Evangelicals rise in Latin America

Havana, Cuba - As Pope Benedict XVI makes his way through Mexico and Cuba, rallying the faithful, his advisers are likely having backroom discussions about an impending threat to the Catholic Church's historic dominance in the region: The rise of evangelical Christianity.

Home to about eight per cent of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics - more of the faithful than any country outside Brazil - Mexico has seen a slow but steady decline in people who self-identify with the faith. Currently about 82.7 per cent of Mexicans consider themselves Catholic, down from 88 per cent in 2000 and 96 per cent in 1970. Evangelical protestant denominations are believed responsible for much of the drop.

"The Vatican is extremely concerned about competition with evangelicals," Daniel Levine, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies religious movements in Latin America, told Al Jazeera. "They are worried about losing their position as ‘the' spokesperson for religion and morality in the region. It is a big change from a generation ago."

More than one third of the world’s Christians live in the Americas, more than in any other single region

Of the world's Christian population, about half are Catholic, 37 per cent are Protestant, with other denominations such as Orthodox Christians and Mormons accounting for the rest, according to 2011 figures from the Pew Research Centre.

Evangelicals form a congregation within Protestantism, and include a broad variety of church communities including Pentecostals, Baptists and Methodists, whose belief entails making an "active choice" to embrace the spiritual and personal nature of Jesus, rather than being "born into" the faith. A personal relationship with Jesus is most important to evangelicals, whereas, in Catholicism, priests and the church hierarchy are tasked with interpreting the Bible and being "God's representatives".

An antidote to communism

Evangelicalism has grown "phenomenally" in the region over the past "25 or 30 years", said Virginia Garrard-Burnett, co-editor of the forthcoming Cambridge History of Religion in Latin America.

Many of the initial missionaries came from the US, where the evangelical movement is financially powerful and politically connected, although today most regional Protestant movements and leaders are homegrown and locally financed.

In the 1960s, evangelicals from the US were pushing the doctrine on Latin America as an antidote to communism, analysts say.

"The Cold War really played a large role in how the Catholic Church saw the evangelicals," David Bronkema, professor of International Development at Eastern University, a Christian school, told Al Jazeera.

In the 1970s and 1980s, liberation theology - using the teachings of Jesus to empower the poor and push for social change - gained prominence across the region, as left-leaning groups battled entrenched oligarchies.

"It pushed people towards progressive politics and put them [some Catholic priests and their supporters] in confrontation with authoritarian governments," Garrard-Burnett said.

"They lost a lot of people."

Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, was among the dead.

A conservative-turned-liberation theologist, who spoke out against poverty and abuses by El Salvador's military government, he wrote to then US President Jimmy Carter, warning that increased military aid to the Salvadoran regime would "undoubtedly sharpen injustice and repression" against people struggling "for their most basic human rights". Carter ignored the pleas and on March 24, 1980, gunmen linked to the ruling junta assassinated Romero while he performed mass at a small hospital chapel.

'Diversified direction'

Before his inauguration as Pope Benedict, Joseph Ratzinger was an influential conservative Cardinal. In the 1980s, he was head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - formerly referred to as the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition - responsible for church doctrine and defending the institution against "heresy". Cardinal Ratzinger (as was) reportedly called liberation theology "a singular heresy".

Since the dirty wars which killed hundreds of thousands of people, and the decimation of liberation theology movements - with the help of some senior Vatican officials and US intelligence agencies - the relationship between faith and politics has changed significantly in Latin America.

In Guatemala alone, where some 200,000 perished, including many Catholics, one third of the population is now evangelical, the highest proportion in the region. Some experts link the rise of evangelicals with attacks on "liberation-minded" Catholics.

"Almost purposefully, evangelicals in Latin America have not organised into political blocs because they saw what happened to the Catholics, who got squashed," Garrard-Burnett said.

Unlike the US, where most evangelical churches are closely aligned with the Republican Party, today's protestant movements in Latin America are not exclusively conservative. "They have become diversified and can't be categorised in one direction," Levine said.

Left-leaning governments, elected to run most Latin American countries, have mixed relationships with religious movements.

The idea that religion is the "opiate of the masses" and a tool of elites, as expounded by Marxists during the Cold War, doesn't hold much sway among Latin America's new left, said David Smilde, a professor who studies the sociology of religion at the University of Georgia.

"There have been tensions between the [Catholic] Church and the governments of Venezuela and Bolivia," Smilde told Al Jazeera in a phone interview from Caracas, adding that Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has tried to use a "moralistic discourse to unite disparate groups with the state".

Chavez, who calls himself a "Christian socialist", will be undergoing cancer treatment in Cuba, where about half the islanders consider themselves Catholics, during the pope's visit - and some observers speculate that the two might meet.

Priest shortage

Aside from historical demons linked to dirty wars, Benedict is seen as less "warm" and less connected with the people than his predecessor, John Paul II, who was widely popular in Latin America.

"When John Paul would go to Latin America, he'd be the biggest rock star on the continent," Garrard-Burnett said. "Benedict is not an appealing looking person, he has a ton of cultural baggage, and he seems very cold."

Additionally, some mechanical issues embedded in how various faiths operate allow evangelical churches to grow faster than their Catholic cousins.

"The shortage of priests has always been an issue for the Catholic church," Bronkema said, as formal training takes several years. In contrast, anyone with a pulpit and a penchant for rhetoric can call themselves an evangelical preacher and start a church.

From a business and marketing point of view, evangelicals have fewer overhead costs, and could be considered more "grassroots".

"To try and meet with a priest in one of the Catholic churches here in Caracas is almost impossible because so many people are demanding their time," Smilde said. "Evangelicals can innovate, spread out and give people what they want. The message is more individualistic, more personal."

The lack of Catholic representation in Latin America is not limited to a lack of local priests. The region has only 22 cardinal electors, the senior officials who vote in a conclave for each pope, compared with 67 for Europe, where the total number of Catholics is far smaller.

"The Catholic church has been really slow to the draw with the evangelicals," Garrard-Burnett said. "If they were really smart, they would chose a Latin American or an African as the next pope, but I'm not sure that is going to happen."