international analysis and commentary

Latin American Evangelicals and US geopolitics

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The rise of Evangelicals on the world map is far from being an irrelevant phenomenon for geopolitics and especially for the geopolitics of the United States. From the perspective of historians of religion, it is not yet clear if this phenomenon is the latest development in the so-called revanche de Dieu (according to the definition coined by Gilles Kepel) that began in the 1970s, or if it is a new feature of the complex relationship between religion and secularization in the globalized world (according the interpretation given in this last decade by Josè Casanova).

The BRIC countries and the new rising countries (like Indonesia and South Africa) are all marked from a socio-economic perspective by religious pluralism. This is particularly important for Latin America, with the rise of neo-Pentecostals and “Catholic charismatics” who were first met with suspicion by the Catholic hierarchy. Brazil especially is one of the most diverse countries in the world in terms of “devotional styles” – even within Christianity and Catholicism: theology of liberation and “Catholic charismatic renewal”; neo-protestant churches and Mormons; new Amerindian religious movements and religious communities of immigrants coming from the Middle East and Asia. This new landscape reveals substantial differences in respect to both the European and the North American cases. In Brazil, like in Canada and in the United States, society has gradually become “de-confessionalized”, that is, historical churches have lost their religious, social, and cultural monopoly. But in Brazil (like in other Latin American countries), this “de-confessionalization” has not meant secularization, but on the contrary has brought about the transformation of the religious landscape towards a more diverse mix of churches, theologies and sociological fashions of being Christian. In 2005, the percentage of Catholics in Brazil was 68.5% down from 92.5% in 1940; Evangelicals were at 20% in 2005 compared to 2.5% in 1940. Brazil’s Evangelical population ranks between Mexico (around 10% are Evangelicals) and Chile and Guatemala (32% are Evangelicals), also because Brazil seems to send a signal about the stabilization of the dynamics in the competition between different Christian denominations – namely between historical churches (especially Catholicism) and the new Evangelical churches.

It has been widely noted that the influence on Evangelicals in Latin America has been a major force in thwarting the once growing impact of leftist “liberation theology”. We wonder what all of this means for the geopolitics of the next half century. The possible geopolitical consequences for North America and the United States in the new face of Christianity in Latin America are many. On the one hand, it is clear that the features of the political and social doctrines of the different Christian denominations on the American continent (North and South) are changing more rapidly and with a more identifiable direction than the geopolitical views concerning the United States in relationship to the Americas and the rest of the world. This is deeply ironical, if we consider that the rise of Evangelicals in Latin America originated from the need of US foreign policy to offer poor Catholic masses in the central and southern part of the hemisphere a strong theological alternative – one that was ideologically and politically less threatening for the Western hemisphere than the “theology of liberation” inspired by a Marxist interpretation of the plight of the poor. The Cold War was in many ways also a “religious war” with consequences at the level of international relations between churches, as well as internally on the cultural and theological balance of individual churches especially in the United States. American evangelicalism was part of this global fight for the soul of modernity, and its diffusion in Latin America was a hallmark of the 1980s. It remains to be seen what the future will hold for the legacy of this Cold War “genetic material” for the Latin American religious ecosystem.

Evangelical intellectuals have traditionally suffered from the inability to formulate a vision that would go beyond the United States. At the inception of the Evangelical religious-political phenomenon in the 1920s, a sizable theologically and culturally conservative section of the movement disapproved of the concepts of modern internationalism upon which the League of Nations was based. Most, but not all, Evangelicals were moved by a belief in international cooperation on the basis of shared theological ideas; however, this was always based on the firm assumption that the United States of America was a Christian nation, blessed with a divine mission against secular internationalism. Such an assumption still remains in the international culture of Evangelicals in the US, but the new generations of Evangelicals both in the US and in Latin America seem to be less ideological than the previous generations: they seem to be socially more aware, but politically less engaged, especially in international politics.

In this scenario, the most important factor is probably the weakening of religious ties at the institutional level (among churches) between North America and Latin America – despite the millions of Latinos who migrated north in these last few decades. Many observers argue that evangelicalism in the US has already peaked, while in Latin America it is in full bloom. The first Latin American pope, the Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio, may well play a key role in the context of the growing disconnect between North and South America. Pope Francis’s grasp of the rise of Evangelicals in the “global south” might be beyond the ability of an ideologically polarized American Christianity to come to terms with this now emancipated vast area of the world.