Chile's president elect courts evangelicals


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Santiago -  On March 11, 2010, Chile's political right comes back to power after a fifty-year absence, and in the process has put the spotlight on Chile's religious fissures.

Not since Jorge Alessandri in 1958 has Chile elected a president from the right.  And it's been just 20 years since Augusto Pinochet ended his bloody rule.   

The right has now put its fate in the hands of multi-millionaire president-elect, Sebastián Piñera.  Piñera's coalition, normally allied with economic powers and the Catholic church, will finally get a chance to secure what it says four Concertación governments couldn't: Chile's place as a developed country. 

En route to La Moneda palace (which means "the Coin Palace" because in the 19th Century currency was minted there), Piñera had to court evangelicals, who, according to the 2005 census, account for about 20% of the population, or roughly 3 million people. That bloc was a tantalizing prize to the otherwise evenly matched forces seeking the presidency. 

The future president - owner of clinics, land holdings, soccer clubs and television channels - submitted what he called his "30 promises" to the Protestant world, which included greater equality before the law and assistance for their social ministries.  The promises all sound great, of course. 

The Catholic church in Chile has inherited innumerable privileges of position due to catholicim's role as national religion until 1925.  Since that time, the law has proclaimed that all religions are equal, but in practice, things are much different. 

For example, the 1999 Law on Religion (Ley de Culto) supposedly grants the same legal status to all religious professions.  But it is rare to see anyone except Catholic priests and officials blessing new bridges or presiding over public events. 

Protestant pastors and bishops, meanwhile, are often not even invited to attend.

Non-Catholic citizens did see important advances during the presidencies of Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet, both of whom were agnostic.  Evangelical pastors held posts in La Moneda, and the General Committee, Chile's largest evangelical association, joined in presidential events. 

This year's intense electoral battle not only pushed the presidential finalists, Eudardo Frei and Sebastián Piñera, much closer to evangelicals, it also split evangelical leaders into factions, a move that drew strong criticism.

The General Committee's leader, bishop Emilioan Soto, publicly announced his support for Frie.  Baptists and Methodists complained.  For his part, Sebastán gained the support of Pentecostals.

The big question is, what will happen on March 12?  Will the General Committee and those it represents continue supporting the government?  Will the Catholic church recover its lost footing? 

Only time will tell. 

[Photo from TravelTheWholeWorld.]