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Latin America from a Protestant Perspective PDF Print E-mail

Pedro Moreno, The Rutherford Institute

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom in Latin America and the New Millennium"
October 10-12, 1998, Sheraton Mofarrej Hotel, Sao Paolo, Brazil

I want to thank Paul for laying out the historical perspective and Luis for mentioning all the cases in Latin America. They have made my job much easier. I would like to talk about the future, since we are facing the new millennium.

But first I have to tell you a little story that I heard yesterday, I think. There is a man, a reverend, who dies, and at the same time there is another man in the United States, from Indianapolis, who takes a trip down to Louisiana for some business. From Louisiana he sends an e-mail to his wife but makes a mistake. By mistake the e-mail goes to the widow of the reverend instead of his own wife. The widow faints when she gets the e-mail and when they ask her later what happened and they read the e-mail, the e-mail says, "Honey, I arrived safely, but it sure is hot down here." So we need to be careful with little mistakes and big mistakes.

There were many mistakes in Latin America. Because you know there are humans in Latin America, and wherever humans are there are many mistakes. We talked about that. But I think the situation is much better compared to what we had some years ago, as Luis and Paul expressed. There was a lot of persecution and discrimination. In Bolivia you were considered a traitor and you deserved the death penalty if you proposed the separation of church and state until it was changed in 1906 and only in 1939 at the constitutional level.

So the situation has improved and the Catholic Church has a lot a credit for the environment of tolerance that exists in Latin America. In fact, in Paraguay it was the Catholic Church that joined with 14 Protestant denominations in asking the constitutional convention to eliminate the requirement to be Catholic in order to become president of the Republic.

Of course, it is also to the credit of free-thinking people in Latin America who dared to challenge the establishment and the monopolies, not only in the economic realm and the political realm but also in the religious realm. Also, there is credit to be given to the evangelical churches that are growing and are therefore creating a more diverse society where we have to acknowledge and learn to live with each other. Politicians in Latin America used to kill each other just because they didn’t agree politically. Even now sometimes it happens. We need to learn to disagree and disagree with civility.

This also is true for the religious realm. Evangelicals—and I am one of them, and I think that is why they gave me the topic of the Protestant perspective, I consider myself a Protestant, a pentecostal, and a charismatic—are growing in Latin America in great numbers according to the Latin American Bishops conference, which is the Catholic Church. There are about 400 conversions to Evangelicalism per hour in Latin America. That would be about 8,000 converts to Evangelicalism per day. There is a church established in Peru every day, and there are thousands and thousands of people in Brazil, for example, that are becoming evangelical. In fact, Brazil, which many people say is one of the largest Catholic countries in the world, is also one of the largest Protestant countries in the world.

So people are talking about the next century as a century for Protestantism in Latin America, if not a Protestant continent at least a substantially Protestant continent. If the momentum continues, if this rate of conversion continues, there will be major sociological changes, political changes, and economic changes in Latin America as a result of the religious transference that is going on at an accelerating pace all over Latin America. Of course, there are many implications and we don’t know yet what exactly will happen in the future. But I want to give you some idea of my diagnosis and prognosis on what could happen based on what is happening now.

In the area of evangelism or proselytization there is a great effort on the part of Evangelicals. At the last meeting of COICON, the Latin America Religious Broadcasters had about 2,000 people in attendance. There are about 1,000 radio stations that broadcast evangelical sermons and messages. There are about 100 TV stations that are owned and operated by Evangelicals in Latin America. There is one, if not two, satellite transmissions 24 hours a day broadcasting all over Latin America by radio and some TV networks. They are mainly Evangelical links. This, of course, has created a desire on the side of the Catholic Church to establish a televangelists. One of the most prominent is Mother Angelica, who is a very charismatic nun. She has broadcast all over the world. I think she is very popular in Latin America. The Catholic Church has acquired TV stations now in various countries exclusively devoted to the spreading of the Catholic message in terms of religion.

Many hundreds of stations are owned by the Catholic Church at the moment in Latin America, but they don’t deal with the religious issues specifically; they are more into politics or social issues or news or whatever.

Now there is a greater emphasis on the religious perspective. So as Evangelicals grow, there are new spaces created in the political realm. For example, about 22 political parties are led by Evangelicals; in some countries there are three or four Evangelical-led parties. It is the entrepreneurial tendency of Evangelicals to create many, many churches. I call it subdivisions for a euphemism instead of saying divisions. There are a lot of divisions, which is healthy and which also has negative connotations.

For those in the political realm parties have divided and subdivided. The most recent examples of political participation, of course, are in Brazil, where a substantial number of evangelicals were elected to the Federal Congress and also to the Constitutional Assembly. In Guatemala there was a democratically elected Evangelical in 1992 or 1991. In Peru there was the Second Vice President who was a pastor and a lawyer who is an Evangelical with Fujimori. There were also, of course, many negative implications of this political participation, including the corruption that was denounced in Brazil on the part of some Evangelical members of congress. Also, the corruption that was attached to the presidency in Guatemala and the failure in Peru in terms of consolidating the political gains that Evangelicals made due to their inexperience and lack of training and understanding of what it means to move in the political realm. Many Evangelicals pray in church. In the political realm if it is not a worldview that they have it is a churchview.

We have to do much more work in this area if we want to be effective and benefit the whole community. So far, the Evangelical participation has been mainly in order to get some benefits for the churches or some radio frequencies or have more influence to get the registrations approved. It needs to go beyond self-interest and go into areas of concern to the whole society, not just Evangelicals.

In terms of the socioeconomic impact of Evangelicals, it is still a very confusing situation. Some people would say that if Latin America ever develops economically it will not be because of the Evangelicals, but in spite of them. All of us see that there is much improvement going on in the lives of Evangelicals and their families where drunkenness, for example, has been abandoned and more monies are invested in the education of the children and taking care of the family and thinking about the future. There is also more participation in the churches and incorporation of some of the folkloric aspects of the societies and cultures. Some people think that Evangelicalism in a sense fosters capitalism and democracy. We don’t know yet if these gains of the individual and family level will be transferred to the structural level and evangelicals will be able to confront structural problems in the economic social and political realms.

As we think about the future we have to analyze these things. Some people call me and they say "why was our church closed in Lima" and "we need help." We need the international community to move and help. The one who needs help in Latin America is the Pope. The Catholic Church needs help in Latin America, not the Evangelicals, because the Catholic Church has lost its momentum, has lost its initiative. It is the Evangelicals that are growing by the thousands and millions and they are acquiring technology and churches and universities and political parties and everything they can get. That is not a threat. It is not something negative as some people see it. It can become something positive for all of society.

But it needs to be channeled properly. We need to learn how to live in the community and in the Evangelical society. The Evangelicals somebody mentioned are persecuting the newer groups such as the Unification Church or other newer groups and joining with the Catholic Church against these newer groups because some people are totalitarian. They are not totalitarian outwardly sometimes because they don’t have the power to be totalitarian, but once they get the power they become the victimizers and go from victims to victimizers and we need to be careful about that and not work for self-interest but for principle.

So I believe that in Latin America when talking about Evangelicals we need a paradigm shift. We need to abandon the minority mentality, the minority complex, which only makes people whine and cry about their problems, that makes them only think in terms of rights. We also need to start thinking in terms of responsibilities and what we are called to do in the society for the benefit of the whole society. I think we will need to be very careful to tone down the message of the end of the world, the emphasis on the religious aspects of our lives, and balance that with an understanding that the world may last for another, who knows? A thousand years, 10,000 years, or millions of years, or whatever.

So if we can change some of these things among Evangelicals, we can change the emphasis from the individual to the society. We can change the emphasis from the religious to the community emphasis. We can change the overemphasis on the end of the world and all of us becoming ministers to evangelize the world. Instead, we can see ourselves as ministers when we do law, when we do politics, when we do carpentry, when we are housewives or whatever. Then I think we can really change Latin America for the better. I believe that there is an amazing amount of energy among the youth. Religious revivals have been a way to great reformation in many of the countries, to greater economic development, and to greater political freedom. It is my hope that as we overcome these mental blocks, we will cease to be our own enemies.

Many Evangelicals are their own enemy by the way they think. I think we can really see a better Latin America, by working together with Catholics, and working together with other religious individuals and organizations. We should emphasize the issues of the day, which are the fight against poverty, the fight against intolerance, the fight against political monopolies, which still exist, and form more democracy for more prosperity. If we do that, I think Latin America will be a much better continent. Its better days may still be ahead of us, and it is my hope that we can all contribute together to make Latin America a place where everybody can believe whatever they want to believe and to express that belief freely. Or if they don’t want to believe anything, then they will be free to do so. Ultimately God will judge their actions, but we will not be the ones who pass judgment on each other. I appreciate the time you have given me today, and I thank you very much.