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Born Again in Guatemala: The Politics of Protestantization
Published on Thursday, August 15, 2002 by
Born Again in Guatemala: The Politics of Protestantization
by Amy Chozick

It's Easter Sunday in Guatemala City and a row of brightly colored pick-up trucks rides in slow procession down the crowded Reforma Avenue. Campesinos in cowboy hats and white jeans chant religious messages to the background beat of salsa music. Brightly-dressed children skip on the sidewalk and throw flowers at the passing trucks. At the end of the parade a preacher gives a sermon in Spanish and three Mayan languages to a crowd that erupts in applause. Meanwhile, in the nearby colonial town of Antigua somber Catholic processionals languidly make their way down the cobblestone streets. Black incense fills the air as devout followers struggle to carry makeshift floats on their shoulders, heavy like the weight of repentance.

If religion is the opiate of the people, then Latin Americans have found a new drug. The overwhelming conversion to evangelical Protestantism across the traditionally Roman Catholic region marks a revolution more far-reaching than Fidel Castro or Che Guevarra accomplished. The U.S. media has largely overlooked the spread of Protestantism in Latin America as one of the great social movements of the 20th century. Unlike other liberation movements in Latin America, this one marks a shift towards a capitalist and Western future rather than a Marxist or traditional one. No where are the political implications of this rapidly growing popular movement more apparent than in Guatemala, where Protestantism claims over 35% of the country's 12.5 million souls.

Unlike the rigidity of Catholicism, Pentecostalism (a fundamentalist sect of evangelical Protestantism) is, as British sociologist David Martin says, 'its very own fiesta.' This fiesta, much to the displeasure of the Roman Catholic Church and the Latin American Left, is growing by about 10% per year in Guatemala. There are currently 300 Protestant sects and 10,000 churches. If the movement continues at this rate, in less than twenty years over half of all Guatemalans will be evangelical Protestants.

North American Right wing groups who believe that fundamentalist Christians will instill a capitalist, Western work ethic in a politically and economically tumultuous region have largely funded the organization of this movement. The missionaries, on the other hand, consider themselves messengers of Jesus Christ rather than Pat Buchanan. Still, grounded within the spirituality that they spread lie the secular and cultural norms of U.S. society. This serves as reason enough for the Moral Majority to sponsor the missionaries' work.

Initially, Protestant spirituality appealed to slum-dwelling, poverty-stricken Guatemalans who suffered from North American attempts to 'modernize,' 'globalize' and in short, improve the Central Americans' earthly lot. Like the Western capitalist model, evangelical Protestantism preaches self-betterment coupled with an undeniably bourgeois sentiment.

Virginia Garrard-Burnett, author of Living in the New Jerusalem: Protestantism in Guatemala (UT Austin Press), says that the conversion to Protestantism represents "Guatemala's enduring and often unsuccessful effort to re-create itself in the image of what nations to the north consider 'modern' and 'developed.'"

But the reasons behind this mass conversion reach deeper than U.S. imperialism. David Stoll, author of The Politics of Evangelical Growth, sees Latin American Protestantism as a generator of social change. "Blaming evangelical growth on the United States," Stoll says, "suggests a deep distrust of the poor, an unwillingness to accept the possibility that they could turn an important religion to their own purposes."

Politics aside, religion is after all a matter of faith. The Protestant message of personal salvation and the alleviation of injustice, poverty and misery in the afterlife greatly appeals to a country in which 5% of the population controls 80% of the land, life expectancy stands at 61 years and 95% of all rural women can't read or write.

'There is so much emphasis on heaven,' Edmundo Madrid, president of the Evangelical Alliance of Guatemalans said in a recent interview, 'The poor get the message that while they're poor here on earth, they'll be better off in heaven.'

The encouragement of workers to do a good job so that they will reap reward in the afterlife provides a spiritual safe haven from reality. But it also threatens to further stigmatize Guatemala's peasant class by convincing them that they must remain just that. Evangelical Protestantism is 'like a tranquilizer,' says Dennis Smith, a scholar on the movement. 'Just give your 10% tithe and you will be saved.'

The effects of a ravaging 1976 earthquake that killed 20,000 people and left over one million homeless reinforced the power of the promise of salvation. A few months after the quake, evangelical church membership jumped by 14 percent. The Protestants, not the Catholic Church, provided food, temporary housing and helped re-establish community ties. In addition to physical aid, Protestantism provided spiritual aid to a desperate people. But savior doesn't come cheap.

'Material tasks such as education, health care and food distribution," Smith says, "gain validity as a form of Christian ministry only when they are used as vehicles for leading people to Christ.'

The participatory nature of evangelical Protestantism (a far stretch from the top-down oligarchy of Catholic priests and bishops) further politicizes the movement. Today, "born-agains" are no longer rural peasants; both urban middle- and upper-middle class Guatemalans have adopted the Protestant faith. Equal access to prayer makes Protestantism a type of spiritual trade union. The religion grants Mayan women the same access to worship as a middle-class ladino (a person of half-indigenous and half European decent), and thus temporarily blinds its members from the social cleavage of the outside world--a feat that the political Left has tried for centuries to accomplish.

Guatemala has had three evangelical presidents including Efrain Ríos Montt who took over the office in a 1982 military coup and proceeded to "exterminate" entire rural villages under the guise of God and anti-Communism. The current president, Alfonso Portillo, also an evangelical Protestant and a former advisor to Ríos Montt, declared himself a murderer during the presidential campaign to emphasize that he would crack down on crime. Despite these political players, Protestant churches deny that they have a political agenda. In contrast to the Catholics Church's Marxist doctrine of "Liberation Theology," Protestantism has spread largely because of the image of political neutrality that it sells to its followers; in a country swept by political violence, a shelter from politics becomes a sanctuary in and of itself.

"Neo-Pentecostal churches insulate members from the violence and social decay that surrounds them," Garrard-Burnett says,"[these] churches offer a spiritual rationale for the gaping social inequalities of Guatemala and bring order to what is otherwise a capricious world."

But "spiritual rationale" doesn't equal the alleviation of poverty. Despite its newfound faith, Guatemala still finds itself trapped in the shackles of modernization and a widening gap between rich and poor. Parades, free bibles, sermons set to salsa music, a high-pitched promise of salvation, and good-old Western values won't change that, at least not in this life.

A Latina South Texas transplant, Amy Chozick ( currently writes and edits the Garden News pages of House & Garden magazine. Her articles for H&G and her freelance work focuses on Latin America or Latin America-related arts events and their political implications on both sides of the border. She has worked with BBC Latin America journalists in Chile and Mexico and has written for several regional publications in Mexico, Chile and Brazil. A recent trip to Guatemala for Holy Week inspired this article and several of her interviews were conducted while there.


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