Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 409 | Agosto 2015


Latin America

How the Evangelical communities have grown

The Evangelical population is growing all over Latin America; including Nicaragua and the rest of Central America. This schematic summary of three stages in which the quantitative growth and the qualitative variants of Evangelical growth in the continent can be classified is offered as an issue open for debate and reflection.

Julio Córdova Villazón

The Evangelical movement’s politically conservative expressions in Latin America—in particular its persistent struggle in alliance with the Catholic hierarchy against the decriminalization of abortion and marriage equality—have gained notoriety in recent years. Until now, social analysis has centered more on describing this phenomenon than understanding its dynamics.

A long tradition

Latin America has a long tradition of Evangelical presence, but in recent decades it has taken a significant leap, particularly Pentecostalism. This growth has strengthened its capacity to influence the public agenda through Evangelical political parties and pro-life and pro-family associations.

While at the beginning of the 20th century, the Evangelical agenda argued for separation of Church and State, today its posture against the advance of the “gay agenda” and the “ideology of gender” bring these groups closer to conservative Catholics in the struggle against liberalizing changes in family and society. What are the historic processes that have shaped the conservative Evangelical presence in these public spaces? How do religious actors establish a “sacred cosmos” and how does this construction become the basis for assuming political positions?

The positions of politically conservative Evangelicals are rooted in processes of constructing their “sacred cosmos,” which generates an affinity in them with discourses resistant to social change. In attempting to offer a panoramic view of conservative positions in Latin America’s Evangelical movement and facilitate a first approximation to this reality, the development of a schematic perspective that simplifies the nuances and complexities of the phenomenon is inevitable.

In this schematic, four stages of Protestant/Evangelical presence in Latin America’s political spaces can be distinguished: 1) the struggle for freedom of conscience in the late 19th and early 20th century; 2) the ideological polarization of the 1960s and 1970s; 3) the emergence of Evangelical political parties in the re-democratization of the 1980s and 1990s; and 4) the appearance of the pro-family and pro-life movements at the beginning of the current century.

The struggle for freedom of conscience

With a markedly liberal character, Protestantism became involved in the struggle for the separation of the Catholic Church from the State and for freedom of conscience at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

Important Protestant representatives used the press to speak out in the debate over a secular State. In alliance with the Liberal parties in power, they helped limit the Catholic Church’s influence and eliminate some of its legal privileges. During those years, the sectors that aligned with Protestantism were mainly social segments in transition: small merchants and artisans, free professionals and European migrants. The traditional sacred Catholic cosmos, legacy of the colonies, no longer made sense given their changing economic and social relations. In Protestantism, they found an opportunity to give new religious meaning to their world through dynamics of rationalization and individuation, in accordance with their competitive insertion into urban markets.

Protestant churches required cultural, legal and political spaces that permitted individuals greater freedom, not only of religious options but also economic and social ones. It was not by chance that these demands were projected into the public sphere and the political debate of the time over the issue of a secular State. During those years, the non-Catholic Christian presence in political arenas can be typified in general terms as “progressive.”

Ideological polarization

Their churches weren’t removed from the ideological polarization of the convulsive sixties and seventies in Latin America. While a small segment was committed to the struggle for human rights and/or socialism, contributing to the development of Liberation Theology, the majority assumed a passive posture that ended up legitimizing the military dictatorships of the seventies and early eighties, accepting them as the best option.

Latin America’s initial industrialization, following the crisis of the thirties and lasting through the fifties and sixties, had two consequences: it expanded the middle class and promoted massive rural migration to the cities. The urban expansion in Latin America that began accelerating as of 1930 increased the urban population from 33% to 44% between 1940 and 1960. By 1990, it had reached 72%.

Such vast social sectors in transition required new interpretative frameworks to give meaning to their changing life conditions. It was in this context that the Evangelical churches multiplied. According to a 2014 study by the Corporación Latinobarómetro,

“Las religiones en tiempos del Papa Francisco”

(Religions in the time of Pope Francis), the Evangelical movement was miniscule in the majority of Latin American countries until the crisis of 1930, when the social changes generated by this recession produced exponential growth in Evangelical groups. From being less than 2% of the population in Latin America as a whole at that time, by 2013 what are largely newer Evangelical groupings made up between 5% of the population in Paraguay and 40% in Guatemala, with significant percentages (30%-40%) in a large part of Central America and in some South American countries like Chile (25%) and Brazil (21%). This growth runs parallel to the steady shrinking of Catholicism in a continent traditionally considered Catholic, from over 95% of the population prior to 1930 to 67% in 2013.

These new Evangelical groupings have shifted away from liberal Protestantism’s sacred cosmos based on individual freedom at the beginning of the 20th century. On the one hand, they’ve constructed a cosmos centered on obedience, order and discipline among the strata of the urban poor, and on the other a festive and effervescent cosmos in search of recognition, especially by the rural migrants who swelled the growing Pentecostal movement, the largest expression among the Evangelical communities in Latin America today. Pentecostalism is characterized by a fundamentally emotive spirituality, with ecstatic experiences during worship (the gift of speaking in tongues, miracle healings, dance) and by a predominantly oral culture. All of this enables it to adapt to the continent’s different social and cultural contexts.

These religious spaces, in which members develop predispositions to work and discipline that help them integrate into the urban labor market, also promote a passive or disinterested posture regarding “politics,” a non-confrontational attitude toward political and economic power. There’s a proliferation of religious discourse on “obedience to authorities” and “responsible work.”


The generally discouraging initial re-democratization process following the “long night of the generals” combined with the debt crisis in what Latin America refers to as the “lost decade” of the eighties are interconnected, with the financial crisis creating family and job instability and, as a result, existential instability.

Deep transformations occurred in Latin America’s traditional family structure between the seventies and the new century: divorce increased by 170% and the percentage of people in free unions increased from 12.5% to 33%, particularly among those with high education levels. The age of initial sexual activity remained at about 16, but the average marrying age went from 21 to 30. All these trends called into question the traditional monogamous, heterosexual, nuclear and patriarchal family. Thousands of people joined Evangelical churches principally motivated by a communal emotive-effervescence in the case of the Pentecostals or an individual and intimate one as is the style of the Neo-Pentecostals. Their central motivation for entering these faith communities was to recuperate their emotional stability and maintain the traditional family unity, threatened by all the social and cultural changes occurring in the late 20th century.

Meanwhile, the political party systems consolidated as institutional mediators between the State and civil society. The new Evangelical converts, particularly those of the upper class accustomed to political activity, formed parties they presented to society as “the voice of Evangelicals” or formed social organizations such as the Indigenous Evangelical Federation of Ecuador. The grassroots Evangelical vote served to consolidate clientelist relations between political actors and religious leaders and to get religious representatives included on the lists of diverse parties, as occurred in Brazil, Peru or Guatemala. In this context, the Evangelical electoral support tended to be used opportunistically in favor of diverse interests.

Pro-life and pro-family movements

The construction of sacred cosmoses oriented toward stability and security in response to the situations of social and family disintegration at the end of the 20th century generated an anti-change attitude in various Evangelical groups by the beginning of this century.

The relational contexts that permit a sacred, stable and ordered cosmos are basically hierarchical in both families and religious communities. As a result, proposals to expand the promotion of and respect for sexual and reproductive rights, principally legal recognition of families with homosexual parents and decriminalization of abortion, are perceived as direct threats to the traditional family. Pro-life and pro-family movements were thus formed in the Evangelical sphere as they were in the Catholic Church. In the earlier stage, these movements didn’t seek direct Evangelical political representation but tried to pressure existing political actors to reject what they call the “gay agenda” and the “ideology of gender.”

Conversions and sacred cosmoses

US Lutheran theologian and sociologist Peter Berger coined the term “plausibility structures” to refer to the vital contexts that serve as social supports for religious communities to construct sacred cosmoses. These cosmoses are both subjective and objective symbolic-discursive structures that permit a person to give meaning to everyday existence, seeing what is sacred and transcendent as the ultimate factor in explaining the “order of things.”

To understand the political positions of Evangelicals in Latin America, it is first necessary to study how they construct specific sacred cosmoses and the relational contexts in which they construct them. Once this “basis of religious experience” is understood, the subsequent political positions can be discerned. Four dynamics of Evangelical religious experience must be analyzed to do this: conversion processes, plausibility (or relational) structures, symbolic universes and political orientations.

Conversion processes allow us to understand the linkage between socioeconomic and cultural conditions and the relational structures of the production of meaning. At root, all conversion is the result of the inadequacy of traditional symbolic religious structures that no longer provide meaning for the new conditions of life. Conversion is a migration, or more precisely, a process of producing new symbolic structures that give meaning to emerging socioeconomic and cultural conditions. Three basic types of conversion can be distinguished for the majority of Evangelicals in Latin America: futuristic breakdown, adaptive and stabilizing. Such conversion processes are closely related to particular relational and symbolic structures.

Three types of conversion:
Breakdown, adaptation and stabilization

The conversion of futuristic breakdown occurred primarily at the beginning of the 20th century with liberal Protestantism, and in small communities with the liberating Protestantism of the sixties and seventies. This type of conversion implies a rupture with the predominant social and symbolic universes in order to imagine a better world with more freedom and equality. It tends to crystalize in contexts in which religious experience is highly rationalized. In some cases, such as Christian Base Communities and the reflection groups of the sixties and seventies associated with Liberation Theology, the orientation was toward more horizontal and pluralist structures.

Adaptive conversion accompanied the limited industrial and urban growth in Latin America starting in the thirties as the sacramental and grassroots Catholicism failed to adapt to the new requirements of an urban labor force. The urban poor as well as peasants migrating to the cities broke with this traditional sacred cosmos, finding spaces better able to adapt to the urban world and its emotional, cognitive and work requirements in the Evangelical or Neo-Catholic movements such as the Catholic Worker Youth, Catholic Action, Neo-Catechumenal Movement, Catholic University Youth, and Christian Base Communities as well as in unions.

Adaptive conversion tends to occur in more rigid relational and symbolic spaces in which neither collective reflection nor emotional experience predominates. Far more relevant are the dynamics of training and development of specific abilities in a framework of discipline and asceticism.

Stabilizing conversion emerged during the economic crisis of the eighties and the weakening of traditional family ties. In this context of crisis, neither the traditional Catholic cosmos nor the ascetic Evangelical one permitted people’s emotional and social reconstruction. Migrating to more emotive and pre-rational contexts such as Pentecostalism allowed them to emotionally reconstruct themselves and their families. These conversions are associated with hierarchical structures that provide security and with strongly emotive collective or individual experiences as in Pente¬costalism.

The linkage between conversion processes and relational structures of production of meaning is what first conditions the political orientation of Evangelical religious actors. For example, futuristic breakdown and its rationalizing structures are associated with progressive positions (Protestantism at the beginning of the 20th century) or revolutionary ones (Liberation Theology of the sixties and seventies.) Adaptive conversion and its disciplinary structures tend to produce a politically passive orientation; the status quo is neither questioned nor religiously legitimated. Stabilizing conversion, with its hierarchical structures, is linked to openly conservative positions opposed to any sort of social change that threatens the personal and family stability that has been achieved.

Conversion and discourses

If the resultant political predisposition of the conversion process and the relational structures of production of meaning are to be effectively translated into a public position they must be linked to particular theological and political discourses produced by local and global elites.

For Protestantism at the beginning of the 20th century to assume a progressive position it had to have contact with political liberalism. To assume a revolutionary position, some Evangelical groups during the sixties and seventies assimilated liberation theology, aspects of dependency theory and Latin American Marxism. Starting at the same time, a large part of Latin American Evangelicals assimilated the individualistic, fundamentalist theology coming from the southern United States to legitimate their faith position. Today, to develop an openly conservative position, pro-life and pro-family groups are joining global organizational networks in which religious, legal and bio-ethical discourses circulate to legitimate their positions.

In general, this linkage of political predisposition and theological-political discourses is produced through “elective affinities.” In the framework of the circulation of various discourses, expanded by mass media and virtual social networks, there’s a certain affinity between some of them and the longstanding predispositions of religious actors, fruit of their dynamics of the construction of meaning.

There is, then, a selective attitude towards all the circulating discourses. This selectivity is translated into real linkage through the cooperation between elite producers of discourse on a global scale (within or outside of Latin America) and locally (directly related to the Evangelical congregations).

Pro-life and pro-family discourses

Theological and political discourses regarding the defense of life and the traditional family developed initially in the United States with the emergence of what is known today as the “new Christian Right,” in reaction to the progressive wave the country experienced in the sixties and seventies characterized by the demand for greater autonomy for women and equal rights for sexual diversity, among other things.

The new Christian Right is a constellation of tele-Evangelists, Evangelical universities, civil associations and institutions such as Focus on the Family, the American Coalition for Traditional Values, Americans United for Life, the Guttmacher Institute, Human Life International, etc., dedicated to producing and circulating discourses in “defense of life and the family.”

The US Christian Right has promoted the circulation of its discourse in Latin America since the seventies. For example, Focus on the Family distributes its popular weekly radio program of the same name to over 1,200 radio stations throughout the continent. The same can be said of the 700 Club program. In 2005, Focus on the Family had an annual budget of US$142 million, with over 1,200 employees in the United States alone and activities in over 80 countries.

When the agendas changed

This discourse wasn’t adopted to any significant degree by Latin American Evangelical elites in the eighties and nineties, nor was it assimilated by large religious sectors. In those years, the political orientation of those conservative elites was focused on faith-based representation in the political party system and had no explicit political discourse.

Two phenomena had to occur for the US evangelical discourse of “defense of the traditional family” to be assumed by conservative Evangelical actors in Latin America. One was the intensification, starting in the eighties, of the stabilizing conversion seeking to “restore” family stability lost during the economic crisis. The other was the fact that sexual and reproductive rights entered legislative, media and educational agendas throughout Latin America with the United Nations Conferences on Population and Development in Cairo (1994) and Women in Beijing (1995).

In this context, the new Evangelical converts involved in constructing symbolic universes geared to restoring the nuclear heterosexual family based on women’s subordination felt threatened by the cultural and normative changes related to sexual and reproductive rights and appealed to a political orientation similar to the US Christian Right.

By the beginning of this century, Evangelical pro-life and pro-family organizations were multiplying in Latin America with the fundamental objective of stopping the advance of the gay agenda (homo-parental family) and the ideology of gender (decriminalization of abortion) in the legislation of every country. Local Evangelical elites have a close relation with US Christian Right organizations and leaders. Exodus International, an umbrella institution dedicated to “reparative homosexual therapy” ended its activities in 2013 after 37 years of existence, asking forgiveness from thousands of homosexuals who had submitted to their therapies, recognizing that homosexuality is a condition, not an illness, although few of the organizations under that umbrella followed suit.

These group’s legal victories

During the first years of this century these organizations have mobilized in tactical alliance with the Catholic hierarchy and movements similar to the Catholic Church. They organize seminars, workshops, social mobilizations, legal demands and political advocacy, especially in parliaments.

If the sexual and reproductive rights agenda has made advances, pro-life and pro-family organizations have also achieved victories. In Nicaragua in 2006, they succeeded in criminalizing therapeutic abortion and eliminating any reason permitting the interruption of pregnancy from the penal code. In Costa Rica in 2000, in-vitro insemination was declared unconstitutional, resulting in a legal suit filed against the country in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

January 25 was declared “Day of the Unborn Child” in Nicaragua in 2002 and replicated in the Dominican Republic in 2001, Peru in 2002 and Ecuador in 2006. In Bolivia in 2004 they were able to block passage of the Framework Law on Sexual and Reproductive Rights already approved by Congress. And in Ecuador in 2006, the country’s Constitutional Tribunal prohibited the sale of emergency contraception pills, a decision repeated in Chile in 2008 and Peru in 2009, although two years ago Ecuador’s Ministry of Health decided to distribute the morning-after pill for free.

Following the decriminalization of abortion in Mexico DF in 2007, restrictive laws were passed in 17 Mexican states. In 2009, during the polishing of Bolivia’s new Political Constitution, these groups illegally pressured for the introduction of a definition of marriage as “the union between a man and a woman.” And in 2012 the Dominican Republic approved the constitutional protection of human life “as of conception.”

Hierarchical structures are the basis of it all

The rise of conservative positions in wide-ranging Evangelical sectors in Latin America depends not only on the influence of local and global elites circulating theological and political discourses resistant to social change. The appropriation of these discourses requires a predisposition conditioned by conversion processes that have occurred and by the dynamic of the construction of a sacred cosmos. These conversion dynamics are a way to resolve the contradiction between traditional sacred cosmoses and new vital conditions.

The stabilizing conversion predominating in the Latin American Evangelical movement since the eighties is linked to religious relational contexts characterized by the predominance of hierarchical structures in the family as well as in the faith community. These hierarchical relations permit people to reconstruct family relations affected by crisis and social transformations. The nuclear heterosexual family based on women’s “benign” subordination becomes the nucleus of religious experience for large sectors of Evan¬gelicals. The construction of the Evangelical sacred cosmos in recent decades is the basis of the predispositions against social and cultural changes that can affect the traditional, patriarchal family. It is also the basis for assimilating the pro-family and pro-life discourse of the conservative elites in Latin America and the new Christian Right in the United States.

Julio Córdova Villazón is a sociologist. This text appeared in the November 2014 issue of Nueva Sociedad under the title “Viejas y nuevas derechas religiosas en América: Los Evangélicos como factor político (Old and new religious Rights in Latin America: Evangelicals as a political factor). Edited by envío.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


Some are already milling around the electoral starting gate


We need to demand annulment of the canal concession and law

Between prison fires and media bonfires, empathy is lost

Critical thought versus the capitalist hydra

The power of theater on the Mexican-US border: Solid and liquid border vigilance (Part 4)

América Latina
How the Evangelical communities have grown
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development