Evangelist sects in Latin America


Terriblement choqué par sa vision du champ de bataille de Solférino en 1859, Henri Dunant, citoyen suisse, décide de fonder « des sociétés de secours dont le but serait de donner des soins aux blessés, en temps de guerre »[1]. Ainsi naît, en 1863, ce qu’on connaît toujours aujourd’hui sous le nom de Comité international de la Croix-Rouge.






Some definitions first:

- sect = body of persons agreed upon religious doctrines usually different from those of the established Church. Contrary to the term “cult”, the word “sect” does not bear any negative connotation (of dangerousness, manipulation, alienation). In this paper, the word “sect” will thus be used in a neutral sense to define any religious movement that differs from the Roman Catholic Church.

- Evangelist = preacher of the Gospel. This term actually embraces a multitude of different religious doctrines. In this paper, it will especially refer to the multitude of Protestantisms present in Latin America.   



The unprecedented development of Evangelist sects in Latin America


Latin America has traditionally been a Catholic continent. However, the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church seems to have been declining since the 1950s. The absolute number of Catholics has not decreased – Latin America is still the “most Catholic continent in the world” – but the share of the Catholic population has. Whereas in the 1950s over 90% of the Latin American population declared itself Catholic, the share is now under 80%[1].


The hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church on the continent has actually been challenged by the exceptional development of Evangelist sects since the 1950s-1960s. These new religious movements are above all Protestant movements, among which Pentecostal sects are a majority. Nowadays, various countries count more than 100 religious movements. The number of Pentecostal believers on the whole continent has been increasing over 5% a year as an average since the 1960s. In Brazil, Pentecostal sects counted 3 millions believers in 1970 and reached 15 millions in 1992. Even in countries where Protestantisms are still marginal, growth rates have been spectacular (see table below).


Percentage of Protestants out of the total of the population

in selected Latin American countries, 1960-1985

(according to J-P. Bastian, Le Protestantisme en Amérique Latine, Genève, Labor et Fidès, 1994)





























Evangelist sects have found the base for their unprecedented expansion in spaces of social marginalization: in remote rural areas, in poor suburbs of huge capital cities, and among Indian communities. But they also seem to be penetrating Latin American middle classes today.




The causes of such a development


- Social anomie and social disintegration

The emergence of Evangelist sects seems to be correlated to the context of the important economic changes that happened in Latin America around the same period. In the 1950s-1960s, Latin American countries became integrated in the world market. The internationalisation of their economies accelerated the decline of traditional rural societies, rural migrations, and massive urbanization.

This phenomenon had two main consequences:

-          it led to an abandonment of traditional identity markers,

-          it created marginal spaces in which standards of living keep declining and in which social integration is seriously jeopardized.

In such a context of social anomie, marginalized populations naturally seek new structures and authorities that can provide them with new identity markers and possibilities of social reintegration. This constitutes an ideal background for the development of Evangelist sects.


- Evangelist sects as substitutes for lacking institutions

In Latin American countries, the State is usually characterized by its weak capacity of penetrating and mastering its whole territory. There are many “empty social spaces” where state institutions are hardly present or even inexistent, like in shantytowns and remote rural areas. State presence and intervention have even decreased with the application of structural adjustment programs in the 1980s. People living in these poor areas thus get the feeling that the State is incapable and/or that it is abandoning them, which appears even more clearly when confronted with natural disasters.

The Roman Catholic Church has traditionally taken over from the State in administrating and controlling these marginal areas. However, since the 1960s, the Church has been suffering from a structural crisis: the number of pastors and priests per inhabitants keeps decreasing in face of the considerable demographic growth.

The lack of institutions provides a unique opportunity for Evangelist sects to develop as substitutes for the State and the Roman Catholic Church. In addition to preaching the Gospel, new religious movements have become real service suppliers, providing medical cares, technical assistance, alphabetisation supports… In the eyes of the populations, they have become active actors of social reintegration.


- Evangelist sects as competitors victorious over the State and the Church

The increasing success of Evangelist sects also has to be understood in terms of competition, and not just of substitution. New religious movements managed to impose themselves against the State and the Roman Catholic Church because they were proposing a more popular alternative. Their main asset actually lies in their proximity with the populations.

Despite an overall democratisation of Latin American regimes, political systems have remained closed to popular claims because of the maintenance of neo-patrimonial relations. Evangelist sects, as for them, seem open to popular requests and thus more likely to satisfy them.

The Roman Catholic Church, despite some intense debates over the theology of liberation, remains a hierarchical, centralised institution, that is reluctant to bilingualism, and that is often seen as protecting interests similar to the ones of the political or economic elites in Latin America. Pentecostal sects, on the other hand, are organized in independent congregations that favour autochthon leaders, privilege the use of vernacular languages, and have a rather “apolitical” discourse. Evangelist sects are thus seen as much more attractive and more likely to adequately address their problems and expectations.



What consequences to this religious atomisation: towards an “identitarian withdrawal”?


Is the unprecedented development of Evangelist sects pointing to a communautarian withdrawal of Latin American societies?


Though there had been some cases of iconoclastic conflicts (in Guatemala for instance), the conversion of individuals to Protestantisms actually seems to be inscribed more in a logic of religious continuity than in a logic of rupture. Pentecostal groups have indeed reformulated myths and beliefs present in Catholicism, such as the myth of final judgement. This religious proximity explains why religious affiliations remain so fluctuating in Latin America, and thus seems to invalidate the idea of a religious identitarian withdrawal.


Moreover, most of the new religious movements do not attempt to institutionalise in order to become political actors on the national scene. They usually privilege grassroots actions to enhance the autonomization, modernization and social reintegration of their own communities. Nevertheless, there are some religious groups that have become politically involved in the national system. It was already the case during the Chilean dictatorship: Pentecostal sects decided to cooperate with the authoritarian regime because it would enable them to gain recognition and legitimacy. Later on, some religious groups started to participate in the electoral processes. In 1986, twenty Pentecostal deputies were elected at the Brazilian Assembly, and gave rise to the “banda evangelica.”  In 1991 in Guatemala, Jorge Serrano Elias became the first Pentecostal elected President. In 1996, the Camino Cristiano nicaragüense arrived in third position at the general elections. And there are still many more examples. Yet these movements have been operating more as electoral links with the populations, as means to mobilize votes in the perpetuation of a patron-client system, than as political instances for confessional claims.


More recently, some Pentecostal movements have created their own political party, such as the Organización Renovadora Autentica in Venezuela, and seem to be heading towards the claim of an explicit representation of a confessional membership in politics. It is however too early to know what extent this trend will reach in the future.










-      O. Compagnon, « L’Amérique Latine », in Histoire du Christianisme, sous la direction de J-M. Mayeur, t.13, Desclée, 2000

-      S. Foin, Contexte et impact politique des nouveaux mouvements religieux en Amérique Latine, FNSP, 1993

-      A. Colonomos, De l’Eglise aux sectes, face à l’Etat : concurrence et compétitivité en Amérique centrale et andine, FNSP, 1992

-      J-P. Bastian, “The new religious map of Latin America: causes and social effects”, in Cross Currents, Fall 1998

-       J-P. Bastian, « Le rôle politique des protestantismes en Amérique Latine », in Les politiques de Dieu, sous la direction de G. Kepel, Seuil, 1993

-     M. Aubrée, « La pénétration du ‘protestantisme évangélisateur’ en Amérique Latine », in Tiers-Monde, PUF, juin 1991.




[1] For all the statistics in this first part, see O. Compagnon, « L’Amérique Latine », in Histoire du Christianisme, sous la direction de J-M. Mayeur, t.13, Desclée, 2000.

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