Is Latin America Turning Protestant

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Latin America was colonized by Spain and Portugal during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with the result that Catholicism became the established religion of the area. The five-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492 was the subject of some controversy within the region, with many Catholic bishops and laity expressing unease over any form of celebration of the European presence in the Americas, owing to the abuses committed during and after the conquest.

European immigrants, particularly from Germany, founded small Protestant communities in many parts of the continent during the nineteenth century. An Anglican church was established in Buenos Aires in 1821. Yet Protestants—evangélicos—were generally seen as an elite minority, standing slightly outside the religious mainstream. They were never seen as a threat to the Catholic establishment, since they seemed content to retain their historic denominational beliefs and practices, usually imported from Europe, without attempting any form of outreach to the local population.

The situation of historical Latin American Protestantism has not changed significantly since the nineteenth century.16 The rise of liberation theology in the late 1960s brought some Protestant theologians in the region to wider prominence. Although liberation theology is widely regarded as a Catholic phenomenon, it is easily forgotten that some of its most prominent thinkers were Protestant—such as the Argentinean Methodist theologian José Miguez Bonino. Historic Protestants have been content to maintain their denominational identity and traditions and have not seen any significant growth in their numbers throughout Latin America. Nevertheless, they have exercised an influence far in excess of their numerical strength, partly on account of their entrepreneurial attitudes, which ultimately reflect the Protestant work ethic.

A significant debate within historic Protestantism in this region, particularly during the late 1940s, was the question of whether the Protestant community should see itself as Anglo-Saxon or as Latin. At a conference in Buenos Aires in 1949, Protestants resolved to commit themselves to work and witness within the Latin context—in effect indigenizing themselves. Yet this development had little impact on the numerical strength or missionary activity of Protestantism in Latin America.

The rise of Pentecostalism in the region, which dates from the first decade of the twentieth century, changed everything. The revival that broke out in the Methodist church at Valparaiso, Chile, in 1909 set the scene for a series of indigenous Pentecostal events throughout the region. Although this was assisted, especially in the aftermath of the Second World War, by missionaries from Pentecostal denominations in the United States, Latin American Pentecostalism has retained its own distinctive identity.

Why has Pentecostalism exploded in Latin America? Some Catholic and Marxist historians with axes to grind have had a quick and easy answer: American imperialism. Pentecostalism was the religious vanguard of a socioeconomic assault on the identity and values of Latin America. There were even dark rumors that the spread of Pentecostal-ism was due to the work of the Central Intelligence Agency during the Reagan era. However, more careful studies by sociologists and religious historians have established beyond doubt that the religious trends in question were in place long before this time.17

Careful sociological studies suggest that the accelerated transformation of Pentecostalism in Latin America has a number of causes, including its adaptive openness—characteristic of Protestantism—to local cultural beliefs and values and political issues. Yet the determining issue often seems to be accessibility. "Whereas nineteenth-century Protestant movements represented a religion of the written word, of civil and rational education, the current popular Protestant movements constitute an oral religion that is unlettered and lively."18

The rise of Latin American Pentecostalism has transformed the religious dynamic of the region. In Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, Pentecostals now far outnumber all other Protestant groups, and on some projections, they may soon constitute the majority of the population. Pentecostalism is also growing rapidly in areas adjacent to Latin America, such as the Caribbean, where Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Haiti have seen large increases in Pentecostal congregations. These developments, although noted in many research publications, have taken many in the West by surprise. Only the most obtuse could fail to realize what David Stoll's well-researched 1990 book Is Latin America Turning Protestant? was all about.19

The greatest transformation of the Latin American religious landscape in the last fifty years—if not in the last five hundred years—is the transition from a monopolistic religious economy to a free-market one. Protestantism had been a small yet significant presence in Latin America since the early nineteenth century—yet it did not flourish, even with the disestablishment of Catholicism as the official state religion throughout Latin America between the middle of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth. It was only with the development of Pentecostalism in the first decades of the twentieth century that the popular classes had a culturally appropriate alternative to Catholicism. The implications for Catholicism are obvious and have been noted with concern by the bishops of the region.

One significant response has been to develop contemporary worship styles that mimic the informality of evangelicalism and Pentecostalism while retaining the basic structure and content of Catholic worship. Neo-charismatic elements within the Catholic church have shown that the needs and expectations of many who might otherwise be drawn to Pentecostalism can be met through Catholicism. The rise of Pentecostalism outside the church has thus proved a potent catalyst for the development of the charismatic movement within it. After four centuries of religious monopoly, the Catholic church has had to get used to competition—but the indications are that it is rising to the challenge.20

The implications for classic forms of Protestantism in the region are no less significant. Having also enjoyed something of their own kind of religious monopoly for a century, traditional Protestant denominations have found themselves confronted with an alternative model of ecclesiol-ogy and spirituality that challenges some of their core presuppositions. The most important of these concern word-centered preaching and spirituality and an essentially static conception of the denomination that creates no anticipation or expectation of church growth. Latin American Protestantism has a long and distinguished record of social involvement with the poor and marginalized—but not of evangelizing them. One of the most significant outcomes of Pentecostal growth within such socioeconomic groups has been the challenge to this non-evangelistic conception of mission.21 Yet there are other challenges. The many charismatic groups in Latin America have opened up new opportunities for spiritual leadership on the part of women, challenging the male-dominated church culture of historical Protestantism in the region.22

The unexpected developments in Latin America during the twentieth century raise some significant questions. One of them has to do with the future religious shape of the United States of America. His-panics are already the largest ethnic minority in the United States, and they are predicted to become the majority within the next fifty years. It has traditionally been assumed that this will lead to the United States becoming increasingly Catholic. Yet recent developments in Latin America call any such assumption into question. The religious future of the United States remains far more open than many realize.

Perhaps a more intriguing question to emerge from the rapid growth of Protestantism in Latin America is whether this same phenomenon might occur elsewhere in the future. Might there be predominantly Catholic nations elsewhere in the global South that will experience a surge in Protestant growth as Pentecostalism expands still further? In what follows, we consider one nation where such a trend might well develop within the next two generations: the Philippines.

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