Protestantism in Latin America

It has long been believed that Protestantism “is a sort of Trojan Horse, whose ultimate purpose is to eclipse and replace local culture while extending the cultural hegemony of the United States” (Jose Leonardo Santos, Evangelical Conversion, 2008, p. 83). According to J. Lloyd Mecham (Church and State in Latin America, 1966, p. 336), “Protestants are charged with being the advance-guard of American imperialism, who operate with immense reserves of United States gold. The United States thus is identified with Protestantism and is attacked along with it. After Costa Rica entered World War II on the side of the United States, Archbishop Victor Manuel Sanabria y Martínez lamented: ‘Proselyting Protestant propaganda is an instrument of subjection and imperialism…. If the North American political protectorate is injurious to our Hispanic and Latin political tradition, the religious protectorate is doubly injurious.'” The U.S. always brings “invasion of the sects” with it [1; 2; 3].

But it also has a benefit for non-American actors: leaving Protestantism as “a ‘safer’ option” is a potent weapon in conflict with the number-one defender of human rights, the Church. The Catholic is called to fight injustice, while the Protestant is promised an easier life. A bishop said that, for middle- and upper-class people, the Church became “an enemy because of its defense of human rights” while “the evangelical churches [were] silent — a position more acceptable to them” [1; 2], and there were defections in past decades because of this.

In El Salvador, Protestants as a whole did not suffer “the intense repression directed towards progressive Catholics. Some Catholics interpret the evangelicals’ perceived good fortune as indicative not of divine approval but of the wrongness of their religious beliefs and practice.” Not long ago, it was claimed that Evangelical pastors received kickbacks from government; interestingly, they also have a high standing in gang culture [1; 2].

The example of conversion to a sober or otherwise ‘successful’ life has been a powerful magnet” for Protestants in Guatemala. According to Thomas Joseph Metallo (The Sword of the Spirit, 1998), converts to Protestantism “sold their souls for tin roofing” after the 1976 earthquake (p. 279-281). “…[E]vangelical membership was one of the means by which individuals could climb socially and overcome the problems of urban life” (p. 348). Official government support had been given to Protestant missionaries — which were supported by Americans and Britons (p. 239-240) — “to weaken the secular power of the Roman Catholic Church” (p. 291-294). The Church was “the most retarding to [Liberals’] program of development” (p. 232). Protestants said that they were on the side of democracy and that Catholics were on the side of autocracy, because of their theologies (p. 318-319). (Thomas Jefferson wrote that “the priest…is always in alliance with the Despot”. Yet often unspoken of is “evangelicals’ historical support for military regimes”.) Priests “charged, with considerable truth, that the anticlerical laws were more rigidly enforced against Catholics than against Protestants” (Mecham, p. 322).

“To aid Evangelical missionary work, the Paraguayan government passed a law in 1909 to facilitate the establishment of Protestant missions to convert the Indian tribes” (Mecham, p. 199). (This is interesting for two reasons: firstly, because it was done in spite of the Jesuit reductions; secondly, because the U.S. government also sided with Protestants over Catholics in Native American affairs [1; 2].) The Church in Paraguay was further persecuted later in the century, and it took years for the U.S. (an ally of the dictatorship, whose aid “grease[d] the wheel of a vast network of patronage and corruption” and strengthened its military) to do anything about it.

In Bolivia, “many liberals saw Protestantism as progressive and actively encouraged its growth”, and converts have used it “to avoid expending resources on community fiestas” (one writer reports, “evangelical Protestantism and immoral accumulation are associated”). Division has empowered Evo Morales to replace Catholicism with animism as the practical state religion.

In Chile, “Quite quickly Catholic bishops fell out with Pinochet and, as a result, he invited Protestants to work with his government. The Bishop of the Methodist Pentecostal Church (IMP) invited Pinochet to the inauguration of a new cathedral, and in 1975 the IMP took over the traditional role of hosting the Te Deum service.” “The evangelical Te Deum service is held in [the] cathedral each year, and is attended by the president and other political and military leaders”. (Chile also commemorates Martin Luther with a national holiday.)

“In the hope of seeing Protestantism take root and prosper in Venezuela, Guzmán Blanco offered one of the confiscated churches to the Protestants” (Mecham, p. 107). More recently, the government of Venezuela has had strong relations with Protestants and been hostile to the Church [1; 2; 3].

And in Brazil, we are dismayed by the startling power of sects [1; 2]. Their leaders have engaged in predatory, even criminal, behavior [1; 2] (including a kickback scandal), and have campaigned hard for “the lack of respect for our faith“.

Protestants I’ve known have gone on “mission trips” to Ecuador, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Italy. Why do they choose countries with high Catholic populations? Do wolves just think of our flock as easy pickings?

[See also: State vs. Church: Bad Gov’t Hates Catholicism]


Matthew Olson is a student in the Diocese of Little Rock.

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Posted in Historical, Politics

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