Pentecostals and Politics in Argentina: A Question of Compatibility?

Article excerpt


When Carlos Menem was elected president in Argentina in 1989, he was the first popularly elected president to succeed another popularly elected head of state from a different political party (Raul Alfonsin 1983-89) in the country. This was in itself a token of a new more democratic mentality in Argentina as well as a further step towards the consolidation of democratic (and Western) structures. Twelve years later the progress was interrupted by a politicofinancial crisis. El menemismo was blamed for many, if not most, of the things that went wrong in the period leading up to crisis which escalated in 2001. Then, after a couple of turbulent years, Nestor Kirchner was elected president in 2003, and a period of steady economic growth and social reform commenced. The process of differentiation continued, which can best be observed in the 'autonomization'1 of the political, the juridical, and the religious spheres and of an increasingly important public sphere. Moreover, the role of the military, an important socio-political actor for several decades, was 'harmonized' with democratic rule. Conscription was abolished in 1994 and defense expenditures were down to 0.9 per cent of GPD in 2006 compared to 8 per cent in 1981 (Turner 2011:106). Finally, during the same period as these structural changes took place, Pentecostalism experienced a considerable growth. Although there are no reliable statistics on this, it is estimated that around 1980 approximately 2 per cent of the total population were Pentecostals, whereas 10 years later, they represented approximately 5-6 per cent. Today the corresponding figure is somewhere around 10 per cent.

How did Pentecostals approach this 'new' democratic public sphere? Before the 1980s, they constituted a marginal group in Argentine society, both in numerical and in political terms. As they have grown in numbers, their attitude towards society has changed. Whereas the pre-democratic marginal position fueled a negative dualism ('the world' as an evil place, to be avoided), the more integrated position from the late 1980s has propelled a more positive dualism ('the world' is still full of evil forces but they can now be transformed). This positive dualism, which was first expressed in the Tommy Hicks campaigns in the 1950s, 'argentinized' by Omar Cabrera in the 1960s and 1970s, and which blossomed with Carlos Annacondia's and Hector Giménez' s evangelizing campaigns in the 1980s, has resulted in a more explicit focus on the evangelization of the 'multitudes' in big arenas, and in rallies and through mass media teleevangelistas) and increased societal engagement. Leaving evangelization aside, my intention is to shed light on the increased Pentecostal presence as a public and political force, and on the political dimension of Argentine Pentecostalism. Three different Pentecostal political 'projects' or 'cases' will serve as the empirical basis for the discussion: (1) Attempts at establishing a political party in the early 1990s; (2) a conference in 2003 displaying an Evangelical response to neo-liberal globalization; and (3) an increased focus on certain values as the basis for political involvement from the early 2000s. Throughout the article I analyze these three 'projects' based on a general hypothesis concerning the relationship between two different modes of communication: a religious (Pentecostal) mode and a political one. The differences between these modes of communication need to be overcome. That is, the political mode needs to be compatible with the religious (Pentecostal) one in order to gain support from Pentecostal voters. Moreover, the political and religious must resonate with, and be legitimized as, religious (in scripture, tradition, authority). Hence, although several Pentecostal types of political involvement can be possible (or compatible) the religious 'trumps' the political. Furthermore, as the Pentecostals have grown in numbers, they constitute a more diverse group than before, religiously as well as politically. …