What follows here is a thoughtful and fascinating overview of pentecostal history and politics in Latin America, one of three continents included in the The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s Spirit and Power, a global survey of pentecostal and charismatic Christians that was released just months ago.
The survey found that Pentecostalism indeed has become a significant part of Latin America’s religious and political landscape in recent years.
Especially since the 1960s, the region has witnessed dramatic growth in the number of pentecostals.
According to 2005 figures from the World Christian Database, pentecostals represent 13%, or about 75 million, of Latin America’s population of nearly 560 million.
Charismatic members of non-pentecostal denominations, who in Latin America are overwhelmingly Catholic, number an additional 80 million or so, or 15% of the population.
As recently as 1970, pentecostals and charismatics combined represented no more than 4% of the region’s population.
Pentecostals are not Latin America’s only “evangélicos,” as Protestants are normally called in the region.
The Protestant community also includes mainline churches such as Presbyterian, Lutheran and Anglican, which were established by European immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
But pentecostals represent the most rapidly growing sector of Latin American Protestantism.
For example, in Brazil, which has by far the region’s largest Protestant population in absolute terms, the national census shows that pentecostals grew from less than 50% of Protestants in 1980 to 68% in 2000.
In Central America, pentecostals grew from 37% of Protestants in 1965 to more than half by the 1980s (Freston 2004a: 228).
Today, according to the World Christian Database, pentecostals make up some 73% of all Latin American Protestants.
Pentecostal growth varies significantly from country to country. At the upper end are Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, in all of which pentecostals represent more than 10% of the national populations, according to the World Christian Database.
At the lower end are Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Peru, where pentecostals represent well below 10% of the population. However, some of the countries with small pentecostal populations, such as Mexico, Colombia and Peru, also are currently witnessing significant pentecostal growth.
The impact of pentecostalism on Latin America’s religious landscape has been profound.
It has led, for example, to a dramatic increase in the number of pentecostal churches in important urban centers.
A major 1992 survey of religious institutions in the Greater Rio area of Brazil found that 61% of all existing churches were pentecostal.
It also found that this proportion was rapidly increasing, with pentecostal churches accounting for roughly nine-in-ten congregations registered in the preceding two years (1990-1992).
In one Catholic diocese in Greater Rio, Protestant places of worship outnumbered Catholic ones by two-to-one, and in the poorest districts the ratio climbs to almost seven-to-one (Freston 2004a: 231).
Since the early 1980s, Latin America’s rapidly expanding pentecostal community has exercised an increasingly important role in public life. Guatemala, for instance, has seen two pentecostal presidents.
Brazil has witnessed the formation of an evangelical congressional caucus that consists largely of pentecostals and includes about 10% of the country’s parliamentarians. Chile’s pentecostals host an annual independence day celebration attended by the president.
And Nicaragua’s pentecostals founded a political party that has fielded presidential candidates and won seats in congress.
Several factors have stimulated the recent spate of pentecostal politics:
Demographics. As pentecostals have approached from a quarter to a third of the population in some Latin American countries, they have sought a greater share of public influence and political representation.
Democratization. In 1976, according to Freedom House, only nine countries in Latin America and the Caribbean were considered free, while 18 were considered partly free or not free. In 2006, 22 countries in the region are considered free, while only 11 are partly free or not free.
Widespread and enduring democratization has given many groups in Latin America — pentecostals included — a greater opportunity to organize politically and influence their governments.
Catholic political privilege. Until recently, many Latin American governments have provided special benefits to the Catholic Church, including direct subsidies, control over religious education in government schools and a monopoly on hospital and military chaplaincies.
In a few cases, such privileges continue (Sigmund 1999: 1-8). Pentecostals have entered politics partly to abolish these benefits or to insist that they be made available to the region’s growing Protestant communities as well.
In Latin America, moral issues such as abortion and homosexuality have not ignited the kinds of “culture wars” seen in the U.S., partly because much of the region remains fairly conservative on these and similar issues.
However, left-of-center groups in some countries have floated serious, and occasionally successful, proposals to liberalize government policies on abortion, divorce and homosexuality.
These proposals have helped spur pentecostal political mobilization. For example, it was partly in order to block the proposed liberalization of constitutional provisions concerning abortion and homosexuality that pentecostals in Brazil increased their political involvement after the country’s post-junta political “opening” (abertura) in 1986. (The effort to block liberalization succeeded on homosexuality but failed on abortion.)
Pentecostalism’s growing presence in Latin American society and politics is attracting the attention of some of the region’s most prominent politicians.
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva openly courted pentecostal and other evangelical voters in the runoffs of the October 2002 elections. For the October 2006 elections, Lula’s Workers Party forged an alliance with the Brazilian Republican Party, which the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, one of Brazil’s largest pentecostal churches, helped organize in 2005.
Responding to the concerns of pentecostals and other Protestants, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, elected in December 2005, has established a new religious affairs office to equalize government treatment of the country’s diverse religious groups.
At the same time, pentecostalism’s growing societal presence and political clout have attracted criticism and fueled political conflict. Catholic leaders, including the late John Paul II, have described the growth of pentecostal churches as an “invasion of the sects” that is robbing Latin America of its Catholic culture and destroying its social cohesion.
After all, the region remains a Catholic stronghold, with an estimated 490 million Roman Catholics, more than any other region in the world.