Magazine article NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs

Evangelicals Gain Ground in Latin American Politics

Magazine article NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs

Evangelicals Gain Ground in Latin American Politics

Article excerpt

The mere fact that the Evangelical pastor Fabricio Alvarado Munoz made it to the April 1 presidential runoff in Costa Rica--after receiving the largest number of votes in the initial round on Feb. 4 (24% of the votes to 21% for his closest opponent)--highlights an ongoing process of rapprochement in Latin American between Evangelical churches and ultra-conservative political factions.

Although Alvarado Munoz eventually lost to Carlos Alvarado Quesada (no relation), his initial performance follows the success of Jimmy Morales, who won the presidency of Guatemala in 2015 (NotiCen, Nov. 5, 2015), Brazil's Marcelo Crivella, elected mayor of Rfo de Janeiro in 2016 (NotiSur, Nov. 11, 2016, and March 24, 2017), and the 266 Evangelical churches in Colombia that helped tip the balance, in the 2016 referendum, against a peace accord that the government and guerrilla rebels had signed to end more than a half-century of bloody civil war (NotiSur, Oct. 21, 2016).

Various studies on this phenomenon suggest that, when engaging in politics, Evangelical pastors and their churches tend to have specific and shared ideological leanings, much in the way the Catholic Church did when, starting in the second half of the 20th century, it helped bring the Christian Democratic political model from Europe to Latin America.

Colombian sociologist Javier Calderon Castillo, a researcher at the think tank Centro Estrategico Latinoamericano de Geopohtica (CELAG), has found that Evangelicals tend to have ultraconservative positions on family and social liberties; are staunch defenders of neoliberalism (free-market capitalism); have significant financial resources thanks to contributions from church members and from various outside business interests; and have ready-made media access through their own television, radio, and social network outlets. News reports suggest there are approximately 19,000 Evangelical churches in Latin America and more than 100 million worshipers--roughly a sixth of the region's population.

As Calderon Castillo argues, the policies to which Evangelical churches adhere or directly promote coincide with neoliberalism. Tied to that is the emphasis Evangelical churches in Colombian and Central America place on the so-called "protestant work ethic"--on the successful, frugal, consistent, and devoted worker "for whom material success appears as proof of God's favor," the sociologist explains. If an individual earns more, Calderon Castillo adds, he or she will be inclined, in turn, to associate that improvement with the church and become even more involved.

Huge assets

The CELAG researcher notes that many politically inclined pastors, including the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, belong to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), a Pentecostal church. The largest such association worldwide (it operates in 147 countries), the UCKG has pragmatic, rightist political leanings. Brazilian financial authorities suggest that together, the country's various Evangelical churches moved more than US$7 billion in 2015, an astronomical sum that has allowed them to continue growing exponentially. In Colombia, Evangelical churches have registered assets worth US$5 billion.

It is unclear how much money Evangelical leaders manage in other countries of the region, though it can be assumed that the "faith business" is lucrative in those places as well, according to Calderon Castillo. Church-related finances are unregulated: Pastors and their churches are exempt from paying taxes, and there's no official oversight of either revenue or spending.

Given the official numbers gathered in Brazil and Colombia, the revenue generated elsewhere in Latin America is presumably substantial, especially in Central America, where such entities have grown at a dazzling pace, and at the expense of the traditional Catholic Church. In Guatemala, 42% of the population belongs to an Evangelical church. …

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