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  Number 312 | Julio 2007
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Latin America

The Ignored Contradiction between Modern State and Providential God

When analyzing our societies’ political and social realities, Latin America’s social sciences indefensibly and inexplicably ignore the religious culture dominating most of our populations and conditioning their political culture. We live in modern, formally democratic states in the “legal country,” but in the “real” one we’re the subjects of a pre-modern God who blocks any awareness of citizenship.

Andrés Pérez Baltodano

Aprovidential vision of God predominates in Latin America. While it is largely rooted in the Catholicism inherited from Spanish colonial times, it is also expressed in the boom of charismatic Pentecostal Christianity. This vision has molded a pragmatic-resigned political culture that tolerates inequality and injustice as part of the divine plan. Such a vision is incongruous with a modern state that must balance the instrumental rationality of the market and the substantive values of democracy. The social sciences must get over the idea that Latin American societies are already secularized and assume a more realistic vision that contemplates the subjective dimension of the state formation processes.

Unresolved tension between
the “legal” and “real” countries

The concept of the state is a product of European history. It is the result of material and cultural processes defined—and thus conditioned—by law and social theory. In Latin America, that European idea was adopted to reorganize the region’s republican history. As has already been pointed out many times, the Latin American states were constituted a priori. The region’s elites superimposed legal formulas on territories that were not integrated and were marked, among other things, by profound racial, ethnic and social differences. The institutional apparatuses that were set up did not have the capacity and legitimacy needed to institute the adopted state model.

This grafting of the idea of the modern European state was the start of the still-unresolved tension in Latin America between what Carlos Fuentes has called the “legal country” and the “real country.” The former is the free, just and democratic Latin America expressed in the different countries’ Constitutions and the latter is the one plagued by authoritarianism, injustice and inequality. One of the main expressions of that tension is the coexistence of another pair of incongruities in the region: the state’s formal modernity and the dominant pre-modern religious and political culture.

The weight of Latin American religious providentialism varies from country to country according to their different levels of economic and cultural development. Generally speaking, Mexico and the Central America countries are more religious than the Andean countries, while the countries of the Southern Cone are the least religious, according to data from Latinobarómetro 2005, with Uruguay the least religious of all.

The “real country” has a
”medieval” vision of history

The state model adopted by the Latin American countries was the product and institutional expression of the material and cultural development of other societies that had developed a modern vision of history as a process that can and must be conditioned by society’s political action. In Latin American societies, in contrast, the dominant religious and political culture has been and still is pre-modern.

Use of the term “pre-modern” is not to suggest a linear historical progression that places all societies of the world on a development scale topped by the countries of the North. It is simply to highlight important coincidences between the vision of history that still predominates in Latin America and certain aspects of Medieval European culture.

For most of the Middle Ages in Europe, history was perceived as a process governed by God or Fortune. Modernity implied the emergence of a new cosmovision that allowed Europeans to assume their right and obligation to participate in the building of their own history. From the Renaissance, but above all starting with the Great Crisis of the 16th century triggered by the scientific revolution of Copernicus, the Protestant Reformation and the emergence of capitalism, among other processes, the European vision elevated humanity to the role of co-participant in the creation of the world and its history. Renaissance painting expressed that new vision, emphasizing and celebrating the human figure, which in medieval art had been overwhelmed by the representations of God. In the field of philosophy Niccolo Machiavelli contributed to the collapse of the medieval vision by proposing that political will (virtue) could and should be used to control the risks of history.

A contradiction not taken into account

The studies of the state and Latin American political development have ignored the contradiction between the Latin American state’s formal modernity and the cultural pre-modernity that predominates in our region’s populations. Implicitly adopting the historical premises of the social sciences from the countries of the North, these studies have assumed that Latin American development occurs within a secular space separated from the sacred, divine, religious or supernatural one.

When academics do pay attention to society’s religious dimension, it is from a formal-institutional perspective, analyzing, for example, the political relations between church and state, or studying religious organizations as interest groups that participate in the formulation of public policies. But they inexplicably ignore the discursive power and cultural influence of religious organizations in structuring the social visions that have conditioned both the development of the state and the political behavior of Latin Americans. More concretely, they ignore the fact that the ideas of God propagated by the churches are fundamentally about God’s role in history and, more concretely, the relationship between God, history and humanity.

Suggesting the need to pay attention to culture does not imply defending or proposing a subjectivist vision of reality. The vision of culture we are proposing is far from the voluntarist, subjectivist orientation that shapes the US school of literature on political culture represented by authors such as Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba. That school studies the political culture of societies as a self-contained reality divorced from its historical and material roots. The same could be said of the work of Lawrence E. Harrison.

The vision of culture proposed here is based on the following premise: while history is conditioned by institutionalized relations, practices and social processes, it is social actors capable of reflection and action that create and reproduce those social structures.

An unresearched religious culture

Despite the close relationship between the evolution of the idea of God and the emergence of the modern state in European societies that served as a model for Latin America’s institutional organization, the study of religious culture and Latin Americans’ ideas of God are not part of the main interpretations of our countries’ political-institutional development. That omission has been reproduced in the study of the “democratic transitions” starting in the eighties and in analyses of the neoliberal state and its future.

Even political science and sociological studies of political culture (see, for example, “Democracy in Latin America: Towards a citizens’ democracy,” UNPD, 2004) fail to analyze the religious beliefs conditioning Latin Americans’ visions of the world, power and history. Those studies almost invariably treat political culture as “behavior,” without exploring whether the formal institutionality of the “legal country” shapes how Latin Americans express themselves, without necessarily annulling the religious beliefs that predispose them to see history as governed by God and not society’s political will—whether democratic or not.

“Cultural studies” also demonstrate an inexplicable tendency to ignore the religious culture that conditions Latin Americans’ political feelings and actions. The works of Nestor García Canclini, José Joaquín Brunner, Renato Ortiz and Jesús Martín Barbero, to mention a few of the most prominent figures in this field, implicitly assume that the societies they are analyzing are secular.

The statistical studies and surveys on Latin American culture display the same tendency. The work on political culture undertaken by Latinobarómetro, for example, does not take into account Latin Americans’ religious values, even though that same organization has measured the religiousness of the region’s countries in other research studies (see “A decade of measurements,” Latinobarómetro 2004). Those studies point to the Catholic Church as the institution that enjoys the greatest “credibility” in the region (Latino-barómetro 2005), but where does that credibility come from? Just asking this question opens up a field of research that will necessarily lead to recognition of the political relevance of Latin America’s religious culture.

An indefensible ommission
in the face of an evident reality

This omission of religious culture in studies on the Latin American state, democracy and political culture is indefensible. One does not have to believe in God to recognize the palpable existence of ideasof God in the collective self-identity that condition the social life of an enormous percentage of the region’s inhabitants. In Guatemala, 80% of those interviewed in a 44-country study done by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2004 said that God played a “very important” role in their lives. The same response was given by 77% of those interviewed in Brazil, 72% in Honduras, 69% in Peru, 66% in Bolivia, 61% in Venezuela, 59% in Mexico and 39% in Argentina. In the United States, 59% gave the same response, compared to 33% in Great Britain, 30% in Canada, 27% in Italy, 21% in Germany and 11% in France. Only the African countries included in the study registered greater levels of religiosity than the Latin American ones.

The statistical differences between Latin America and Europe do not reveal the whole political and social background of the region’s religious culture. Beyond these quantitative differences, the more essential point is that European religiousness contains a predominantly modern vision of God as a force that does not interfere in the determination of humanity’s destiny. In Latin America, on the other hand, the prevailing vision of God and history is providentialist. The case of the United States is paradoxical. Despite the strength achieved by fundamentalist Christianity in the past three decades, the country’s state and political system are still clearly secular. This is because fundamentalist Christianity has co-existed with a broad sector of atheists, deists and modern Christians that has served as a counterweight in society since US independence in 1776.

“Popular Catholicism” describes
a world determined by God

Providentialism is a theological concept that sees the history of individuals and societies as governed by God in accordance with His plans and purposes. But there are different kinds of providentialism. Some project an idea of God as a general historical influence. This “general providentialism,” dominant among European believers, accepts and promotes humanity’s active participation in the construction of its own history. According to this vision, God establishes a framework of action within which individuals, communities and institutions organize the development and meaning of social life.

In contrast, the predominant providentialism in Latin America is what is known as “meticulous providentialism,” a theological model of God as a force that determines every single aspect of the history of individuals, societies and the world. Anthropology, social psychology and popular education have all demonstrated the weight of this model in Latin America. The work of Salvadoran social psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró, for example, shows the tendency of the traditional Latin American providentialist Catholicism to transform “docility” into a “religious virtue.” In the field of pedagogy and popular education, meanwhile, the work of Brazilian Paulo Freire demonstrates how the “oppressed consciousness” of Latin Americans inhabits a magical world in which the victims of exploitation interpret their own suffering as part of a divine plan. Liberation theology also identified, highlighted and tried to combat providentialism.

The statistical support for Latin American meticulous providentialism is fragmented but solid. The following are some examples taken from recent surveys and studies: 9 out of every 10 Mexicans believe in a providential God and are predisposed to ask for intervention from the Virgin of Guadalupe or some other saint to solve their problems. A smaller percentage of Chileans (59%) says that it believes in miracles, while 79% of those interviewed in a 2002 study, published in the newspaper La Prensa in Nicaragua, stated that God rather than their own personal will was the force that determined the course of their life and history.

Studies on “popular Catholicism,” which is the most widespread form of Catholicism in Latin America, have also revealed the dominant weight of meticulous providentialism. This form of Catholicism is based on the idea of a God that intervenes in history through angels, saints and supernatural forces to reward and punish humanity.

Pentecostalism and Charismatic
Christianity are reinforcing providentialism

Not all of Latin America is Catholic. Pentecostalism and the charismatic movements are on the rise throughout the region. The central elements of the Pentecostal doctrine are the “gifts of the Holy Spirit” and “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” Among the best-known churches are the Assemblies of God, the Church of the Nazarene, the Church of God in Christ and the Churches of God. The charismatic movement grew out of Pentecostalism, and today Charismatics can be found among Catholics, Pentecostalists and traditional Protestants.

Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement have reinforced the weight of meticulous providentialism in Latin America. These two groups, more than any other Christian sector, perceive God as a force that meticulously controls the destiny of individuals and society. They thus seek the solution to their problems, in the words of theologian Abelino Martínez, “outside the real political space” in the arena of “meta-history,” where the evolution of humanity depends on the “unfathomable plans of the divinity.”

Certain Pentecostal and charismatic groups have more recently abandoned their rejection of politics to participate in the struggle for power. In doing so, they have modified their providentialist vision to define politics as an instrument of the will of God. In this vision, God maintains control over history, but uses certain leaders and religious groups to affirm His power.

The numerical weight and rapid growth of Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement give them the strength needed to intensify providentialism in Latin American religious culture. In 1970, only 4.4% of Latin Americans were either Pentecostals or C harismatics but some studies show that by 2005 this had risen to 28.01%. Today, 49% of the Brazilian population, 30% of Chileans and 60% of Guatemalans declare themselves to be one of the two.

Pentecostalism has the capacity to intensify the providentialism in the culture of other Christian religious groups, as demonstrated in Guatemala, where Catholicism has been “pentecostalized.” According to Timothy J. Steigenga, 88% of Guatemalan Pentecostal Protestants said they had benefited from a miracle. Over 70% of Catholics and 64% of those who said they had no formal religious affiliation also said they had been affectded by such an experience.

This variation of providentialism is not modernizing, but rather lends itself to dangerous forms of manipulation and easily degenerates into fanatical and authoritarian political behavior. As pointed out by Oscar Amat and León Pérez with respect to the charismatic movement in Peru, political providentialism involves “the extrapolation of a vertical and authoritarian project that exists as a form of government within the charismatic churches to promote its establishment in the government and the running of the country.”

Resigned pragmatism is a
political expression of providentialism

The providentialist vision reproduced by the churches, which induces Latin Americans to accept that their individual, family and social destinies are determined by forces beyond their control, has generated a “pragmatic-resigned” culture. As the political-cultural expression of providentialism, resigned pragmatism represents a way of perceiving social reality as an historical condition determined by forces removed from social thinking and action. From this perspective, the politically desirable must always be subordinated to the circumstantially possible. In other words, politics is conceived as the capacity to adjust to the reality of power.

Resigned pragmatism is reflected most clearly among the grassroots poor. The poverty and low education levels affecting that majority social sector promote visibly passive and fatalistic behavior in the face of inequality, corruption and even the ravages of nature. But it would be a mistake to assume that resigned pragmatism does not affect the Latin American elite minorities as well. Their power and wealth conceal a tendency to assume that reality defines the limits of what is possible. They enjoy their privileges, but are incapable of expanding the horizon of their reality, which would involve developing and exploiting all of the economic, political and social potential of their own societies.

In a speech made while president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Enrique Iglesias illustrated the political culture of Latin America’s elites when he lamented their tendency to “tolerate” poverty, inefficiency and underdevelopment. This “tolerance” is correlative with an aversion to economic and political risk. Latin America’s capitalists have defended the market economy, but never dared assume the risks implied in promoting the organization of truly competitive environments for the expansion and development of the region’s markets. Most of the economic groups and sectors currently supporting neoliberal free trade do so while firmly grasping the hand of transnational capital.

From the Latin American elites’ aversion to economic risk comes their resistance to facilitating the democratization of relations between the state and society in the region. They prefer to operate with states that can be colonized by their own interests, as is the case of states in the Southern Cone with a corporativist tradition, or with states that can be directly manipulated to reproduce the unequal distribution of wealth and power, as is the case of the Central American states with an oligarchic tradition.

How the idea of “state” was
born and grew in Europe

Different value systems generate different kinds of state and institutionalized social practices. In Latin America, the elites’ “tolerance” and the masses’ fatalism express an absence of responsibility for history. Given that the state is a condensation of the culture and values around which life in a given society is organized, that cultural attitude of irresponsibility became reflected in the functioning of the state in the region.

In Europe, in contrast, modernity led to the emergence of the state as a structure of domination that recreated the social order in accordance with the new material reality of capitalism and a new vision of the relationship among God, history and humanity. In that new vision, God shares the task of ordering humanity’s destiny with the state, as expressed dramatically by Hobbes in 1651: “This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defense.”

The definition of an intermediary plane—that of reason—between the state and God constituted the starting point for the emergence and unfolding of social histories regulated by the state. As part of this process, according to Carl Schmitt, philosophy gradually replaced theology and the idea of the “Omnipotent God” was replaced by that of the “Omnipotent Legislator.”

The modern state was the institutional expression of a profound cultural and social change. The vision of history as a process that could and should be controlled by an organized political will translated—particularly from the 17th century—into a structure of domination and an administrative apparatus endowed with the necessary fiscal, economic, legal and military capacity to organize the development of European society.

That same modern vision of history was expressed in the development of civil society and citizen’s rights. In England, for example, it led to the consolidation of civil rights in the 18th century, political rights in the 19th century and social rights in the 20th century. As T.H. Marshall has demonstrated, the development of all these rights counteracted the power of the state and the market-generated inequalities.

Michael Mann argues that the expansion and consolidation of civil society caused the European state to lose its “despotic power” and develop its “structural power.” This increased its capacity to “penetrate and coordinate the activities of civil society in a centralized manner through its own infrastructure.” At the same time, the development of citizens’ rights gradually diminished the state’s capacity to impose its will on society in the absence of “institutionalized practices of negotiation.” What David Held calls “a relation of congruence” came to be established between the state and society.

Secular Liberal states?

Latin America did not experience the cultural break expressed in Europe with the displacement of the “Omnipotent God” by the “Omnipotent Legislator.” The separation between church and state that occurred in many countries during the 19th century did not grow out of a change in our societies’ religious culture and mentality.

Mexico’s 19th-century liberalism, for example, was anti-clerical above all. Octavio Paz called it “declamatory.” The same can be said of Colombia, whose 1863 Constitution decreed religious freedom, removed the name of God from the text and established a clear separation between church and state. As Rodolfo de Roux points out, however, that just implied “the laicization decreed by a not-yet secularized society.” After the Constitution was proclaimed in 1863, the Colombian Catholic Church continued to preserve its “hegemony over control of the symbolic goods of salvation.” The Colombian case was repeated in other Latin American countries.

The permanence and weight of the Omnipotent and Providential God in Latin American culture is institutionally expressed in the weakness of the region’s states and the fragile and partial structures of citizens’ rights. The weakness of the states can be seen, among other things, in their limited capacity for social regulation, low levels of legitimacy and, in more general terms, poor managerial capacity to promote development. Some states have not even achieved a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

Weak states that float above
populations devoid of citizenship

The weakness of the Latin American state co-exists with the political weakness of society, which has historically fed off a “state citizenship” model that the current democratic experiments have been unable to supplant. Unlike the European case, such citizenship does not grow out of the development of society’s capacity to condition how the state functions. Rather, it is based on the capacity developed by groups and sectors of society to set out and negotiate their demands from within the sphere of state action. As Enzo Faletto says, citizenship in Latin America has become “a claim to a particular relation with the state more than a demandto the state.”

After almost two centuries of national life, citizens’ rights in Latin America remain deplorable. The above-mentioned 2004 UNDP study confirms this assertion and reveals a depressing panorama of what the United Nations defines as “integral citizenship”: the full recognition of political, civil and social citizenship. The precarious nature of the principle of citizenship allows the region’s states to float above societies that have no capacity to determine the governments’ priorities, a situation that has deteriorated even further with the institutionalization of the neoliberal state model.

Neoliberalism has made things worse

Over the last 25 years, the Latin American state has been reorganized according to the pressures of the global market and the international finance organizations. This has considerably reduced both the governments’ capacity to respond to their own populations’ needs and the societies’ power to condition state action.

But neoliberalism is not just a process of economic and institutional transformations. It is also a cultural phenomenon aimed at establishing and normalizing a world ethical system that, in Latin America, ends up perversely mixing with the dominant religious and political cultures. Any effort to articulate a model of relations between the state and society as an alternative to neoliberalism, therefore, must consider the subjective dimension of neoliberal economic and institutional development.

In the neoliberal model, the market is the independent variable to which all other components of the social equation—labor rights, the role of education, the role of the state, social policy and the whole material basis on which the development of society and human dignity depend—must adjust. In this regard, neoliberalism represents a break with the Western democratic political thinking that has tried since the 17th century to integrate and balance capitalist instrumental rationality with the substantive rationality that incorporates the liberal principles of justice, solidarity and social equality. From that perspective, democracy must be seen as a tense, and occasionally contradictory, relationship between those two rationalities.

According to capitalist instrumental rationality, the goodness or badness of an action is determined by the material results achieved in accordance with the market rules. The ethical-social implications of the dynamic of capital are not among the problems that rationality addresses. In contrast, substantive rationality, the basis for the idea of democracy, establishes that the goodness or badness of an action is not measured by its material results or its degree of efficiency, but by its adherence to fundamental principles such as social justice and human dignity.

Countering the market’s tendency to
create social fragmentation and inequality

Within the framework of an instrumental rationality, the possibility of a decent and secure life depends on the individual’s capacity to operate successfully within the market. On the contrary, the substantive values of democracy establish people’s dignity as the independent variable to which the organization of the economy and society must be adapted.

The rule of law is the main institutional expression of the balance that advanced democratic and capitalist societies try to achieve between the market’s instrumental rationality and the substantive rationality that incorporates the principles of equality and social justice. The rule of law protects the market, limits state power and counteracts the most harmful social effects of the logic of capital.

The substantive rationality that forms part of the philosophy of the rule of law is a secularized expression of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which in its Protestant and post-reform Catholic versions is the basis for the development of the Liberal political ideology and the principles of fraternity and solidarity proclaimed by the French Revolution. Those principles are a counterweight to the market’s tendency to generate social fragmentation and inequality.

The lack of an ethic: Neither Weber nor Marx

The instrumental rationality of Latin American capitalism has never come up against a cultural counterweight like the one faced by European capitalism. Latin American Christianity never became a self-dignifying ethic of life able to generate a Weberian vision that is both utilitarian and community-based. Nor did it turn into a democratic, bourgeois, capitalist culture that generated citizens’ rights “a la Marx.”

Latin American Catholicism has almost always functioned as a subjective and individual experience. The social doctrine of the Catholic Church did not translate into a philosophy, much less a model of social organization that could fulfill the functions of Europe’s rule of law. It should, however, be pointed out that Catholic social doctrine has had important effects in the region’s most materially and culturally developed countries. The high level of educational development and the presence of a working class in Chile, for example, made the content and language of the Rerum Novarum papal encyclical at the end of the 20th century socially significant there. In contrast, it had no impact in Nicaragua, an eminently peasant country whose clergy lacked the capacity to contextualize the essence of its message.

Liberation theology challenged providentialism

The generalized impact in the region of the Church’s Vatican II social doctrine is an exceptional case. Its main expression was liberation theology, which challenged the providentialist cosmovision in Latin America. The integrating thinking of that theology humanized Christianity, transforming the gospel into a message with historical and social significance.

The fate of liberation theology is well known. Pope John Paul II attacked it, seeing it as a threat to Church unity. Faced with the idea of “structural sin”—developed by liberation theology to describe the functioning in Latin America of “sinful” social structures that Christians needed to combat—the Vatican defended the concept of sin as an individual condition that could only be overcome through personal conversion. And John Paul II responded to liberation theology’s attempt to highlight Christians’ responsibility for history by accelerating the canonizations and beatifications that helped reinforce the internalizing, subjectivist and emotional tradition that forms part of the providentialist vision of God and history in Latin America.

Benedict XVI has continued the process initiated by John Paul II. The former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has maintained the blockade on the rights of women and homosexuals, while at the same time helping to re-enchant the world by reviving the idea of “hell.”

The providential God could be a neoliberal

The providentialism of the Catholic Church and the Pentecostal and charismatic movements combines perversely with neoliberal culture, reinforcing the most damaging aspects of the instrumental rationality around which the market is currently being organized and expanded. A mind trained to believe in a God that decides everything is a mind conditioned to experience history as a process removed from its own political action and that of society. Such an attitude fits right in with the neoliberal effort to immunize economic decisions against political and social struggle.

In the same way, a mind accustomed to seeing the world as an enchanted space in which humanity co-exists with supernatural forces that define its destiny is a mind conditioned to accept the quasi-religious visions of the market offered by the main neoliberal theoreticians. As François Houtart explains, these theoreticians present the market as an abstract, complex, spontaneous, self-generated and self-regulated order that mysteriously creates a set of relations that leads to the good of all, “neutralizing envy and rivalry.” Moreover, a society that perceives politics as an effort to pragmatically and resignedly adjust to the circumstances is a society conditioned to accept the social costs imposed by neoliberalism and the global market.

Finally, the idea of a God that decides everything is a convenient disguise to hide the “invisible hand” of the market, which indicates who eats, who starves, who lives and who dies in today’s world. John Paul II himself only contributed to the confusion on his visits to Eastern Europe and Latin America when he preached that the finger of God was responsible for the fall of the Berlin wall and the failure of real socialism.

The responsibility of the social sciences

The social sciences, particularly studies on the state and political development in Latin America, must abandon the dogma of secularization that has served as a premise. To do so they must help disclose the cultural, political and religious values that strengthen the market. More concretely, they must help expose the beliefs and meanings that provide normative dignity to the neoliberal model. If they fail to do so, the religious subjectivities and cultural meanings that underpin the market society will remain concealed in a pre-theoretical silence that helps “naturalize” the institutions in which the power and interests of capital are materialized.

But the responsibility of the Latin American social sciences does not stop there. They must also shed their prejudices to assume the task of transforming Latin American religious and political culture and counteracting its most damaging tendencies. They must accept that their work takes place in a territorial and mental space in which the secular and sacred, the modern and pre-modern intertwine to produce a still un-theorized hybrid. And that hybrid is dangerous because it acts against democracy, development and citizens’ rights.


Andrés Pérez Baltodano is a political science professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada and an envío collaborator. This article is reproduced with the permission of Nueva Sociedad, in whose July-August edition (number 210) on “The State in Latin America” it first appeared. This version has been edited and translated by envío.

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