The North South Divide

The doctrinal split within Roman Catholicism and other Christian sects explained by historian Philip Jenkins is between what he calls the North (U.S. and Europe) and the South (third-world countries in the Southern hemisphere).22 Indeed, denominational splits between Christian churches and sects within the United States and other advanced countries over doctrine are of a lesser order of magnitude than in the less developed world. And, as an economic theory of religious form predicts, this is also to be expected. High income societies, sophisticated in science and technology, are undergoing, in evolutionary fashion, changes in the forms of religion and belief systems. Where religious tolerance and forms are constitutionally protected, splintering within particular religions is expected. But fundamentalist, rule-oriented, highly ritualistic, and/or time-intensive forms of religion and magic are inversely related to income and level of scientific and economic development. Religions, including evangelical Christian forms in the underdeveloped world, espouse medieval values against those of the advanced liberal nations, and they are growing rapidly. What is the reason for this growth?

Clearly, many of the nations of the underdeveloped world are plagued by unstable governments and property rights encouraging a substitution of the security of religion for political security. The historically high concentration and participation rate of Roman Catholics in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of South and Central America is evidence of this phenomenon. Low incomes, poverty, disease, low life expectancy, and a host of other factors all create an extreme risk aversion to liberal and highly abstract forms of Christianity. The security and joint products of ritualistic behavior permit such people to quell anxiety and risk. Low employment levels and wage rates reduce the opportunity cost and value of time. Other things being equal, the full price of participation in rule-driven and ritualistic religions is low to these low-income, poorly educated, and highly risk-averse individuals. This is especially so in underdeveloped environments where political instability and uncertain property rights exist.

The movement to religious evangelical conservatism in Pentecostal and Roman Catholic forms has been emblematic of Latin American Christianity. Political scientist Anthony Gill, for example, argues quite cogently that competitive pressures on the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America led to particular policies on the part of the bishops toward authoritarian regimes. He argues, correctly in our view, that in a sample of twelve Latin countries "progressive" Catholicism in Latin America, especially among the poor, is the product of competition with fundamentalist (Pentecostal) sects and animistic cults.23 So-called liberation theology is prevalent where this competition exists and is absent where it does not. In countries without serious competition for Catholicism, bishops and the Church are generally far more amenable to military dictators and authoritarian regimes. Closer to our own theory of religious form, it is important to note that conservative Latin American religions focus on community—local support groups that concentrate on the needs of families and on political ends. While views on marriage are evolving in Peru, for example, matching similar changes in advanced nations,24 the presence of political instability in countries such as El Salvador has provided great impetus to conservative forms of religion, as our theory predicts. According to researcher Illeana Gomez, "For both Pentecostals and Catholics in San Francisco Gotera, religion has provided continuity in the face of the fragmentation produced by the civil war and its aftershocks. Religious practice has helped maintain and re-create a background of common experiences and bonds though which the local population, especially young people, can construct personal and collective identities, loyalties, and commitments.''25 These conservative movements have formed in the face of political repression and in particular places have underpinned liberation and pluralistic political movements. Political difficulties in such countries as Nicaragua and El Salvador are perhaps extreme examples of how religious forms respond to risk determinants, but the combination of poverty and low levels of education throughout Latin America helps explain the growth of ritualistic Catholicism and conservative-evangelical sects on that continent and in other less developed parts of the world. Naturally, many forms of these general religions have developed depending on local circumstances.

Examples of this phenomenon are plentiful and fascinating. The many forms of religious practice by Latin Americans, Mexicans, and Native Americans of the U.S. American Southwest, especially those combining a Spanish version of Roman Catholicism with magic and spiritualistic rituals, fit well within the theory. Those in poverty are often close to the survival constraint. While the stock of formal religious capital may be Roman Catholic, more immediate and empirical services are often needed. Reference and practice often conform to even earlier religious influences, such as those of pre-Columbian societies. The rituals surrounding the Day of the Dead (November 2), for example, clearly combine Christian and pre-Columbian ritual. In Mexico and in the American Southwest, the use of milagros are common. Believers deposit small (usually metal) replicas of particular body parts afflicted with a malady (e.g., arms, feet, heart) in the churches in hopes of receiving healing from God or by the intercession of a saint. Literally meaning "miracles," milagros are part of the North American Spanish culture. Many other offerings and supplications are made for specific purposes (e.g., candles for finding a lover) or for warding off evil spirits.

Economic development in these low-income regions can be expected to have predictable effects on the forms of religion chosen and the evangelical-fundamentalist forms are growing, including an extremely conservative Roman Catholicism.26 How much economic growth and how long it will take to affect changes is problematical, however. While the enhanced scientific prospects for human survival in the advanced parts of the world help reduce the human dread and uncertainty associated with mortality, these problems have not disappeared for large segments of humanity. Ramifications for mainline Christian churches due to the North-South divide may be dramatic and enduring if trends continue.

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