How a growing evangelical Christian community in Latin America could threaten democracy

Peruvian sociologist Dr. Jose Luiz Guadalupe. Photo by Wes Parnell.

Peruvian sociologist Dr. Jose Luiz Guadalupe. Photo by Wes Parnell.

Before delivering lectures at the United Nations and Columbia University, Dr. Jose Luiz Guadalupe made a stop at a Spanish-speaking Catholic parish on the border of the East Village to talk about his most recent book, Evangelicals and Power in Latin America.

The audience, congregated in the church basement, listened intently to what the Peruvian sociologist had to say –– they left skeptical of how a growing evangelical population in Latin America might affect their countries of origin.  

The million-dollar question for Guadalupe’s newest book is how the rise in evangelical voters will affect power and politics, human rights and the future of democracy in Latin America. Guadalupe argues that while evangelicals vote as citizens more than their identity as Christians, those votes risk becoming lost in a sea of “Neo-Pentecostalism,” a sweeping movement with non-denominational mega churches endorsing candidates and policies and even forming political parties around an evangelical political vision.

Guadalupe, a devout Catholic and Peru’s former Minister of the Interior, has been studying and tracking evangelical growth in Latin America for well over a decade. Evangelicals and Power in Latin America, published last year, took form in 2015 after Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), a German based think tank, reached out to Guadalupe.

After a growing evangelical population in different parts of Africa put the life of minority groups and LGBTQ communities at risk, KAS decided to research evangelical movements in developing countries. Guadalupe was their scholar of choice for Latin America. 

More churches are becoming politically active

The term evangelical covers a diverse range of Protestant Christians but is typically used to describe a core belief that one needs to transform his or her life to follow Jesus and be “born again.” Evangelicals also emphasize a more literal interpretation of the Bible and missionary efforts to preach the Bible to others, which can include social reform and activism meant to demonstrate the gospel rather than articulate it with words.

In the U.S, evangelicals shifted from being outside of politics to the forefront. Starting in the 70’s, evangelicals in the U.S. began voting as a religious block, pastors began endorsing candidates and the evangelical church began vying for politicians that would bring their mission to D.C. and the national stage. Guadalupe refers to this as the “Neo-Pentecostal” movement, a shift he attributes to televangelists preaching the prosperity gospel and the idea of bringing heaven to earth.

This is not the case in Latin America ­­­­­­­­­­­­yet, according to Guadalupe.

“What we see in America lately is an influx in Neo-Pentecostals, that are part of the politically right movement,” he said. “They are part of the evangelical conservative lineage and the evangelicals in Latin America are not reflected in their ideologies.”

Today, 19 percent of Latin Americans identify as evangelical compared to 9 percent in 1960. Only 69 percent identify as Catholic compared to 90 percent in 1960, according to Pew Research Center.  But these figures do not necessarily translate to votes.

Despite their rapid growth, evangelicals in Latin America do not vote as a group and do not necessarily vote for evangelical candidates. They vote for candidates on both sides of the political spectrum and do not have a governing or unifying body, Guadalupe said.

Dr. Jose Luiz Guadalupe speaks at an event sponsored by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the German think tank. Photo by Wes Parnell.

Dr. Jose Luiz Guadalupe speaks at an event sponsored by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the German think tank. Photo by Wes Parnell.

“The vast majority of evangelicals, much like Catholics, vote as citizens,” Guadalupe said in an interview with Religion Unplugged. “The religious factor does not determine their elections, especially not presidential elections. There has never been a president in Latin America who has ever arrived to power because of a confessional vote.” 

And while evangelicals have been exponentially growing, they are massively underrepresented in elected positions. In Brazil, 32 percent of the population is evangelical while only 16 percent of Brazil’s elected positions are held by politicians that identify as evangelicals.

Still, evangelicals in Latin America have consistently unified around one issue, the “moral agenda,” as Guadalupe calls it.

The moral agenda is comprised mainly of legislation against abortion and LGBTQ movements. The agenda supports traditional gender roles and marriage. But, unlike in the U.S, the moral agenda crosses party lines. It is neither left nor right in most Latin American countries. And sometimes, as seen in Chile’s 2017 presidential election, both the left and right court Christians.

Large churches are becoming politically active to fight against what they see as morally wrong. They are endorsing candidates, fund raising, and even creating political parties, dragging church members toward the idea of a pseudo-Christian state. Guadalupe sees this as not only dangerous for society but dangerous for the integrity of the evangelical community.

A baptism at Igreja Baptista de Agua Branca (IBAB), an evangelical megachurch in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo by Wes Parnell.

A baptism at Igreja Baptista de Agua Branca (IBAB), an evangelical megachurch in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo by Wes Parnell.

A shift from community concerns to the individual

Guadalupe makes it clear that evangelicals tend to adhere to ecclesial tradition in Latin America. They focus on community and vote for candidates they think will advance the common good for everyone, no matter their faith background. But, this is at risk, he thinks.

American evangelicals have been coaching Christians in Latin America on how to court political parties, become lobbyists and fight gay marriage, according to Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College.

The Neo-Pentecostal movement coming down from the U.S. moves away from tradition and austerity toward a materially prosperous idea of the individual and his or her nation. It is characterized by large, non-denominational churches, with celebrity-like pastors and a lack of accountability. The churches run much like businesses and have their eyes set on power, according to Guadalupe.

“I see a difference with them [traditional evangelicals] and the apostolate, self-appointed prophets and Neo-Pentecostals,” he said. “The classical evangelical pastor belongs to the church and they are very austere. In the Neo-Pentecostal movement, I see no austerity. Pastors no longer belong to a church; the church belongs to them. They do not belong to a denomination or tradition but form their own churches. They become the Mega-business of Magical Religions.”

The Neo-Pentecostal movement has endorsed candidates, formed coalitions and formed political parties. While no evangelical parties have come to power yet, the problem with this politically-motivated religious movement is that they eschew complex politics and the science behind policy-making for a populist and what they believe is a divinely-inspired pursuit of the moral agenda, Guadalupe believes. He also fears they run the risk of fragmenting society along the lines of church and state on what they define as the moral standard for sex, marriage and families.

In an interview with Religion Unplugged, Guadalupe explained that these Neo-Pentecostal parties create echo chambers that run the risk of excluding important parts of society and potentially violating human rights. He explained that their policies are built on a platform of “anti” as opposed to an “encompassing” approach to complex issues like abortion, gender rights, minority groups and non-Christian parts of society. He sees the Neo-Pentecostal movement as capable of infringing on rights that protect a pluralistic society and democracy.

“Evangelicals have been discriminated against based off of their social class, for being a religious minority, and for going against the Catholic monopoly that has been around for five centuries,” Guadalupe said. “They have fared well and they have achieved religious liberty. But now I see certain signs of them becoming discriminators. Evangelicals run the risk of passing from being discriminated against to the ones who are doing the discriminating.”