Pentecostalism and Politics in Neoliberal Chile

By Lindhardt, Martin | Ibero-americana, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Pentecostalism and Politics in Neoliberal Chile


Lindhardt, Martin, Ibero-americana


I. Introduction

A fundamental insight, left by Max Weber (1930) to subsequent scholars of religion, is that processes of wider social and cultural change can be initiated from within religious spheres. Rather than seeing religious ideas and values as epiphenomenal to social, economic structures, Weber conceived of religion as a (semi) autonomous domain with the ability to shape other domains of societal life in significant ways. The legacy of Weber has by no means been lost on scholars of what has in recent decades become the fastest growing religious movement (in the broadest possible sense of the term) in the world: Pentecostalism. While they mostly (and wisely) refrain from asserting any classical Weberian connection between Pentecostalism and large scale capitalist activity, scholars have repeatedly and more or less unanimously been arguing that Pentecostal communities can and often do function as motors of cultural transformation, for instance by redefining gender relationships and economic priorities and by fostering discipline, sobriety, selfconfidence and a new work ethics, all of which result in more harmonious domestic environments and enables converts to adapt to insecure labor markets (Brusco 1995; Mariz 1994; Martin 1990, 2002; Martin 1995, 1998; Maxwell 2005). A question that has generated more division and debate is whether the transformative potential of Pentecostal religion may in time be transferred from the private sphere into public spheres, for instance by inspiring and preparing people for political democratic participation and thus indirectly contribute to the strengthening of civil society and democratic values.

While the question of the relation, or relations, between Pentecostalism and political culture has concerned scholars working in different parts of the world (Gifford 1998; Marshall 2009), it is, perhaps, no wonder that those working in Latin America have found it particularly relevant and compelling to address. Throughout the region, Pentecostalism has been growing and adapting itself to shifting and often turbulent political climates for a little more than a century. A quick glance at the history of Pentecostalism in Latin America shows a variety of stances to and engagements with political establishments - ranging from total and demonstrative apathy to active support and open criticism of both democratic and authoritarian governments. Whatever opinion one may hold about the compatibility of Pentecostalism with particular political systems, empirical and historical evidence to support it can be found in Latin America. On the one hand, unholy alliances between Pentecostal leaders and authoritarian regimes such as Augusto Pinochet's military government in Chile (1973-90) seem to support a view of Pentecostalism as a conservative and authoritarian religion, whose marked otherworldliness, or anti-worldliness, finds consonance with political systems where popular political mobilisation is discouraged. On the other hand, the waves of démocratisation that have swept Latin America during the last three decades have been accompanied by the continuing growth and outreach of Pentecostal churches, and several surveys have indicated that Latin American Pentecostals have positive attitudes towards democracy (Freston 1993; Dodson 1997), all of which makes it difficult to assert any narrow association between the prosperity of Pentecostalism and particular political circumstances.

This article explores relationships between Pentecostalism and politics in post-dictatorial Chile. Some of the main questions to be addressed are: what are the links, if there are any, between processes of démocratisation and Pentecostal growth? What does the continued appeal and growth of Pentecostalism tell us about political culture in contemporary neoliberal Chile? Is Pentecostalism as a particular institutionalised religious culture compatible with, or even supportive of, democratic principles and values (as some neo-Weberian scholars would suggest is the case)?

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