The rise of a new Christian right in Latin America

New political forces rooted in evangelical Christianity are re-shaping the face of Latin American politics. In order to understand the growing influence of this new Christian right, its history, aims and ways of mobilizing support must be examined.

2018, Brazil. Former army captain Jair Messias Bolsonaro is in the middle of his election campaign, incessantly driving home the message that his opponents in the Workers’ Party are working towards abolishing the family, enforcing homosexuality, and subverting traditional gender roles. Top evangelical and Pentecostal leaders support the Bolsonaro campaign and the church mobilization of their followers is eventually shown to have been a key factor in Bolsonaro winning the election. 2020. As the corona pandemic is hitting Brazil, President Bolsonaro tries to downplay the need for measures against the virus. Evangelical churches are once again supporting the president, with top church officials repeating disinformation spread by Bolsonaro, and protesting restrictions affecting church services.

The prominent role of the evangelical churches in Brazilian politics is to date perhaps the most striking example of a political development going on in several Latin American countries. Since the 1950s, a major religious shift has taken place in the region. In most countries, people are leaving the Roman Catholic church in favor of evangelical churches. If this trend continues, Catholics may soon no longer be in majority in the world’s largest Catholic country, Brazil. 

Historically, evangelical Christianity has played a limited role in Latin American politics. In Latin America, ‘evangelicals’ generally refer to all Protestant denominations with a focus on evangelizing and converting. While evangelical Christianity is a religiously and politically diverse phenomenon, the focus of this article is on the mainly Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal groups that have appeared and gained mass membership during the latter half of the 20th century. The growing influence of these evangelical groups has been accompanied by a growing demand for Christian right-wing politics. 

A Christian nation

How did this new religious right come into being, and what unifies it? During the 1960s and 1970s, church officials generally discouraged participation in politics arguing followers should abstain from such worldly matters. However, in the 1980s Guatemalan general Efraín Ríos Montt became the first evangelical head of state in the region. Democratization has since then led to a growing interest in electoral politics in countries with a sizable evangelical population. This shift is partly a result of the growing influence of neo-Pentecostal groups that preach a prosperity gospel, arguing that faith, donations, and work for religious causes lead to financial and material gain. The optimistic prosperity gospel lacks the traditional Pentecostal rejection of political activity. This equating of faith with wealth also tends to give neo-Pentecostals a strong preference for right-wing politics.

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

Catholic left-wing movements were viewed as a threat to US interests by Washington during the Cold War. As a means of countering these movements, the United States encouraged evangelical missionary groups. The evangelical missionary work abroad was seen as a promotion of US American values, while some evangelical leaders in the United States provided a form of Christian nationalism as a pretext for anti-Communist policies. In the 1970s and 1980s, conservative evangelicals created a more organized and coherent religious right that would become an important part of US right-wing politics. Another development that influenced the amount of and ideological bent of missionary work was the revolution in China. All missionaries were expelled from China in the 1950s, leading to a wave of missionaries arriving in Latin America with a strong aversion to Communism.

As the evangelical, and specifically, neo-Pentecostal churches grew, demand for right-wing politics not unlike that of the US Christian right grew in Latin America. The political organization of the evangelical Christian right in Latin America shares traits with their US counterpart, with pressure groups and media networks playing important parts. Sermons and aid programs are also an efficient means through which the Christian right can mobilize support for political causes. Evangelical churches have been particularly successful in proselytizing among the urban and rural poor, even in areas where the state and political parties and movements are largely absent.

The end of the Cold War has meant that Christian conservatives have de-emphasized the traditional focus on anti-Communism. A uniting theme for the new Christian right is the idea of a Christian nation. Building a Christian nation means adopting laws and policies consistent with the evangelical interpretations of the Bible. In particular, the evangelical Christian right demands conservative policies with regards to issues such as abortion, divorce, and sexuality. Moreover, the evangelical Christian right is convinced that believers have a duty of obedience to God by working to realize the Christian nation. This makes evangelical Christian organizations disciplined when acting politically.

The future of the new Christian right

Even though the evangelical Christian right has successfully influenced politics in many Latin American countries, evangelical Christians are still underrepresented in political institutions. The ambitions of the new Christian right have so far been somewhat limited by the highly fragmentized state of Latin American evangelicalism, with evangelical Christians being divided into thousands of churches. That the evangelical churches in most parts of the region lack the legal privileges of the Catholic church attests to this fact. However, evangelical Christianity may well continue to attract new adherents during the foreseeable future, giving it even greater potential in shaping politics. 

The new Christian right has tended to support right-wing candidates in most elections, but there are a number of exceptions to this rule. For instance, the largely evangelical Social Encounter Party endorsed Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the 2018 Mexican election. Daniel Ortega has gained some support from evangelical leaders in Nicaragua. This shows that evangelical Christian politics is adaptable to different conditions and that the Christian right may support candidates advocating left-wing economic policies, as long as these candidates toe the line by not challenging Christian conservative positions on moral and cultural issues. As the Latin American evangelical Christian right is still quite young and in a stage of constituting itself, while the evangelical landscape in the region is dynamic, the politics and strategies of this movement could very well shift or develop in new directions in the near future.

Top Image by Raphael Nogueira on Unsplash