Haitian Protestant Views of Vodou and the Importance of Karactè within a Transnational Social Field

By Louis, Bertin M. | Journal of Haitian Studies, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Haitian Protestant Views of Vodou and the Importance of Karactè within a Transnational Social Field


Louis, Bertin M., Journal of Haitian Studies


As scholars of religion in Latin America and the Caribbean note (Austin-Broos 1997, Brusco 1995, Chestnut 2003, Martin 1990 and Stall 1990), Catholic Latin America is becoming Protestant. The growth of Evangelical Protestantism in the region has been attributed to different reasons. For example, in his religious economical analysis of the popularity of pneumacentric (spirit-centered) faiths in Latin America like Pentecostalism, Chestnut notes the way each faith produces and markets its pneumacentric and faith-healing products as central to their popularity among Latin Americans (Chestnut 2003: 14). Austin-Broos' study (1997) of Jamaican Pentecostals demonstrates that conversion and religious practice of working-class black Jamaicans allowed them to circumvent aspects of the British order while legitimizing enthusiasm and spirit possession (aspects of Jamaican religious practice long denigrated because of their primary association with African religious practice). This contributed to Pentecostalism's overall growth and success in Jamaica.

Protestantism has also become more popular in Haiti. In 1930, for example, only 1.5% of the population of Haiti was Protestant. The population of Protestants tripled between 1930 and 1940, then doubled again between 1940 and 1950. By 1977, 20% of the country had converted to Protestantism (Romain 1986: 81). Currently, it is estimated that about a third of Haiti is Protestant (Louis 2007: 194). Hurbon notes that Pentecostal expansion in Haiti, for example, demonstrates a break from the established religions of Haiti and its success can be interpreted as an expression and a critique of transnationalism (Hurbon 2001).

Protestantism among the Haitian diaspora in the Caribbean (Brodwin 2003) and the United States (Richman 2005) is rising. Haitian Protestants are beginning to outnumber Haitian Catholics in some communities. The Haitian population in the Bahamas is one example of this.1 When responding to survey questions concerning the religion they currently practiced, 27.7 percent of the Haitians interviewed responded Catholic, whereas 29. 1 percent replied Anglican, Baptist, or Pentecostal (College of the Bahamas 2005: 100). This indicates that the majority of Haitians in the Bahamas, who were traditionally Catholics and Vodou practitioners, are most likely Protestants now.

Haitians convert to Protestantism for numerous reasons. One reason is that conversion provides them protection from the harm and misfortune they associate with Vodou. Some convert as the result of a long standing illness while others convert as a way to improve their economic standing because of the opportunities Protestant churches provide. Furthermore, many Haitian Protestants believe that the maintenance of their religious identity should contribute to the transformation of Haiti from the poorest country in the Western hemisphere to a viable nation-state. How and why do these Protestants link their religious transformation to Haiti's socioeconomic transformation?

From 2002 to 2005, ethnographic research was conducted among Haitian Protestants in the Bahamas (Nassau), Haiti (Port-au-Prince), and the United States (Saint Charles, Missouri). Within this transnational social field, two interrelated aspects of a growing Haitian Protestant worldview are shared. First, some Haitian Protestants believe that Vodou is at the root of Haiti's ongoing socioeconomic crisis. Second, the people interviewed noted that when Haitians convert to Protestant forms of Christianity it can remedy what they see as the harmful societal effects of Vodou in Haiti. In this respect, karactè (character), an integral part of a Haitian Protestant's religious identity that develops through maturation in one's faith, represents according to some an improved Haitian citizen who works for the betterment of Haitian society because of their Protestant Christian views. This article offers ethnographic examples of Haitian Protestant attitudes towards Vodou and the importance which some Haitian Protestants associate with karactà to demonstrate the centrality of these beliefs in the formation and maintenance of a religious identity across borders. …

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