The Battle for Latin America's Soul

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"We are not alone. God is with us. He'll help us move ahead." With those words, engineer-educator Jorge Serrano Elias, 45, piously hailed his smashing victory last week in Guatemala's presidential elections. As Serrano's comments underlined, religious issues had played a significant role in the campaign. Serrano is a Protestant who, in a predominantly Roman Catholic country, converted from Catholicism to fervent Pentecostalism at age 28. Backers of his Catholic opponent made open appeals against the prospect of a Protestant President. Serrano promised he would not use presidential powers to favor his faith, and his impressive 68% win indicated that the electorate believed him.

Serrano personifies a religious shift that is steadily gaining momentum, not only in Guatemala but also across traditionally Catholic Latin America. Evangelical Protestantism now claims as much as 30% of the Guatemalan population. Throughout the region, Evangelicals, as Protestants of all types are called, have increased from 15 million to at least 40 million since the late 1960s. Catholicism, says the Rev. Paulo Romeiro, Protestant director of an interdenominational research institute in Sao Paulo, is facing "a serious crisis. As the Evangelical movement grows stronger by the day, the Catholic Church is getting weaker and weaker."

Two recent U.S. books describe this dramatic trend. Is Latin America Turning Protestant? is the provocative title of a volume by Stanford graduate student David Stoll, who argues that Evangelicalism's spiritual appeal "calls into question the claims made for its great rival," the Marxist-tinged liberation theology that was the hope of the Catholic left. By all appearances, says Stoll, "born-again religion has the upper hand." In Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America, David Martin of the London School of Economics asserts that the growth of conservative Protestantism in Latin America, Asia and Africa is as significant as the rise of revolutionary Islam.

As both books underscore, the Protestant Gospel offers Latin Americans new hope and spiritual solace within close-knit local churches, amid the dispiriting realities of everyday life. Speaking for millions of fellow believers, Nilza Costa, a Pentecostal chambermaid in Rio de Janeiro, says, "I am happiest when I am in church, praying, singing, surrounded by the love of Jesus." Says Ricardo Araujo, a Sao Paulo construction worker who has joined the Baptists, "Without Jesus, I was nobody, but I have found myself through him."

Catholic prelates, long passive in the face of creeping Protestantism, are increasingly jittery about the threat. Brazil's bishops have debated plans to halt the worrisome defections. Guatemala's Archbishop Prospero Penados del Barrio issued a harsh letter charging that the U.S. government is boosting Evangelicalism to "help consolidate its economic and political power." Pope John Paul II believes the inroads of unnamed "sects" could become "disastrous." During last year's tour of Mexico, designed in part to counter Evangelicalism, the Pontiff directed clergy to abandon "timidity and diffidence" in combatting their rivals.

The Vatican is especially concerned about Brazil, supposedly the world's No. 1 Roman Catholic nation, with 126 million on church rolls. Barely a tenth of those registered Catholics are regular churchgoers. This means that, astonishingly, there are almost certainly more Brazilian Protestants in church on Sundays than Catholics. Protestants boast a minimum of 20 million churchgoers and are expanding twice as fast as the overall population.

In Peru the Evangelicals claim a mere 5% of the population, but they were as controversial a factor in last year's elections as they became in Guatemala. The presidential winner, Alberto Fujimori, ran on a ticket with Second Vice President Carlos Garcia, the Baptist president of the National Evangelical Council of Peru. Though Fujimori is a practicing Catholic and his opponent was an agnostic, anti-Catholic tracts prompted Lima Archbishop Augusto Vargas Alzamora to charge that Evangelicals "do not answer to the Christian tradition," and were waging an "insidious campaign." Peru's bishops organized a special pre-election procession of a venerated crucifix, usually reserved for times of calamity. The country's Catholics fear that Protestant inroads will jeopardize their church's favored position in taxation and religious instruction in schools.

Most of the Protestant resurgence is taking place among fervent Fundamentalists and Evangelicals (in the North American sense of those who urge personal commitments to Jesus and strict adherence to the Bible). The spectacular Protestant growth since the 1960s has occurred largely in Pentecostal groups that combine biblical orthodoxy with an innovative stress on emotionalism and miracles. Another worrisome challenge to Catholicism comes from African-rooted spirit cults, which are strong in Brazil and are spreading into Argentina. Since the 1960s, Catholicism has tolerated observance of these popular non-Christian rites by masses of nominal Catholics, while Evangelical converts (many of them baptized Catholics) militantly oppose spirit cults and the intermingling of faiths.

Combative hostility toward competing faiths characterizes Brazil's fastest- growing Pentecostal group, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Its authoritarian bishop, Edir Macedo de Bezerra, 45, began preaching in 1977 to a dozen curiosity seekers in a rented room above a funeral parlor; today his flock is 2 million strong. The movement filled a 150,000-seat Rio stadium twice last year, opens one new church a week, and has added a $45 million Sao Paulo TV channel to its 14 radio stations.

Macedo, a former Catholic and spirit cultist, says Catholics "cause all the suffering and misery in the country" and accuses the spirit cults of devil worship and the sacrifice of children and animals. Striking back, the national body of Afro-Brazilian cults filed criminal charges in 1988 against the Universal Church for fraud and slander of other faiths. Police in four states are investigating the church. Macedo laughs off the inquiries: "If I'm really making them poor and am bad for them, why do the people keep giving and coming back?"

Why the Evangelical upwelling? Like Guatemala's Archbishop, secular leftists point to North American money and influence as causes, but Protestant churches are largely independent and self-supporting. The most obvious explanation for the movement's success is its palpable spiritual dynamism. The Protestants do have built-in advantages. Their clergy face neither the celibacy rule nor the lengthy training required of Catholic priests. Members identify strongly with their local congregations and often pick their own pastors.

Javier Ariz, a Catholic auxiliary bishop in Peru, says Protestants make their gains by invading "areas where the people are naturally very religious and the Catholic Church has been chronically short of priests." Protestants, for example, provide the only community leadership in many parts of Peru that have been overrun by Shining Path terrorists. In Guatemala too, Evangelical pastors have saturated rural areas, greatly outnumbering Catholic priests. At the same time, they have been charged with interfering in traditional Indian ways of life.

While there is much talk about their political meddling and impact, most Evangelicals appear to succeed because they usually preach a purely spiritual message. Henrique Mafra Caldeira de Andrada, head of the Protestant program at Rio's Institute of Religious Studies, thinks Catholic advocates of the social gospel failed to realize that "these people were hungry for more than just food. The Evangelicals met the peoples' emotional and spiritual needs better." Or, as Brazil's top Baptist, the Rev. Nilson Fanini, puts the paradox, "The Catholic Church opted for the poor, but the poor opted for the Evangelicals." As in Guatemala last week, the effects of that choice will continue to be felt.

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CREDIT: TIME Chart by Steve Hart

Source: Tongues of Fire by David MartinCAPTION: GROWING CROWD OF BELIEVERS