Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Growing Protestant Presence in Latin America

Last week, Pew Research Center released a report on the evolution of religion in Central and South America. Religion in Latin America: Widespread Change in a Historically Catholic Region documents the decline of Catholicism and the rise of Protestantism, especially Pentecostal and Charismatic forms of Christianity, in 18 Latin American countries and Puerto Rico.

While most Latin American countries still have Catholic majorities, Protestant numbers are growing. While 84% of respondents report being raised Catholic, only 69% currently identify as Catholic. Additionally, while only 9% of respondents report being raised Protestant, 19% currently identify as Protestant.

In many Latin American countries, large percentages of Protestants identify as Pentecostal or attend a church that is part of a Pentecostal denomination, according to the Pew Forum. A significant percentage of Latin American Catholics also identify as charismatic, highlighting the growth of charismatic movements within Catholicism. Substantial numbers of Protestants and a minority of Catholics report that they have witnessed exorcisms or experienced "gifts of the Holy Spirit".

A troubling trend reported in the Pew Center's research was the widespread embrace of "prosperity theology", the belief that God will bestow wealth on believers. Large percentages of Latin American Protestants and Catholics reported believing that God will grant wealth and health to those who have faith.

In an interview with Pew Research Center's Fact Tank, Andrew Chestnut offered explanations for the growth of Pentecostal Protestantism in Latin America. Chestnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, offered several reasons for the growth Pentecostal Christianity among Latin Americans, such as the appeal of healing ministries and prosperity theology, similarities between preachers and their congregants, and Pentecostalism's successful absorption of Latin American cultures.

These changing religious demographics could have wide-reaching effects if Religious Right organizations can command lasting loyalty from Latin American Protestants. As discussed in prior posts on Belize and Brazil, American Religious Right organizations such as the ACLJ, C-FAM, Alliance Defending Freedom, and so-called "ex-gay" ministries have sought to expand their influence in Latin America. Members of Brazil's Religious Right, like their Americans counterparts, have loudly opposed LGBTQ rights. Evangelical protestants are a political force to be reckoned with in Brazil, both as politicians and voters. Will the Religious Right continue to use the rise of Latin American Protestantism, and in particular Pentecostal and Charismatic denominations, to their advantage? Or can Latin America's believers take a different path?


  1. The rise of Protestantism is the bad news. The good news is that Catholicism is declining faster than Protestantism can replace it. In the Times article you linked to recently about Latin America losing its Catholic identity, several commenters from Latin America pointed out that in their own countries, many people go to church more out of habit than actual belief, just like in Europe. Gay marriage is now legal in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and some states of Mexico, something which would have seemed unimaginable a decade ago.

    As recently as the 90s, membership in "mainline" traditional Protestant denominations in the US was shrinking while the fiery fundamentalist churches burgeoned, but now even the latter are shrinking too. I think Latin America is going through a phase like we did, with the Catholic Church in the role of the old mainline churches here. In time religion will crumble under the impact of modernity, just as it's doing in our own country, however much noise they make.

    1. Infidel -- I do recall that the report cited a few Latin American countries in which non-affiliated people were on the rise, which is a hopeful sign that some people are questioning the religious traditions there.

      Here's hoping that enlightened people in Latin America can fight the good fight against the Catholic Church and the emerging protestant Religious Right there.

  2. Many converts to Mormonism in Latin America believe they will be "blessed" financially as well. I imagine homophobia plays into it as well. Interesting post Ahab.

    1. Donna -- It surprises me that prosperity gospel has crept into so many corners of Christianity. This doesn't bode well.


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