Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

The Protestant Reformation and Social Justice in Latin America

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

The Protestant Reformation and Social Justice in Latin America

Article excerpt


The political effects of the 16th-century religious reformations have never been in doubt. What is debatable, however, is how these effects have been felt in different contexts. In what is now Latin America, their influence was kept at a distance to avoid the changes in Europe from taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. This article examines Latin American writers to demonstrate how, in the different cultural and geographical contexts of the sub-continent, the social and political imprint of the Reformation and its emancipating and libertarian emphasis has been perceived.

"Every free human being should have hanging on the wall a portrait of
Martin Luther as redeemer."
                             --Jose Marti

Distant Yet Complementary Worlds

Although we are apparently dealing with two contrasting situations, the relationship is closer than has been perceived in the past between the major religious changes brought about by the various movements in 16th-century Europe and in Latin America, regarded as encompassing all of the new countries emerging from the independence struggles of the first half of the 19th century. Certainly, the ideological and doctrinal attitudes that Roman Catholics and Protestants brought with them to the new continent exerted a considerable influence on the visions of society that developed in the various countries that came into being following the Conquest. As Octavio Paz has written:

From its birth, Anglo-Saxon America was a Utopia on the march. The
Spanish and Portuguese Americas were constructions built to stand the
test of time. In both cases, the present was wiped out. Eternity and
heaven, the future and progress are all denials of the present and its
reality, denials of the humdrum everyday life lived out beneath the
sun. But there our similarity with the Anglo-Saxons comes to an end. We
are the sons and daughters of the Counter-Reformation and a universal
monarchy. They are the sons and daughters of Luther and the industrial
revolution. And that is why they can breathe easily in the rarefied
atmosphere of the future. (1)

The vice-regent and colonial Spanish and Portuguese governments used many different methods to prevent Protestantism from entering their territories, concerned about the possible risks to which they, as representatives of their original European countries, would be exposed if libertarian ideas found their way into the continent. These historical parallels between the Lutheran Reformation and the Conquest of America should thus not be ignored and should be seen as indications of a marked contrast between the colonizing and evangelizing approaches, which have traditionally been interpreted through premises dominated by a confessional or overtly political desire to show up one's opponent's weaknesses. Their panic was entirely justified.

This article will investigate how the social and political imprint of the Reformation and its emancipating and libertarian emphasis has been perceived in the various cultural and geographical contexts of the sub-continent, beginning with the colonial period, the various stages towards nationhood, and then later developments, to offer an overall view of how the various church bodies contributed to social change.

The social calling of the Protestant Reformation churches was being worked out in Latin America in a structured way before they became established on the sub-continent as independent churches. Whether ideologically linked to currents of thought such as liberalism, or, as in recent decades, as part of the quest for a fresh cultural and socio-political identity, their involvement in improving people's quality of life has taken various forms, ranging from merely religious and civilizing activities, in complete contrast to prevailing Catholic policies, to overtly radical campaigning that has not always been recorded in the annals of history. We need to ask whether the Catholic church has not often become an enemy of social justice in the new Latin American countries, which it regarded almost without doubt as its own exclusive spiritual preserve beyond the changes taking place in the rest of the world. …

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