious groups in the country (Downy, 2002).
Criticism and political conflict have been sparked off by Pentecostalism’s increasing presence within the political and social domain. The growth of Pentecostal churches has been described by the leaders of Catholic Church as an “invasion of the sects” that is destroying the Catholic culture of Latin America and disrupting the social cohesion. With an estimated four hundred and sixty million Roman Catholics, the region remains a stronghold of the Catholic Church. Latin America has the highest number of catholic faithful than any other region in the world, doubling the catholic population in Europe. Prominent Pentecostal leaders on their part have accused Catholicism as the source of backwardness and corruption. Among the leaders who have aired such accusation includes the former president of Guatemala and Efrain Rios Montt, a Pentecostal church elder. The fray has also been joined by other leftists who have attacked Pentecostals saying that they are simply North American agents out to further their economic and political interests. They have repeatedly told the Pentecostals that they perpetuate unjust social conditions by shifting the focus of the poor from their economic miseries.
The political activism and impact of Latin American Pentecostalism defy simple categorization owing to its diverse characteristics. Some analysts and observers have argued that there is a clear and inherently monolithic pattern that characterizes Pentecostal politics. Their claim is that there is a tendency by Latin American Pentecostals to lean toward political passivity and quiescence or towards dictatorial and right wing politics. However, there are diverse and different patterns of growth and theological emphasis within the different countries. Pentecostal activism in countries such as Chile, Guatemala and Brazil besides experiencing different political contexts also exhibit different growth patterns. This has led to different Pentecostal political styles and forms of activism which continues to develop in ways which are bound to cause long term impacts for the politics and society of Latin America (Bixler, 2004).
Bixler, Mark. 2004. “Evangelical Divergence: Protestantism Surges in Catholic Brazil, but it Differs from U.S. Kind.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. August 4.
Downie, Andrew. 2002. “Political Influence Growing for Evangelicals in Brazil.” The Christian Science Monitor. October 25.
Freston, Paul. 2004a. “Contours of Latin American Pentecostalism.” In Lewis 2004, 221-270.
Freston, Paul. 2004b. “Evangelical Protestantism and Democratization in Contemporary Latin America and Asia.” Democratization 11 (4): 21-41.
Freston, Paul. 2004c. Protestant Political Parties: A Global Survey. Hampshire, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
Freston, Paul, ed. Forthcoming. Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Latin America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Garrard-Burnett, Virginia, and David Stoll. 1993. Rethinking Protestantism in Latin America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press
Sigmund, Paul E., ed. 1999. Religious Freedom and Evangelization in Latin America: The Challenge of Religious Pluralism. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.