Beating Back the Enemy: How Venezuelan Pentecostals Think about Social Change
David A. Smilde
Since the 1960s, Latin America has been the site of dramatic growth of Protestant pentecostalism. A common view of this religion is that it is an "opiate of the masses" that provides refuge for people who are poor and alienated from society. However, social scientists have recently been criticizing this view. While these researchers concede that pentecostals do not usually participate in what is normally considered "politics," they argue that pentecostalism has political consequences insofar as it creates new cultural expectations, social spaces, and forms of community ( Levine 1995; Smith 1994; Martin 1990; Lancaster 1986; Stoll 1990; Burdick 1993; Levine and Stoll 1997). But given that pentecostalism emphasizes individual morality and salvation, how are we to understand these "political" consequences? Is this simply a case of unintended consequences? Or do Latin American pentecostals themselves think about the larger social 1 world and their role in social change?
To answer this question, I will present data from in-depth interviews with Venezuelan pentecostals, regarding their view of social problems and of their own engagement in social change. Before doing so, however, I will briefly introduce pentecostalism in its Venezuelan context and review the methodology of the study.
Since the early to middle 1980s, Venezuela, one of the leading exporters of oil to the United States, has been besieged by economic and political problems. Low oil prices have resulted in a serious economic crisis, high-level corruption has come to dominate media reports, poverty has more than doubled, and crime rates have greatly increased. These problems are felt not only in their concrete material effects but also as challenges to patterns of cultural understanding and social behavior. Pentecostalism is one of a variety of responses to these problems.