Could Latin America's Corruption Be Wiped Out by the Pulpit?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because lawmaking could get even more biblical.
By Wesley Tomaselli
It juts out from the side of a mountain, a mass of steel girders and blue facades soaring 10 stories on the north side of Cali, Colombia. Half-built, it gives off a ghostly feel. Not for long though. In about six months, this massive new home of the Mission for Peace Church will teem with 25,000 lovers of Christ.
These are the evangelicals. They hate corruption — among other unholy behaviors — and they’re digging in with a Bible-inspired agenda to change the way Latin American governments tick.
The Holy Spirit told me that I will see the face of those who are going to change Colombia.
Alberto Mottesi, pastor
Spirituality in Latin America historically has been straightforward: Latin and Catholic. But the tradition is stagnating. Today, just 70 percent of Latin Americans identify as Catholic, down from 94 percent in 1970. Picking up the slack is a strain of evangelical Protestantism known as Pentecostalism. Why the appeal? Because evangelists are all about direct contact with the spirit world, a belief familiar to many of Latin America’s indigenous, Afro and mestizo groups. Pentecostalism’s promotion of upward mobility also is compatible with the region’s rising middle class. And now homegrown, digitally savvy, charismatic and well-organized pastors leading these churches are setting out to put the word of God into politics.
“The Holy Spirit told me that I will see the face of those who are going to change Colombia,” evangelical pastor Alberto Mottesi told members of the Cartagena-based Rios de Vida church in May. “You’re going to rise up, you’re going to change the arts, you’re going to change politics, and you’re going to take control of the government!” According to Diego de los Rios, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Northwestern University, if evangelicals are successful in gaining more power, “we could very well see a turn where the rights of minorities are under attack and there’s a threat to pluralist democracy.” Countries like Colombia have liberalized over the past 20 years. Christian fundamentalism could threaten that.
According to Tulane University sociologist David Smilde, Latin America’s middle class is ripe for a health-and-wealth gospel to justify its financial aspirations. Another key factor: Evangelicals now are legit in terms of size and legal status. Latin Americans who identified as evangelicals in the 1990s made up 1 to 5 percent of the population. According to a 2014 Pew Research study, as well as estimates from Universidad Nacional de Bogotá sociologist William Beltrán Cely, that proportion has grown to around 15 percent in Colombia and Venezuela, 25 percent in Brazil and about 40 percent in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
It’s not just the numbers though. Until 1991, Colombia was Catholic-only in terms of rights and freedoms. Religious minorities were not recognized under the country’s laws. A retrofit of the constitution that year legitimized Protestants and others. Venezuela’s 1999 constitutional overhaul also expanded religious rights in the same sense. “When non-Catholic communities were recognized by the state,” says de los Rios, “you got the legal and social opening for what we’re seeing right now.”
And church leaders are no longer just shaking their fists at staple issues like homosexuality and abortion. A group of pastors in Colombia last year united to oppose a peace treaty seeking to end the 50-year-old conflict between the government and Marxist rebels, claiming that the text of the accord wrongly legitimized the rights of gender and sexual minorities. The ex-president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, a fierce critic of the negotiations, went to Cartagena’s Rios de Vida church to drum up votes against the deal. “Amen! Amen!” the congregation chanted in response.
On October 2, what was predicted to be an easy win for President Juan Manuel Santos in a national plebiscite on the peace treaty turned to defeat; political pundits claim that the pastors’ megachurches pushed the vote to a win for the no-deal camp. When the government revised the text of the accord, Jhon Milton Rodriguez, the pastor of the Mission of Peace Church, denounced the revised document in a fiery speech before Colombia’s Senate. Even though Rodriguez was invited to use the country’s ultimate bully pulpit, Congress passed the revised deal in November 2016.
Sure, not all pastors are planning to run for the Senate, but it’s unlikely that many followers would object if the line that separates church and state were blurred in their favor. “I think politics needs to get closer to God,” a leader with the Mission of Peace tells OZY at the church’s Cali campus. But he declined to elaborate on the church’s political interests.
It seems that the Pentecostal faithful gravitate to candidates who can show they are scandal-free. Multiple politicians have been charged with corruption in Colombia, Peru and Brazil in the Car Wash bribery investigation that centered on Brazil’s oil giant Petrobras. Venezuela is a hive of shady dealings. In multiple interviews with evangelicals and observers of faith and politics, traditional definitions of left and right in Latin America seem to matter less to voters than whether a candidate identifies as anti-elite, anti-establishment and anti-political. The further from the traditional political system the candidate stands, the more likely he or she is going to get evangelical votes.
One thing to keep in mind, says Smilde, is that not all evangelicals are created equal when it comes to political views. This new religious legitimacy is part of an expanding pluralism of religion in Latin America, Smilde notes. And some true believers flat out don’t want to mix religion and politics. Jean Pierre Rojas, a self-described Christian in Bogotá, tells OZY that he would be “worried” if his pastor announced he was a candidate for office. “It’s easy to manipulate people. It’s easy for someone to open the Bible and say, ‘God sent me to be king, God sent me to govern.’”