Latin American Evangelicals: Made in Whose Image?
by Ruth Melkonian-Hoover and Dennis R. Hoover
Evangelical Christianity in Latin America has grown exponentially in recent years. But how well do North American evangelicals really know their neighbors?
What do Latin American evangelicals think of the United States and its policies? Some American evangelicals presume their southern neighbors are just like themselves when it comes to politics. Many critics presume the same and worry that these southern neighbors are pawns of the north. Some scholars of global evangelicalism, however, see an increasingly indigenous evangelicalism in the Global South.
Studies of public opinion in the United States show significant evangelical Protestant support for many U.S. foreign policies. For instance, a University of Akron/Pew Forum poll in 2004 found that among traditional evangelicals 76 percent approved of President Bush's foreign policy; 87 percent thought the Iraq war was justified; 82 percent thought preemptive war is justifiable; 74 percent believed the U.S. has a special role in the world. But are these kinds of findings any indication of how evangelicals in Latin America view the U.S. and its contemporary role in the world?
Since colonization Latin American countries have remained majority Catholic. However, the proportion of Protestants in the region has begun to rise; evangelical Protestants in particular now comprise approximately 12-15 percent of the population, and approximately two-thirds of them are Pentecostals. Given the influence of U.S. evangelical Protestants in Latin America through missionary efforts and denominational ties, some have presumed not only theological but cultural and political affinity between conservative Protestant groups in Latin America and conservative Protestant churches and parachurch organizations in the United States.
The theory of an "invasion of the sects" facilitated by U.S. interests intent on building allies in Latin America, particularly during the Cold War, is put forward by scholars such as Brian Smith. He documents the U.S. government's support of missionaries in Latin America in the 1950s as a bulwark against communism; the use of missionaries by the CIA in Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia; and the channeling of U.S.AID funds to church-sponsored projects in the region. However, Smith also acknowledges that this is "insufficient to explain its strong drawing power throughout Latin America, especially among the poor." 1
Others presume that the growth of evangelicalism in the region is a function of American manipulation and (neo)imperialism. In their work bemoaning the role of the U.S. church in the developing world-aptly entitled Exporting the American Gospel: Global Christian Fundamentalism 2 -Steve Brouwer and his colleagues allege that "Christian fundamentalists in other countries find common cause with American evangelists because the United States is the wellspring of anticommunism and a host of other cultural ideologies and values that have become transnational. Halfway around the world, religious leaders have managed to link the destinies of their countries to that of the United States." Even while they acknowledge that many of the Christian missionaries of today are from the developing world (indeed, Latin America may well export more missionaries than it receives), they assert that such transnational agents still tend to export an American-formulated gospel linked with capitalism, democracy, anticommunism, and, more recently, antiIslamic fervor.
Likewise many of the new Pentecostal churches in Latin America are presumed by some in the north to be American progeny. But Paul Freston, a leading sociologist of global Christianity, maintains that "Most Pentecostal churches (unlike their historical counterparts) were founded either by Latin Americans who broke with an existing Protestant denomination or by independent missionaries, and only rarely by a foreign Pentecostal denomination." 3 For example, in the case of Brazil, most faith missions are nonPentecostal, and yet most growth is occurring among Pentecostals. "The churches which grow most owe little to missions," Freston concludes. 4
Some have found the social and political values of Latin American evangelicals to be more diverse than those of evangelicals in the U.S. Timothy Shah, in his article "The Bible and the Ballot Box: Evangelicals and Democracy in the Global South," contends that "though evangelicals [in the south] are assumed to be agents of the American religious right and purveyors of militant 'fundamentalism,' their lower socioeconomic status often leads them to consider economics at least as important as 'morality' and consequently to align with left-wing political movements perceived to be pro-poor." 5 Similarly, Joel Carpenter maintains that "on abortion or gay marriage, they sound like American conservatives. But on war and peace or economic justice, they sound like the Democratic Party." 6
What's been missing in this debate is broad-based analysis of survey data collected in Latin America. Are evangelicals in Latin America more supportive than their fellow citizens of U.S. foreign policies, its war on terror, its influence on economic globalization, and its ideas about global democracy? Our recent analysis of survey data from the 2002 Pew Global Attitudes Survey sheds light on these questions. We pooled data from Bolivia, Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela, distinguishing evangelicals from nonevangelicals. We then examined seven diverse indicators of opinion about the U.S. and its role in the world. Respondents were asked to rate their opinions of the U.S.: if they think the U.S. takes into account the interests of countries like theirs; and how U.S. policies affect the gap between rich and poor countries. In addition they were asked whether or not they approve of American ideas about democracy; American ideas and customs spreading into their country; American ways of doing business; and U.S. efforts to fight terrorism.
We found that, contrary to any expectations derived from the Cold War history of American involvement in Latin American affairs, or from more recent theories of American neo-imperialism via globalization, evangelical identity is not a significant factor in pro-America attitudes in Latin America. Indeed, it is an almost entirely irrelevant factor across all seven of the indicators in our study. Five of these indicators were related to policy/issue areas (terrorism, business, democracy, economic inequality, and national interests), and two were more generic in nature (general opinion of the U.S., and opinion of the spread of "American ideas"). On only the latter of the generic indicators was evangelicalism a statistically significant factor. Thus to the very modest extent that evangelicalism plays a role, it is limited to attitudes that are not policy- or issue-specific.
Indeed, the slightly greater openness that Latin American evangelicals show towards the spread of American ideas may be due in part to the breadth of the question posed. Certainly Latin American evangelicals could be thinking that "American ideas" is a category that includes general religious and cultural norms of American Protestantism as opposed to specifically political ideas, and therefore feel slightly more openness than do Latin American Catholics.
On the whole, that Latin American evangelicals are made in the image of U.S. evangelicals and that the former are unduly influenced by the latter is a theory that has run its course. The idea of evangelical imperialism as the handmaiden of U.S. imperialism may be perpetuated by some in the media and by some who are threatened by the upsurge of evangelicalism in Latin America, but recent international survey data simply do not support it.
1 Religious Politics in Latin America: Pentecostal vs. Catholic, 1998:26
2 Exporting the American Gospel: Global Christian Fundamentalism, 1996:19
3 Evangelicals and Politics in Asia, Africa and Latin America, 2001:194-195
4 Evangelicals, 283.
5 SAIS Review of International Affairs, 2004:117
6 Philadelphia Inquirer, February 20, 2006
Ruth Melkonian-Hoover, Ph.D., is assistant professor of political studies. She is cochair of the international affairs major and recently completed "Gendered Pathways to the Political: The Political Participation of Women Factory Workers in Mexico," which will be published this June in Social Science Quarterly.
Dennis R. Hoover, D.Phil., is executive director of the Council on Faith & International Affairs (www.cfia.org) at the Institute for Global Engagement. He is also editor of The Review of Faith & International Affairs and co-editor, with Ambassador Robert A. Seiple, of Religion and Security: The New Nexus in International Relations.