The Evangelical Wave in Latin America – An Internal Revolution

In Latin America the big movement these days is not oligarch vs. communist or state religion vs. liberation theology but rather evangelical vs. Catholic. The evangelical movement is huge and continues to gain ground in Central America.

In Central America as a whole, the percentage of Protestants is on average 16%, up from virtually nothing 20 years ago. That’s a total of about 82 million out of a total population of 513 million. In Guatemala, the most Protestant of the historically Catholic countries of Central America, the percentage is much higher, 35% of all Guatemalans are Protestant. The growth rate of evangelicalism in Latin America is on the order of 10% per year. Worldwide there has been a greater than 6,500% increase in evangelicalism, from 73 million in 1970 to 480 million in the mid-90s. That’s giving Islam a run for its money and is beating the stuffing out of Catholicism, which has increased in the same time frame only 40%.

In remote areas of the Guatemalan highlands you will see evangelical preachers, clad in worn dungarees and blue work shirts preaching after dark at roadside open-air chapels, concrete plattes with corrugated tin roofs, supported by metal columns, holding a Bible in one hand and with the other gesturing underneath the fluorescent lights to the congregation of Mayan Indians, sitting on plank benches. The charismatic Protestantism has high-profile adherents as well, including former Guatemalan dictator and current presidential candidate, Efrain Rios Montt. But most of its devotees are the poor and dispossessed.

It indicates a dissatisfaction, but with what? I think it would be an interesting trend to explore — how has evangelicalism replaced secular philosophies of rebellion? Why the turn away from liberation theology to a theology of internal, personal, non-political salvation? How is the Catholic church responding? It would shine a light not just on Central America but on the role of religion in general among those who’ve endured too much political strife to no apparent good end. How different are the dispossessed that choose evangelicalism from those who choose fundamental Islam? Where are they the same? South America is also experiencing this growth — along with parts of Africa and East Asia.

What is it that Evangelicalism provides that is missing from the dominant religious traditions of these areas? As well as assessing the “what” and the “whys,” the article would turn on the “what now?” In other words, not only what does this change tell us about the past and present of Central America (as well as Latin America, Africa and east Asia), but what can it tell us about the future? Possible causes (these are merely avenues of investigation, not theses): A belief on the part of the practitioners that historical “faiths,” from liberation theology Catholicism to communism, have born little fruit. A desire on the part of practitioners to hitch their wagons to the dominant faith (and “work ethic”) of richer countries, specifically the US. An exhaustion, by decades of violence, that has driven people to a more internal, less political spirituality.

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