The Fundamentalist Surge in Latin America

by Penny Lernoux

Ms. Lernoux, author of Cry of the People: The Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America, is a free-lance writer based in Bogota, Colombia.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 20, 1988, p. 51. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


While experience shows that the Catholics’ answer to the fundamentalists lies in the base communities, only a minority of bishops have strongly pushed for them because of the Vatican’s frequently voiced concern that they are too “horizontal” — meaning that they are a democratic influence on a hierarchical church — and liable to become involved in social and political issues.

Two decades ago, when Protestant fundamentalists and evangelicals were regarded as religious "crazies" in many parts of Catholic Latin America, converts tended to keep their religion to themselves. ‘People didn’t admit to being evangelical," recalled an evangelical pastor in Bogotá, "because they feared they would be rejected by their neighbors and employers." Today when, in the pastor’s words there are "evangelicals everywhere," adherents not only openly proclaim their born-again conversion but actively seek recruits on buses, street corners and in parks. Such big-time evangelists as Argentine Luis Palau and U.S. television preacher Jimmy Swaggart pack city stadiums with tens of thousands of enthusiasts; only the pope draws larger crowds. Unlike the previous generation of evangelicals, today’s conservative Protestants in Latin America are aggressively challenging Catholicism’s religious monopoly -- and succeeding.

The Catholic Church’s own surveys show how serious is the challenge: every hour 400 Latin Americans convert to the Pentecostals or other fundamentalist or evangelical churches. One-eighth of the region’s 481 million people belong to fundamentalist or evangelical churches, and in some countries, such as Guatemala, it is estimated that half the population will have switched into those churches by the end of the century. Not since the mass baptisms of Latin American Indians by the conquering Spanish in the 16th century has Latin America witnessed a religious conversion of such magnitude.

The challenge clearly worries the region’s Catholic bishops, who cite the growth of conservative Protestantism among their top concerns, along with the foreign debt and guerrilla and military violence. "The springtime of the sects [a deprecatory term for the new churches] could also be the winter of the Catholic Church," warned Msgr. Lucas Moreira Neves, the archbishop of Sao Salvador da Bahia in Brazil.

According to a recent study by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, nearly 10 per cent of the country’s 140 million people belong to 4,077 evangelical churches. The majority are Pentecostal, the fastest-growing evangelical group in Latin America. Exported from the U.S., Pentecostalism holds an emotional appeal. particularly for poor Latin Americans, through its emphasis on ecstatic personal experience, such as speaking in tongues and receiving the "gifts" of healing and prophecy.

Studies by Protestant and Catholic scholars show that one reason for the evangelicals’ success is the lack of sufficient Catholic priests to serve the burgeoning population. Although religious vocations are on the rise in several countries, including Brazil, the Catholic Church remains woefully understaffed. In many parishes there is only one priest to serve 10,000 faithful. Priests, unlike evangelical pastors, are expected to spend long years in theological study, an experience that often alienates them culturally from their people. Poor people are impressed by the evangelicals’ emphasis on strict morality, and the way conversion can transform a neighborhood bum into an upright community leader. Once a man surrenders his life to Jesus," proclaims evangelist Palau, "he finds he can stop drinking and chasing women.

Equally important in the evangelical surge, say students of the phenomenon, are deteriorating social and economic conditions. Since the 1950s, millions of peasants have left their villages because of guerrilla and military violence or to seek a better life in the cities, changing the balance of Latin America’s population from rural to urban. Uprooted from families and religious traditions, living in slums and at the mercy of criminals and sometimes of governmental predators, the urban poor are a fertile seedbed for evangelical proselytism. "Many peasants and slum inhabitants need religion as a refuge in a society in permanent and progressive disintegration in order to deal with fear, threats, repression, hunger and death," explained a report on the subject by Pro Mundi Vita, a Belgian-based Catholic think tank. But too often the Catholic Church has ignored such said Pro Mundi Vita, because it lacked clergy, money and imagination.

The Vatican came to a similar conclusion in a 1986 study titled "Sects or New Religious Movements: Pastoral Challenges." While agreeing with the Latin American bishops that the new churches were supported by "powerful ideological forces as well as economic and political interests [ in the United States]," the document admitted that the evangelicals were fulfilling "needs and aspirations which are seemingly not being met in the mainline churches. The [Catholic] church is often seen simply as an institution, perhaps because it gives too much importance to structures and not enough to drawing people to God in Christ."

Evangelical inroads into traditional Catholic territory have led to religious tensions throughout the region. For example, in Cotopaxi province in central Ecuador, a dispute between Catholics and evangelicals led to two deaths and nearly 100 injuries after two Indian evangelists denounced their Catholic brothers to the local military.

Chilean Catholics took umbrage at statements by televangelist Swaggart during his visit to Santiago in early 1987, after he defended the regime of General Augusto Pinochet and congratulated him for having expelled the devil -- meaning the left -- in the 1973 coup. The fundamentalists, who have converted approximately 10 per cent of the Chilean population, including 15,000 members of the armed forces, are called "Reagan cults" by Catholic critics because of their close association with such Reagan supporters as Swaggart, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. But the fundamentalists are popular with the Pinochet government because of their political conservatism and emphasis on passive acceptance of authority -- in contrast to socially activist Catholic groups inspired by liberation theology.

In the 1970s and early ‘80s. Guatemala’s Catholic Church suffered severe persecution under a succession of military regimes because of its defense of human rights. During the 1982-83 administration of the born-again General José Efraín Ríos Montt, for example, several Catholic priests and hundreds of catechists were murdered. While Catholics were being slaughtered, U.S. fundamentalist churches, including Ríos Montt’s church, the California-based Gospel Outreach, received the army’s blessing to evangelize among the Indian population. Even after the military ousted him for abusing the principle of separation of church and state, Ríos Montt continued to enjoy the support of Pat Robertson.

Catholic bishops in Guatemala -- as elsewhere in the region -- resent the persecution by governments seen to be in league with U.S. fundamentalist missionaries. "The sects divide the community," said Guatemala City’s Archbishop Próspero Penados, who argued that their growth has aided the Reagan administration in dominating the region partly by weakening Catholic unity. "The church is the only voice that defends the people" against persecution by governments allied with the United States, he said.

The results of such divisions can be tragic, as demonstrated by the desperate plight of the Guatemalan village of Semuy. The residents were forced to flee their homes in 1981 after a member of a fundamentalist sect denounced the village as "communist" to the local military command because the people would not convert from Catholicism. The sect’s leader, with a bandana covering his face, led the army into the village and pointed out people he claimed were ‘subversives." Thirty-four villagers were taken away and never seen again; the rest fled into the mountains, where they hid for five and a half years. When they eventually emerged. under the protection of the local Catholic bishop. they found that Semuy was controlled by the same fundamentalists responsible for the 1981 raid.

Guatemalan fundamentalists remain unmoved by such suffering, for they believe the Indians are ‘demon-possessed" because so many of them are Catholics (at least nominally) And since demons are associated with communists, the Indians are subversives, too. Similarly. US. fundamentalists working in Guatemala agree with Swaggart that Catholicism is a false cult" and the "doctrine of devils." A letter from the U.S. head of one fundamentalist group in Guatemala. for example. spoke of doing "battle in the heavenlies" against the pope and his priests so that God would "arise and scatter [Guatemala’s] enemies and establish her upon the rock that is Jesus Christ." The tone of U.S. fundamentalist and Pentecostal radio programs, which blanket Central America, is equally aggressive. Indeed, the only point on which the fundamentalists agree with the Catholics is that the religious war is likely to get worse. "Guatemala could become another Northern Ireland," predicted an evangelical pastor in Guatemala City.

U.S. fundamentalists have also been deeply involved in the Nicaraguan contra war. Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network has been among the biggest contributors, raising millions of dollars for food,. Medicine, clothing, vehicles and other aid for so-called Nicaraguan refugees who also happened to be contras, or for Miskito Indians drawn into the contra struggle. Although Robertson tried at first to pretend that CBN contributions were not meant for the counterrevolutionaries, his organization did not deny that the supplies were being shipped through intermediary groups with close ties to the Reagan administration or that they were being sent to the war-torn Nicaraguan-Honduran border, where the contras were headquartered. In contrast, such politically neutral refugee aid groups as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees purposely located their Honduran relief camps at least 33 miles from the border to avoid involvement with the hostilities. That CBN’s refugees were indeed contras was confirmed by Mario Calero, the brother of contra leader Adolfo Calero. who said that the counterrevolutionaries were an army of refugees. "Some of the refugees are freedom fighters," he said, adding that he considered himself one of them.

Fundamentalists’ humanitarian aid served two purposes: it freed other funds for the purchase of military hardware, and it was enlistment bait for the Miskitos, thousands of whom had crossed the border after periodic clashes with the Sandinistas. Hungry and penniless, the Indians often had no choice but to join the contras, although they hated them at least as much as they did the Sandinistas. "It’s clear that the-border relief programs are not designed to meet the long- and short-term interests of the Miskitos, but rather are designed for political purposes as a conduit of aid to the contras." a relief official said.

Robertson never hid his feelings on the matter. He frequently likened the contras to freedom fighters. and when the U.S. Congress balked at providing more aid in 1985 he went on television to denounce the "craven submission of our leaders and Congress to the demands of communism, [which] makes you sick to your stomach." Robertson also visited a contra training camp in Honduras to preach his fundamentalist gospel and distribute good cheer. "I think God is in favor of liberty and justice and He is against oppression, he told the troops, comparing the contra struggle to the American Revolution. "If we can do something to help these men fight for freedom, I think it is perfectly in God’s plan." The visit, which was later shown on U.S. television, shocked some religious leaders because of the way Robertson seemed to be saying that the contras had God’s blessing. Richmonds Bishop Walter Sullivan, among the most outspoken Catholic opponents of U.S. aid to the contras, was so outraged that he publicly criticized Robertson, saying ‘‘I cannot imagine Jesus reviewing troops.

Robertson furiously replied that he had not been reviewing troops and that, if Sullivan didn’t watch his words, he might be in trouble for "libel and slander."

Sojourners and its editor, Jim Wallis, are highly respected in certain sectors of the evangelical community. Therefore, instead of snapping at Wallis as he had at Sullivan, Robertson took the more conciliatory approach of writing to say that "most of the reports which allege-- . . . [CBN] aid to the Freedom Fighters of Nicaragua are not true. Less than a year later, however, he told a meeting of religious broadcasters in Washington that he was supplying "chaplains" and Bibles to the Honduran-based contras, thus admitting a direct link to them. As Wallis observed, most of the secular press missed the religious implications of Robertson’s aid. "They didn’t think it was any big deal, since a lot of other right-wing political organizations were doing the same thing. But religious people were outraged that they [Robertson’s organization] were doing this in the name of God and that many churches had been unknowingly involved through their connection to CBN. Christian support for terrorism, whether it be from the Right or the Left, is simply wrong. To allow political ideology to overshadow human needs and fundamental issues of life and death is to go seriously astray. And to use the plight of innocent refugees, who have already suffered so much, to cloak political motivations is to compound the offense."

But many fundamentalists do not share Wallis’s opinion, believing in a "God-is-an-American" religion that dismisses any challenge to U.S. hegemony as the work of the devil. "You can make a strong case for saying the American way is synonymous with Christianity," claimed William Murray, a U.S. evangelical active in the fundamentalists’ contra-aid operations.

Catholic critics claim that the primary attraction of the "American way" is the money lavished on religious converts by their U.S. sponsors. But while poor Latin Americans agree that gifts of food, clothing and other handouts are an incentive to convert, many say that the gifts are less important than the welcoming religious atmosphere in fundamentalist churches. Most are small and neighborly, with the pastor living in the same block as his congregation. They also respond to the people’s yearning for religious symbols, or "popular religiosity," through dancing, popular songs and physical gestures such as raising arms to heaven. In contrast, traditional Catholic churches serve vast numbers of people who have little or nothing in common, and they are often impersonal "supermarkets for the sacraments," as some liberation theologians call them. Rituals frequently seem remote and cold, and community relations, so important to the impoverished urban newcomer, are virtually nonexistent.

But while experience shows that the Catholics’ answer to the fundamentalists lies in the base communities, only a minority of bishops have strongly pushed for them because of the Vatican’s frequently voiced concern that they are too "horizontal" -- meaning that they are a democratic influence on a hierarchical church -- and liable to become involved in social and political issues. The Roman Curia is also suspicious of the communities because they are a popular expression of liberation theology. Thus although the church has the means to meet the fundamentalists’ challenge, it is afraid to apply it. "Unfortunately," said Pro Mundi Vita of the Vatican’s attitude toward the Latin Americans’ lay-directed renewal, "the church’s efforts have been directed more toward preserving discipline, order and doctrinal purity than the great work and challenge of being evangelical."