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Lady Death and the Pluralization of Latin American Religion

In today’s podcast Professor R. Andrew Chesnut reflects on the broad changes in Latin America that show why Santa Muerte is one of the fastest growing religious movements in the world. By connecting Brazil’s colonial past to its pluralist present, Dr. Chesnut explains how folk saint culture connects the country’s diverse population of Catholic, Pentecostal, and Afro-Brazilian religious groups. Focusing on lived religious experiences, including Santa Muerte’s unofficial role in Day of the Dead in Mexico, this episode highlights the many different ways Lady Death operates for her devotees and reveals some of the ongoing challenges of studying the religion amid the rapidly changing religious landscape of the Global South today.

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Lady Death and the Pluralisation of Latin American Religion

 

Podcast with R. Andrew Chesnut (31 October 2019).

Interviewed by David McConeghy

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/lady-death-and-the-pluralisation-of-latin-american-religion/

PDF version of the transcript is available here.

David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. I am David McConeghy, and today I’m joined by Dr R. Andrew Chesnut, holder of the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. A Latin American specialist, Professor Chesnut is the author of numerous articles and five books, including his latest – Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint – which is the first and only academic study in English of the folk saint of death. Dr Chesnut is a regular commentator on news and religious affairs and writes a blog for Patheos, called The Global Catholic Review. Dr Chesnut, thanks so much for joining us today. It’s a real pleasure to speak with you.

  1. Andrew Chesnut (AC). Oh it’s my pleasure. Thanks so much for the invitation, Dr McConeghy.

DMcC. One of the things that I’m really excited about in your work is that you – especially for American audiences – really let us into an entire world that the Global South is participating in, and that is thriving in Latin America. I think here in the US, and perhaps in Europe – our two major audiences, the folks that listen to us – we need some orientation. We need some help, really understanding what’s going on in the areas that you study. So can you say a little bit about your research, and the kind of questions that really drive your focus in Latin America?

AC: Yes. I really started as a specialist in Pentecostalism in Latin America; more specifically, Brazil. My book, Born Again in Brazil, which was published in 1997, was the first book in English on the Pentecostal movement in Brazil. And over two decades later, it’s still very relevant as today, Brazil is home to the largest Pentecostal population on Earth – larger than even here, in the United States – and who were integral in electing Brazilian President Bolsonaro. After that I moved on. It was very obvious to me, as I was doing my field research in Brazil and the Amazonian city of Belém, that there was intense religious competition taking place among the three major religious groups of Brazil: Pentecostals, Catholics, and the Afro-Brazilian religious groups such as Umbanda and Candomblé – the two most important ones. So for my second book, Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy, I look at the religious competition taking place in Latin America, through the theoretical paradigm of religious economy – in which you kind-of look at faith institutions competing with each other, much in the same way that commercial enterprises do in the commercial economy. And so I focussed on those religious groups, who in the past century have had the most success in terms of attracting membership. And that would be the Pentecostals, and the Catholic Charismatic renewal – which is the Catholic Church’s own version of Pentecostalism – has been thriving in Latin America and the Global South, as its response to stiff Pentecostal competition. And again, looking at the religions of the African diaspora I also observed Haitian Vodou and Cuban Santería. And then I moved on. As you mentioned, my latest work is on what is now the fastest growing new religious movement in the entire West. Mexican folk saint, Santa Muerte, which translates in English both as Saint Death and Holy Death. Unfortunately, Pew Research hasn’t stepped in or Gallup poll, so we don’t have any hard numbers. But after a decade of research, I estimate some ten-to-twelve million Santa Muerte devotees, mostly concentrated in Mexico, Central America and here in United States. So, I don’t know, I’d say if there’s one major or two major connecting threads, in my two decades of research, first would be the paramountcy of faith healing. My main argument that the motor driving the Pentecostal boom in Brazil and Latin America is its emphasis on faith healing. I found that so many nominal Catholics had converted at the time of an acute health crisis, which they weren’t able to solve through the Catholic Church or through secular health care either. And so the Pentecostal Churches always kind of put faith healing: “Accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, be baptised by the Holy Spirit and this will cure your affliction of poverty” (5:00). And so that, I really find to be kind-of the motor that’s been propelling the Pentecostal boom in Latin America and the Global South. And I was so surprised when I started my research on Santa Muerte in 2009, that also a key component of her appeal, both in Mexico and here in the United States, is her role as a curandera or faith healer. So many people come to her major shrines in Mexico, either giving thanks for a healing they believe that she performed for them or for a family member, or asking her for that. And so that was just one of the great surprises in my research. Who was going to imagine that this fierce looking death saint is also a potent healer as well? So this kind of thread of the great importance of faith healing has been a commonality in my two decades of research, as is my primary focus, really, that’s been on lived religion – religion as it’s played out in the grassroots, in terms of rites and rituals – and (I’ve been) much less interested in the written word, and dogma, and doctrine in my focus.

DMcC: This is a really interesting way to think about your work. One of the questions that I already had for you – and I’ve been engaging with your work, Born Again in Brazil, for some time – talking about the kind of charismatic exchanges between groups like the New Apostolic Reformation, and folks in Guatemala or Brazil. On those kinds of things, you really frame it as a solution to the health crisis of poverty. And it sounds as if, twenty years later – this is an amazing thing to say – twenty years later, you still think that’s true!

AC: Yes, I make the same argument. And especially, as I throw in, since prosperity theology has essentially become hegemonic theology among Pentecostals, and many Evangelicals across the Americas. And, as we see, it’s kind-of the unofficial theology of the Trump administration here.

DMcC: Right. Absolutely.

AC: So I’d throw in the element of prosperity, which wasn’t as prevalent when I initiated my research – what, twenty-five years ago? But yes, the health component is still, I’d say, the sine qua non of Pentecostalism’s appeal in Latin America and the Global South. And even here, in the United States. You know the great pioneering Pentecostal televangelist, Oral Roberts, who brought the message on TV for the first time in the United States: really the crux of his message was faith healing, as well. Benny Hinn, as well. So the whole prosperity element of it gets so much attention lately, but we can’t forget the other part of the equation.

DMcC: Do you think that part of this is sales pitch for the shift, maybe, from stronger Catholicism that was not charismatic, to the rising Pentecostals, and then Catholic competition in charismatic spaces? That that framework is really only exposed through the kind of lived experience stuff that you work on? You suggested that perhaps the written stuff is less crucial for the way that you think about things. But, when I think of the Pentecostal orientation to what’s important: “Show me the power”, right? “Show me a thing that will have results and that will connect me to the power of the Holy Spirit.” It will do that immediately. It will do it vibrantly. It will do it within my community. It will do it day in, day out. Is that part of the mix, there, that kind of “We’re making really strong claims about what the religious adoption of this can do for you”? And then, collectively, the power of that choice brings . . . the rising tide lifts all boats on that.

RAC: Yes, no doubt, at the macro level. Particularly that emphasis on access and demonstrating the power of the Holy Spirit, needs to be physically manifest, right? And so thus the Pentecostal emphasis, particularly in Latin America, of constructing monumental temples, for being seen with presidents and governmental authorities (10:00). Such as I think is poignantly the case with billionaire Pentecostal Bishop Edir Macedo, who has become one of the most visible and prominent backers of the Brazilian president, Bolsonaro. And who recently had him attend one of his Sunday worship services in San Paolo and gave him a five minute blessing, which you can see on YouTube. It’s pretty extraordinary! So yes, at the macro level, there needs to be physical representations and manifestations of the power. And, particularly if we’re talking about the ascendant prosperity theology, you know, that Pentecostal pastors themselves need to be paragons of prosperity – so, the ostentatious display of their prosperity in terms of their choice of vehicles, and their houses, and the temples themselves. So yes, it’s not only at the grass roots, it’s not only lived religion, it’s also the institution. That just tends to be my focus less, but I’m not saying that it’s a less interesting or valid focus.

DMcC: So in the last two decades you kind-of highlighted that prosperity has really taken root. Can you talk a little bit more, for any of the Listeners that may not be familiar with the background, especially of Brazil? I know that many centuries of Catholic dominance there really started to shift mid-twentieth century, with the growth of Pentecostalism there. But then there’s also this backdrop of West African and syncretic kind of openness. And that configuration is so unique, not only in Brazil, but in each country in Latin America, and the way that they do it. Can you talk just little bit about that? The blending that they do so well?

AC: Yes. I think Brazil is particularly fascinating as a country of over two hundred million people, and such diversity! It’s kind-of the country that most mirrors the United States, and is most similar, really – the religious economy – to the United States. So yes, historically of course, like all Latin American countries, it’s a Catholic country. And at the end of the nineteenth century, you had the disestablishment of the Catholic Church from the Brazilian State. Which, of course, sets the legal foundation for . . . not for Afro-Brazilian religions, but the legal foundation for Protestants to start setting up their chapels. And indeed, at that time in the nineteenth Century, you have some of the major US-based mainline denominations going down to Brazil: Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, etc. They have very little success in converting Brazilian Catholics. But they do have success in setting up prep schools and universities and such. And then, building on this new legal foundation – at least for Protestants to set up shop – Pentecostals arrive in 1910-1911, and find really quick success in converting Brazilian Catholics. To the point that we already start to have a critical mass of converts by the mid-twentieth century, by the1950s. And Pentecostalism really starts to mushroom in the 1970s and really has been growing like wildfire for the past five decades or so. Talking about the Afro-Brazilian religions . . . and I should say I need to make this so clear. Of the twelve million African slaves who were forcibly brought to our Americas, forty-three percent go to Brazil. In comparison only three percent come here, to the United States. So anybody with any interest in matters of the African diaspora, be it religion or any other facet, by necessity has to take a look at Brazil, if not start with Brazil, because of the sheer numbers. And so it’s no surprise that Brazil is the place – maybe with the exception of Haiti – Brazil is the place where today we have the most vibrant religions of the African diaspora, which historically were repressed, suppressed by both Brazilian church and state, and really only are legalised in the late 1960s (15:00). And today, and again the two main ones are Umbanda and Candomblé. And today they’re thriving – however, they’re facing a new round of persecution by Pentecostals, particularly in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, where Pentecostal gangsters raid their houses of worship and try to drive them out of their zones of influence. And so this is another kind of fascinating development. Never, twenty-five years ago, did I imagine that I’d be writing articles about armed Pentecostal gangsters in Rio de Janeiro, who are the agents of persecution and harassment of practitioners of Candomblé and Umbanda!

DMcC: When you tweeted out your latest post on that from Patheos, it exploded on my timeline! It got retweeted so much. Clearly, I think, the rest of us share that surprise – that this is one of the configurations that we’re seeing, right now.

AC: It’s surreal. We’re living in surreal times across the board, though!

DMcC: So if we can take that kind-of grass-roots activism that’s happening: one access point from your current research on that is really the broad appeal of Santa Muerte. Can you tell us a little bit about why it is that this really potent symbol is connected to health, and love, and money, and drugs, and crime and cartels?! How did we get from a folk saint to narco-cartels, Pentecostals attacking Afro-Brazilian religious groups? It’s such a stunning transformation!

AC: Yes. That’s a big question. Let me think about where I should start with that! So Santa Muerte goes back to Spanish colonial times, in Mexico, and really is the syncretism or fusion of the Spanish Grim Reapress. And I say Grim Reapress because in Mediterranean Europe, Spain, Portugal, Italy, more often than not it was a female representation. The Spanish Catholic Church puts over the figure of the Grim Reapress as a tool of evangelisation of the indigenous people, here in the Americas. Because of course, in the beginning, they have no idea who the indigenous people are. They’re not in the Bible. Are they humans are they animals? Do they have their own religion? So the Spanish Catholic Church brings in the Grim Reapress to represent death. And of course, for the Europeans, the Grim Reaper was a mere artistic representation or rendition of death that arises during the great death and dying of the Black Plague of the fourteenth century. Europeans did not venerate or worship the Grim Reaper, or repress and imbue him or her with any supernatural powers. And so it’s the case that the Grim Reapress comes over here, for example, as part of Holy Week processions, representing the good death, the holy death of Christ. And again, one of the English translations of Santa Muerte’s name is Holy Death, referring to the holy death of Christ. And so it’s the case that some of the indigenous groups in Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina, Paraguay – because there’s two other skeletal death saints which I’ll mention in a minute – interpret the Grim Reapress through their own pre-existing religious contexts, in which the Aztecs, and the Mayans, and the (audio unclear) in South America, had their own death deities, their own death gods and goddesses, such as the Aztec Mictēcacihuātl, which presided over what used to be the Aztec month of the dead – which, of course, the Spanish Catholic Church collapsed into the present two Days of the Dead. So anyway, she’s the syncretism of this indigenous belief in death deities and the Grim Reapress. She goes off the historical record in 1797, and only resurfaces a century-and-a-half later, in the 1940s, when American anthropologists report her for the first time on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca, interestingly among Afro-Mexicans (20:00). And, from the 1940s to the 1980s, we have both American and Mexican anthropologists starting to find mostly females, Mexican females, dressed in black, venerating, Santa Muerte. By the time we get to the 1980s, across the Mexican Republic. But during this time, our anthropologist friends were reporting her working only one type of magic, and that is love magic. And so, at the mid-century, the only type of miracle that she is recorded performing is love sorcery – mostly for aggrieved Mexican women who believe their husbands or boyfriends are cheating on them. And so they petition Santa Muerte to take her over-sized scythe, and to cut out the other woman from their husband’s path and to bring that husband, that badly behaving man, back home – humbled at her feet, under the threat of Santa Muerte’s scythe, to never be adulterous once again.

DMcC: That’s a terrifying image!

AC: It is! And so her origins, at least in the twentieth century – and last time I checked and when I did the research for my book, Devoted to Death, her number one selling coloured votive candle was the red candle, not of blood and death, but of the heart: of love and passion. And indeed, still one of her premier roles is as love doctor, or love sorceress. At some point in the late eighties she starts to become associated with organised crime, to the point that today – you’ve probably seen some of my writing along with my colleague and research partner Dr Kate Kingsbury – where she’s been labelled a “narco-saint”. And, in fact, that was the catalyst of my own interest, is when the Filipe Calderón administration ordered the Mexican army, in March 2009, to go onto the border with California and Texas and to demolish some forty Santa Muerte shrines. When I saw that I thought . . . . I knew about Santa Muerte, because I’d been going to Mexico since the early 1980s, but I had no idea that she had been fingered as the religious enemy number one of the Mexican government, at that point. And so . . .

DMcC; Right. If the Mexican Government is issuing statements calling for disruption of roadside temples by bulldozer, you know you’ve really got something on your hands!

AC: Exactly. So we just published with Patheos yesterday about these narco-saints. And so, one of Santa Muerte’s roles is as protectress of cartel members, protecting them from harm, from rival cartel members, law enforcement. But obviously since she’s a folk saint and she’s amoral – she’s not a Catholic saint – they also ask her to eliminate or bring harm to their rivals, as well. And so that’s another important role that she plays – but one of many.

DMcC: Right. One of the things that struck me about it, and I work with far more American stuff, is the work on Saint Jude, for instance, where we really see the lived experience of the relationship of Catholics with their saint of choice as revealing all of the kind-of issues that really matter to a person, and really how it builds their whole world out from the saint, organising the perspectives about it. I think it’s really interesting if Santa Muerte starts off as love . . . the avenging angel for infidelity. We don’t have to work too hard, to draw a line to the cartels, mentally, if we think of the protection of secrecy, right? The protection of the sphere where cartel members are not wanting to talk about their activities, and then avenging those that break that silence, or that are working against them? It’s not a hard road: (25:00) the passion that the scythe brings to the unfaithful husband is the same passion that cartel members hope that she’ll bring to the enemies of the cartel. Is that the kind of way that we should think about it, or is something else going on, do you think?

AC: Right, I think so – particularly since most Catholic saints tend to specialise in one or two types of miracles, such as Saint Anthony will help you find your lost keys or cell phone. And so, very quickly, Santa Muerte morphs from this exclusive focus on love sorcery to, today, being a multi-tasking saint who does it all. So, yes, she covers all bases and that’s part of her appeal, as well. Not only that she covers . . . And going back to her coloured votive candles – which was the schema for the way I organised my book – she has a seven power rainbow coloured candle for those folks who are looking for a miracles on multiple fronts! Which are a lot of people, right?

DMcC: Yes, aren’t we all?

AC: And particularly, we can’t ignore the fact that devotion to Santa Muerte has mushroomed during a time of great death and dying – of bad death, juxtaposed to her name Holy Death – in Mexico. In the last decade, the only country that surpasses Mexico on violent death is another country where I have relatives, Syria. And so we’re well over two hundred thousand violent deaths in Mexico in the past ten years. And so, I’m not making that one-to-one correlation in the mushrooming rise. But there’s no doubt that this hyper-violence of the interminable drug war creates fertile soil. Because there’s a lot of folks who ask her for more life, for more grains of life in that hour glass that she holds, in addition, again, to narcos asking her to cut the life down from their rivals, as well. And so that a saint of death should become so popular in a Mexico of such bad death, in the past ten-to-fifteen years, is of little surprise.

DMcC: You’ve written about a lot of other folk saints as well, like the Our Lady of Oxum, the Black Madonna. Should we be – as Religious Studies observers of folk practice and lived experience – should we be paying far more attention to the kind of constellation of major figures? I think you rightly point that Santa Muerte’s rise reveals how hard it is sometimes for Religious Studies scholars to address the rapid rise of a new religious movement, a new religious emphasis, a new religious symbol. It takes us a long time to catch on to what’s on the ground, to do the research, to publish the research, to have the conversations that really kind-of unpack everything. And what I’ve been really pleased about, every time I see something coming across on Patheos, is how vibrant it all seems. Everything is new to me about this, being a non-specialist in the area. Do you feel like more of this is needed, that we need to pay attention to more of these things, in all the places that we can find them?

AC: Yes. I think what you’re pointing at is . . . . And I’m also a big fan of paying attention to macro trends. In fact, I was a lead academic consultant on the landmark Pew survey of the Latin American religious landscape that came out in 2014. So I paid attention to macro trends as well. So one of the great . . . the greatest trend in Latin America, on a religious landscape, in the past four or five decades is pluralisation. And whereas for four centuries one’s religious identity was inherited or bequeathed, Catholicism now, for many folks – as it is the United States – it’s elected, it’s chosen. And so, you know, there’s Mexicans who are finding Santa Muerte is far more appealing – far more, let’s say, efficacious than certain Catholic saints – and so they go that route. New Age beliefs are also very prevalent in Latin America. And so it’s a diversification, it’s a pluralisation. And indeed, just like in the United States, one of the fastest growing groups are the religious “nones”: those who have no institutional religious affiliation (30:00). The last Pew Survey shows that, here in the United States, the religious nones are up to twenty six percent, which means there are six percent more of them than there are Catholics, because Catholics are down to twenty percent in the United States. And in Latin America it’s about fifteen percent, and exceedingly higher among Latin American millennials and Generation Z as well. So Santa Muerte and all of these other folk saints I would just put under this big tent of pluralisation, of the kind of robust diversification and religious choices that we’ve had for a long time in our own country.

DMcC; It’s really interesting to think about that as a kind of great awakening that’s happening in Brazil, right? The voluntary-ism of America, that we tend to associate with the development of multiple Protestant denominations, really, in my mind, is the kind of language that I’m hearing you talk about with that, to hear the pluralisation of religious impulses there. But also, the nones really surprises me too. I heard a talk recently by one of Pew Forum’s head researchers and like you, he highlighted that the nones are growing basically, in the US, at about one percent per year. Catholics are down to twenty-one percent now. But he cited that globally, when you talk about that, that’s not what we’re seeing. I’m hearing a little pushback from you that Brazil, in its parallels with the US, is actually . . .

AC: Yes. I hate to contradict my associates at Pew, but I just saw the other day on Twitter, that in the Arab world we’re seeing significant rise over the last decade of religious nones as well. So there’s a hemispheric-wide trend from Canada, down to Argentina, and the United States. Western Europe, of course, was the one who really pioneered secularisation. In fact, all the sociological models of secularisation that arose in the seventies and the eighties were mostly based on the Western European experience. Peter and his associates. So, yeah, we have evidence that in other parts of the world –namely, lately, the Arab world – it’s happening as well. So it’s not only peculiar to our own Americas here.

DMcC: I don’t know that those are necessarily contradictory. I think what it tells us is that the situation is changing so rapidly right now, that data that’s even a few years old – if you’re thinking of data from 2010, right? We’re off by many percentage points now, in that data. And when you’re talking on a global scale you run into huge problems. I always tell my students, when we’re talking about China, that as far as I can tell and based on the work of other experts, the survey data that we have on religion in China is basically useless. When there’s a global survey about what religion is like in China, that billion people in China is not being reflected by that data very well at all. And I think we see that in sub-Saharan Africa, where we’re talking about the rise of Islam alongside the rise of Catholicism and Pentecostalism. And at the same time, if there’s a secular movement – it’s all happening all at once! I don’t know that the broadness of the data is there yet, and it may take us decades to sort this out. Which, I guess, I’m thankful for – because hopefully it will keep us all busy and in business, right?

AC: (Laughs) Right, right. Thanks to Pew in particular, right?

DMcC: Yeah. Absolutely. So we’ve been talking a little bit in the last few minutes about this meta approach. One of the things you said right at the start of our conversation today, was a comparison between President Bolsonaro and maybe some of the current American politics that are going on. In a recent interview with Bradley Onishi that I did, he said similar things to a Patheos post that you posted, with Dr Ana Keila Mosca Pinez, about how Brazilian Pentecostals are seeing President Bolsonaro as the Messiah, or as a messiah. (35:00) Can you talk a little bit more about the parallels between how Brazilian Pentecostals and Catholics are religiously relating to their leaders like Bolsonaro, and how, maybe for audiences in the US, that might be resembling the American evangelical relationship to Trump.

AC: Oh yes. There’s a really amazing parallel there. Again, just as white evangelicals are a major religious political constituency of president Trump, Pentecostals are that for Bolsonaro and Brazil. We know that overall about seventy percent of Brazilian evangelicals voted for Bolsonaro. I don’t think we have precise data specifically on Pentecostals. But one has to remember that about seventy-five percent of all Protestants in Brazil are specifically Pentecostals, so there’s no doubt that Bolsonaro would have received over eighty percent of the Pentecostal vote. And in the United States, actually sixty-one percent of white Catholics voted for Trump. I still think he has majority support, although I have seen it declining. Maybe fifty-one, fifty-two percent. And so we see that same convergence of more conservative Catholics allied with Pentecostals in Brazil, and supporting Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro recently was baptised by an Assembly of God pastor, in the River Jordan. And he definitely hangs around and kind-of identifies Evangelical. But historically he’s been a conservative Catholic. Anyway, so he has the support of many Brazilian conservative Catholics who very much oppose Pope Francis’s agenda on the Amazon, the Amazon Synod that’s taking place right now. So there’s just the Christian Zionism that I’ve written about, too, is just as important in Brazil for Pentecostals as it is for white Evangelicals. And so I think Brazil under Bolsonaro . . . . He’s also in the process of probably moving their embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as well. Some of the major Pentecostal pastors in Brazil, such again as billionaire Edir Macedo, actually sometimes dress up in rabbinical vestments and cut rabbinical figures more than they do Protestant pastors! And so, yeah. There’s just a great kind-of parallel taking place politically and religiously between the two giants of the hemisphere these days – Brazil and the United States.

DMcC: Keeping on our kind of current timeliness issue: you said, before we began recording today, that with Halloween coming up – we’re recording in mid-October here, All Saints Day and especially Day of the Dead – that there are actually a lot of really interesting things going on right now, connecting a lot of these themes. The next few weeks are going to be pretty interesting. I heard you say that you were headed down to Mexico for the Day of the Dead. Can you tell us about that? And maybe what you’re hoping to do?

AC: Yes. My current research project focuses on Catholic death culture. So I’m looking at things like Day of the Dead, relics, some of the memento mori that you see in Europe. But specifically, since we’re on the eve of Day of the Dead, this is what I’m kind of most immediately working on. And it’s also related to my previous work on Santa Muerte, in that one of the major trends in Santa Muerte devotion of the past five years is for devotees to integrate the Mexican Death Saint into their commemorations of Day of the Dead. In fact it’s become so popular and so controversial that, annually, the Catholic Church in Mexico issues admonitions for parishioners not to do that, because Santa Muerte is satanic. Honouring your departed loved ones is one thing, but bringing in this heretical Death Saint is quite another. So please keep her out of your commemorations. But I should say, at his point, Santa Muerte has no official annual feast day. But if she ever does in the future, it probably will be November 2nd, the Day of the Dead. Because, again, before the Spanish conquest and colonisation (40:00), it was the Aztecs had this roughly “month of the dead”, roughly corresponding to our August, presided over by Aztec death goddess, Mictēcacihuātl – who many Mexican Santa Muerte devotees see Santa Muerte, really, as the latest kind of incarnation, or reincarnation of.

DMcC: That’s so interesting!

AC: And so it’s like I knew that, since I wrote the first academic book in English on Santa Muerte, that it would probably hard to move onto a new topic. And so here again, in Day of the Dead, we see that nexus with Santa Muerte as well: again, me having trouble moving beyond the Death Saint

DMcC: I don’t know that we should ever apologise when we find something . . . such a rich topic, that connects to so many issues in so many different ways: from immigration, to cartels, to love, to the kind of syncretism that we’re seeing, to politics, it’s such a multifaceted area.

AC: It is, yes. For example my research partner, Dr Kingsbury, is now focusing on her appeal to women and how she’s kind of a defender and protectress of vulnerable women. Because, I didn’t mention it, but, in addition to the narco-violence besetting Mexico, there’s also an epidemic of femicide as well. And so some of these women who are at risk, look to Santa Muerte as a fierce protectress, to protect them from the predatory men. So that’s a whole ‘nother angle that I didn’t really look into in Devotees of Death, that Dr Kingsbury is moving forward with.

DMcC: I can’t wait. I will reach out immediately, so that we can hear the second half of the new story here. One of the things that I’ve really been impressed by, is how collaborative your work is. And as we wrap up here, I’d love to hear about your thoughts about collaboration as a scholar, and what you see as the kind of challenges and benefits of doing that scholarship in a collaborative way. Because I really do think that you and Dr Kingsbury, together, have a special kind of public relationship that feeds off one another, and produces really interesting work. Can you share with us what that’s like?

AC: Yes. For me it’s been very strange because up until I recently started collaborating with her, I had mostly just flown solo. I can’t even think of any other co-authored . . . at least, academic journal articles that I have. All my books were my own, single-authored books. So, yeah, this has been new to me and has taken me by surprise, because our particular collaboration is so easy and seamless. And that, ironically, had been one of the reasons why maybe I had shied away from collaboration: imagining it being difficult, and time consuming, and everything. But yeah. We have great intellectual and academic chemistry, and so everything we do together is as easy as me writing on my own. And so I think both of us have just been fortunate with that. Because one can imagine that, you know, you’re not going to have that rapport with everybody to facilitate that. But it’s been wonderful, because with Patheos, I’ll just say, or she’ll say, “I’ll take this, and you take that” and it all comes together. And she’s British, so at first I was like “OK. So what do we do about our British vs American English?” But we just leave our respective versions of the English language alone and nobody seems to be bothered by that.

DMcC: We run into that frequently at the Religious Studies Project, too! When the emails come from our British founders, Chris and David. You know it’s all the‘s’s and when we’re replying back it’s all the ‘z’s. You just have to roll with it, right?

AC: Exactly. Well, the good thing for me is, she’s in Canada. So it’s kind of up to her to assimilate to our New World English, right?! (45:00)

DMcC: Right. You’re pulling the rug right out from under the English language there. It’s been so wonderful to talk to you, today. I really do appreciate your time, and I hope that all of our Listeners have enjoyed hearing about this really thriving area of research. And if they wanted to find you on Patheos, what’s the name of the Blog that they should head to?

AC: Yes. It’s the Global Catholic Review.

DMcC: Perfect.

AC: And in addition, I also run a Santa Muerte blog with my research partner, David Metcalfe. And it’s called the Skeleton Saint. And it’s like in its seventh year. And it’s the only impartial blog out there, that covers Santa Muerte news.

DMcC: And if folks wanted to find you on Twitter, where you are extremely active and always posting interesting things, what should they look for?

AC: I’m @AndrewChesnut1. Number 1.

DMcC: Perfect. Well, thank you so much for your time, and have a great day.

AC: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it, Dr McConeghy.

 

 

 

 

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Politics of this world: Protestant, evangelical, and Pentecostal movements in the Peru

riverEvangelicalism in Peru has become a driving force in politics and decision making across major subjects, such as gender-related policies and institutional power. But it’s relevance today in the current political landscape is only the result of a much larger process, one that started around the end of the nineteenth century, with the entrance of the first protestant denominations and the establishment of their grassroots across the country. In this podcast, professor Juan Fonseca aims to elaborate a brief history of Protestantism, in order to comprehend its current mainstream manifestation.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Podcast with Juan Fonseca

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock  and revised by  Sidney Castillo.

Sidney Castillo (SC): Professor Juan Fonseca is Licentiate in History for Pontificia Universidad Catholica del Peru. He’s also Master in History at this university. His work focuses on the historical development of non-Catholic Christian movements in Peru, mainly Protestant evangelical, and intertwined with an interest in politics and social movements. Welcome Professor Fonseca to the Religious Studies Project.

Juan Fonseca (JF): It’s a pleasure to speak with you.

SC: The pleasure is also ours. Now, we’re here to learn some things about the non-Catholic Christian movements in Peru. In order to do that we would like to know a bit more about the classification of these movements. Since the Protestant and Pentecostal landscape of Peru is, counterintuitively enough, a diverse one in terms of origins, theology and political tendencies, based on your previous research, would you please elaborate a brief specification of these movements?

JF: Of course. In my last writings I have raised a typology of Protestantism. This typology is based in the following aspects. First its historical roots – national level and worldwide level – and some interreligious characteristics, that is to say, the beliefs and the religious practices that make them singular within the set-up of Christianity.

SC: Mmm

JF: This includes. . . There’s two things. There is theology and there are ecumenical practices: a type of religiousness practised by these members.

SC: OK.

JF: And third is the religious emphasis, which includes the ways that this person is articulated in the public sphere. For example, their political attitudes, some of attitudes towards social practices and some ideological points. Moreover, I believe that Protestant and Pentecostal are like two specific faces within Peruvian Christianity. These two faces co-exist in Peru, within the non-Catholic population. These two groups share some theological characteristics, but also they reference the Bible to define the dogma. However, there is a fundamental difference between the symbolic epistemology that constitutes the basis on which the religious practices – or the religious devotes – are constructed. On the one hand Protestantism, which is basically rational religion sustained in the Bible. On the other hand Pentecostalism is a sensorial religion, sustained in the constant intense experience with the numinous. Protestantism is like a religion of modernity, Pentecostalism is a religion of post-modernity and, in this sense, Catholicism is like a religion from pre-modernity. (5:00) About this theoretical base I suggest the following typology. So, two big groups: Protestantism itself and Pentecostalism. In Protestantism itself we can distinguish two groups: mainline Protestantism and evangelical Protestantism. Mainline Protestantism, for example, includes churches like Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian. These churches have a very ecumenical attitude and missiology. Their theology is liberal and their political attitudes are very progressive. And the evangelical group includes some churches, for example, the Christian Missionary Alliance, The Nazareth Church, The Baptist Church, the Anabaptist Church. And their theology is more moderate, not necessarily liberal. Its political attitudes are moderate: centre-right or centre-left. And in the Pentecostal sphere we can distinguish two groups: classic Pentecostalism, for example, some churches like Assemblies of God, Church of God. Pentecostal churches in general, in this field, their theology is more conservative, sometimes fundamentalist. Its religiosity is very pietistic and its political attitudes are more conservative. And the last group, inside Pentecostalism, is the charismatic churches. The charismatic churches, for example include very large Christian communities: Agua Viva is a very large community here in Lima; and Camino de Vida; Emmanuel Church – the Church of Humberto Lay, who is a very outstanding evangelical congressman. These churches are very enthusiastic. Their religion is very conservative theology but these churches have very good work in politics, too, very effective work. But with politics, they’re very conservative, too. So they’re sometimes linked to the political right and their morals are very conservative. I think this is the spectrum, like you said.

SC: That’s a very interesting present-day analysis. But as a historian you, of course, have researched about the very beginnings of non-Catholic denominations in Peru. In that sense especially, what was the relationship between the first wave of Protestant missions and the social movements or institutions that were present in first years of the twentieth century? We could name some like indigenism, syndicate movement, student movement or feminists.

JF: On the one hand, the brothers and missionaries of the early decades of the twentieth century developed a strategy combining the following aspects. (10:00) First, a political objective: the decline of the power of the Catholic Church, which will coincide with the most progressive sectors in different periods. Second, a cultural offer: the Protestants as carriers of civilisation in which they will also receive the support of the liberals. And third, a religious agenda: Protestantism as a confessional eternity programme. Well this strategy was based, on the other hand, in the countries from which it came. In the United States, their so-called social gospel had a strong influence on the missionary group – particularly the Methodists, which is the third denomination in Peru. Although, the more conservative groups such as evangelicals from Great Britain, or other places, had the most pietistic disposition. But they were also clear that socialisation was part of their mission. On that basis, they developed a series of missionary initiatives in the social sphere. For instance: the development of the employment option for women; promoting female employment and education in their schools; or fostering the development of the nursing profession, which at that time was only confined to Catholic nuns. In addition, it is well known the link of the Protestant missionaries with the first leaders of the Peruvian feminism, such as Maria Alvarado. In fact, one of the very old Methodist schools – Lima High School – is Maria Alvarado School. Furthermore, they developed links with indigenous people, several of whose leaders – Manuel Vincente Villarán, Dora Mayer de Zulen – expressed their appreciation for the help with this work. Similarly Protestant missionaries developed some missionary projects within areas such as: the Amazonas,with the Awajún people; or in the Perené, with the Asháninka people; or Puno, with the Aymara people; with the Azangaro people of Puno; and in the area of trade unions and the university movement. The closeness between the Methodist pastor Roberto Alcorta and workers and the labour movements are well-known. In fact, Roberto Alcorta was part of the temperance movement in the beginning of the twentieth century. John A. Mackay, the very renowned Scottish educator, had the very closest links within circles of intellectualism in Lima, in the 1920s. In addition, Presbyterians of the Peruvian school had very close link with some intellectuals and politicians like Victor Raul Haya de la Torre,  Jose Carlos Mariátegui and Victor Andrés Belaúnde.

SC: Now, you talked about the intellectual movements linked with the Christian denominations and all theses initiatives were properly from the first decades of the twentieth century Peru. But nowadays you could trace a little bit from the mid twentieth century, there’s a change in the way that these denominations do pastoral work. In that sense, I would like to ask you . . . .Your research shows that these first waves of Protestant missionaries were agents of modernization, directing their work to many institutions and social groups. But it also refers that in the last fifty years a great portion of Protestant evangelical and Pentecostal denominations aligned themselves with more conservative ideas and political parties. When and why, would you say, is the turning point for this particular way of doing missionary work and overall being Protestant, evangelical or Pentecostal?

JF: (15:00) Well, I think that transformations of social approaches of missionaries started around the 1940s. On the one hand, the global context at this stage of the post-war period and the beginnings of the cold war influenced the conservatism of the Protestant churches. Thus, since the 1950s, new waves of missionaries with an anti-communist mentality and with a pietistic missiological approach focussed basically on proselytising and the spiritualisation of the Christian missions when they arrived. In China, there was a communist revolution during 1940-49 so, two years after, all the protestant missionaries were expelled. Like ten thousand, so most of them came to Latin America with very anti-communist ideas. This was going to be acute in the following case when they were from nations of ideological Christian progressivism: communism, versus the Christian evangelical conservatives who were there. These troubles between the conservative majority and the progressive minority – mainly grouped in the Methodist church and the Christian NGOs – began in the ’60s. Similar to what happened with Catholicism, the nature of the debate was focussed on the ideological dimensions of the Christian mission in communism. In the ’70s, it was clear that theological conservatism had been imposed, but in a moderate version, whose best expression was the Latin American Theological Fraternity, and the Association of Evangelical College Groups of Peru (AGEUP in Spanish). At the side of it, the great evangelical mass – people attached to large denominations – basically developed pietistic religious practices and a fundamentalist hermeneutic. And on the other hand, the complex process of nationalisation of the leadership of the Protestant denominations of course, in that context, just when conservative speech and fundamentalism was in progress. Obviously, that explains why many of the protestant national leadership took a conservative, anti-ecumenical and even fundamentalist speech. So the CONEP (in Spanish): the National Council of Evangelical Churches starts its activities in the 1940s. And the CONEP was, well, the leadership of CONEP was very national – national people. They became institutionally independent but they inherited the ideological imprint of the missionaries from whom they complained. Thus, as we enter into the 1980s the field was ready for the emergence of fundamentalism. Somehow a violence of terrorism delayed that process for a short while, because moderate evangelicalism made this speech, hegemonize at least in evangelical cooperation entities and especially in CONEP, the Evangelical National Council of Peru. Since then, most of their leaders have belonged to the moderate evangelicalism. However, this hegemony began to be questioned by a growing and very well organised fundamentalist force, which caused a big crisis in CONEP. (20:00) So this neo-fundamentalism, represented in the leaders of the charismatic movement, was different from moderate evangelicalism in its mission of the church, and its political ideology. Neo-fundamentalism is not necessarily anti-intellectual. You can even say that it is relatively illustrated and fits very well into the parameters of the democratic party sphere. This neo-fundamentalism is very active, politically speaking, always a part of the agenda of right-wing political groups. Between 1993 and 1995 an outpost of this group decided to take control of CONEP. The damage that this battle produced in the main evangelical institutions was prolonged, although later on the moderate groups would take control of the situation. But the neo-fundamentalists empowered themselves and began to construct the spaces of collective institutions on the basis of which, they would promote their agenda. Thus FIPAC – the International Fraternity of Christian Pastors and the Peruvian Fellowship of Evangelical Pastors – were developed. These institutions are very conservative, very fundamentalist. So throughout the 21st century the strength of neo-fundamentalism and conservative groups has continued to grow. CONEP has been the battlefield between the ultra-conservative groups and the moderate minority that still maintains its presence here. Sometimes CONEP seems a very strange institution, because their presidents – these last years – were always moderate, or even liberal pastors, but when they took the presidency, immediately they acted like prisoners of the conservatives. So the CONEP people say, “Well the president is liberal.” But it’s just a symbolic position, they have no power, no effective power inside the institution. So the UNICEP, the formation of the Union of Christian Evangelical Churches, its partner institutions, different from CONEP, begin a new attempt by the right-wing evangelical groups to hegemonise their reactionary speech. So, an additional factor in this brief history is the influence of the American neo-conservative agenda – the North American conservative agenda. Since the 1980s, the right-wing religious parties have been strengthened considerably in the United States and is globalized in the last decade. So, the objectives of the crusade to the demands of sexual minorities, feminism, and secularism in general, and for a decade their actions have become globalized. I think it is one of the protagonists of, for example, homophobic speech and the practice of Christian conservatism in Peru.

SC: As you may know, on March 12 2016, La Marcha por la Familia y la Vida, or March for Life and Family took place. It is an annual international march organised by the Archdiocese of Lima and gathers most of the conservative Christian and political wings of Peruvian civil society against abortion and same-sex unions. In that sense, what is the current impact of the Pentecostal and evangelical movement as part of a wider conservative coalition in these political struggles. (25:00) Also, why would you say are they so focused on these particular issues?

JF: At present, it is clear that neo-fundamentalists have managed to hegemonise at least on this point. On the Catholic side, the statement of the Episcopal Conference, the Bishop’s Conference, have been clearly reactionary. And at this point, all the wings of the Catholic church handle the same speech, at least publicly. Progressive groups are afraid of saying something for fear or for indifference. Well, but on the Protestant evangelical side, the internal battles which have occurred in the past few years about this subject also show that the neo-fundamentalist speech succeeded in cornering moderates and progressives, in a way that they had to abide to the falling tide, which at this time has been extended by the evangelical churches. The neo-fundamentalists have succeeded in associating their speech with the essentiality of the evangelical identity. I think that the Protestant evangelical members, their identity did not necessarily imply being, for example, homophobic. Thus part of the conservative strategy was to normalise and naturalise the relationship between evangelical religious discourse and fierce opposition to sexual diversity or abortion, and other issues like this. The conservative pressure has been so strong that it has managed to neutralise almost all voices inside the local Protestantism, that began to show some sympathy to the LGBT cause. They have gone with unethical methods many times, but have finally been effective. For example, the campaign for recall of Susana Villarán[1] ecognised the conflict of powers in which the neo-fundamentalists won and important repositioning. There are some similar areas affecting this outbreak of homophobic speech and religious practice of conservative Christianity. On the one hand, theology and Biblical hermeneutics produce the ideological conditions for the constitution of pastoral homophobic discourse to the interior of the churches. On the other hand, the political discourse of religious hierarchies in the public sphere is more and more careful with using religious categories except for less sophisticated groups. Finally, in practice, this trans-confessional alliance of neo-conservatism, or “ecumenical fundamentalism”, has a more active set of actors who are positioned in the various political groupings within the country, as well as in social spaces. Traditionally, they were reluctant to change, for example, the location of the militant institutions. However, the progressive minority, silenced for decades, also begins to build a theological discourse where the practice of the faith are compatible with promotion of sexual diversity rights or some other issues of progressive agenda.

SC: (30:00) Well, now that we have covered the conservative part, I’d like to go to the other side of the spectrum with this the next question. Now we’re facing the second round of presidential elections – on June 5, 2016. While there is a common misconception that being Christian equals being a political conservative – thus favouring religious and secular conservative candidates – a recent statement of an interdenominational Christian collective, favouring a left wing candidate, has been circulated in different social media. Why these kind of political stances hardly find any correspondences in the majority of Peruvian Christians?

JF: Well, I’m not sure that this manifest of progressive Christians, on which I include myself as well, has impacted too much on the electoral decisions of evangelical voters. I think the evangelical voter is more independent than many people believe and votes according to rationales that are not always religious. However I think that, actually, there is an ultra-conservative fundamentalist core that is militant in the anti-rights crusade that its hierarchies have initiated. Although it is a minority, it is very powerful in its media presence. They have managed, as I said, to naturalise the relationship between the Gospel and the conservative media and public opinion in general. Well, in that context, progressive evangelical voices are even less than the fundamentalists, but hold key positions in evangelical institutions, for example the CONEP, the Bible Society, Christian NGOs, some seminaries and even some denominations. In that sense, I think the dissemination of the pronouncements of Christians in favour of Veronika, the left-wing candidate, is a very positive step. Because it shows that some of them are already learning to position themselves in the public debate with the same aggressiveness as conservatives, and articulated with national political actors, in this case, with the left-wing Frente Amplio. In that way, I think that an interesting way has been marked so that, in the future, progressive positions expand their capacity of incidence within the churches and also in Peruvian society in general. And I think it’s very possible.

SC: Well, Professor Fonseca, it has been a pleasure to have you here on the Religious Studies Project. We have learnt a lot about non-Catholic Christian movements that are in our country for more than a century now.

JF: Well thanks for this opportunity.

SC: See you next time.

[1] The mayor of Lima during the period 2011-2014. She was indicted in a widely mediatic process for being, alledgedly, inefficient as a public official. During that process, the several conservative Christian denominations came out to denounce the former mayor for being pro-LGBT rights, since several of her public policies targeted sexual minorities, sex workers, and the like. [Note added by SC]


Citation Info: Fonseca, Juan 2017. “Politics of This World: Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal Movements in Peru”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 17 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.2, 1 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/politics-of-this-world-protestant-evangelical-and-pentecostal-movements-in-the-peru/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

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The Faith of the Killable: A Faith for Empowerment?

As one listens to Dr. Johnson describe the high homicide rates of Río de Janeiro, the gap in between the haves and the have nots, as well as the appalling conditions he witnessed –through use of an admirable methodology– in this city’s prison system, something that stands out clearly is how all these elements are strongly concatenated as pieces of the same dehumanizing setting. It’s not a coincidence that, in several countries within Latin America, scandalous levels of inequality coexist with elevated delinquency rates. Francois Bourguignon (1999) stated that, in developing countries, crime and violence are likely to be a socially costly by-product of, among other factors, uneven or irregular economic development processes, and affirmed that economic theory shows how property crime and, in general, all the violence associated with illegal activity may in part be the consequence of extreme inequality and poverty. This framework of socioeconomic disparity and violence is key to understand how entire population sectors in Río become and remain killable people, and to assess the serious restraints that inmates who proceed from these sectors will face again, once their time in prison is finished. Dr. Johnson refers to Pentecostalism as the faith of the killable and suggests that one of the reasons why Pentecostalism succeeds among those who come from impoverished areas –which is the case of many inmates in Río’s prison system– is that “it can empower people who are, otherwise, thrown into the edges”. In this response, I would like to argue that, in order to appreciate to what extent Pentecostalism could be considered empowering, it’s pertinent to take a look at its impacts (or absence of impacts) in the social context of those who convert to this faith.

Ignacio Martín-Baró (1998) stated that religious conversion has important social implications –even if each person experiences it as an individual process– and that, although conversion brings the knowledge of a new meaning that can make individual life more rewarding, this new meaning can either separate people from their social reality and history, or it can make people become more aware of that reality and turn them into subjects of their own history. Martín-Baró also proposed that the individual motivations for religious conversion acquire a wider historical meaning when they are situated in the net of social forces that affect a person, which can be humanizing or dehumanizing. Taking this into account, if we seek to estimate the empowerment potential of the conversion and affiliation to Pentecostal churches among the inmates of Rio’s prison system, it would be valuable to situate these events in a social background and to inquire: are these conversions able to generate only individual changes in the inmates, or do they also confer on them any resources to bring a positive contribution in the dynamics of their marginalized communities?

Recent research conducted in Central America has attempted to answer a similar question, and has explored the impact of Pentecostal and Charismatic movements on communitarian organization and civic participation. In the case of a traditional Pentecostal church, studied in El Salvador, the research results showed that this faith community conferred high importance upon evangelization and to the individual changes derived from religious conversion, as ways of making a contribution to society; an individualistic view was also present in the way this church interpreted the causes of social problems and in the type of solutions that they considered effective to confront them. In addition, they proved to give utmost importance to the involvement of their members in activities that belonged mostly to the private sphere, without encouraging their interest in the public sphere. Regarding the communitarian participation and political attitudes of the members of this church, it was interesting to find that, from the four faith communities that were studied and compared in El Salvador, the traditional Pentecostals reported the least favorable attitude to political participation in general, the lowest willingness to join political parties or to take over public positions, the strongest reluctance to take part in demonstrations, and a scarce participation in initiatives of their neighborhoods and municipalities. These results, of course, show only coexistence between some religiosity traits and political attitudes –not a cause-effect relation between them– but they suggest that the emphasis this Pentecostal church placed on individual change and on the private space participation didn’t offer favorable conditions for its members to recognize the importance of being active in communitarian organizations and articulating efforts with other citizens to pursue collective goals.

It can be useful to take into account these findings as we go back to considering the social impacts that would be reasonable to expect from the conversion of the inmates in Río´s prison system and from their affiliation to Pentecostal churches. In this sense, it would be interesting to analyze if what Dr. Johnson could observe in the prison churches provided reasons to anticipate that the inmates will, in the future, promote changes beyond their individual behavior and beyond the private space in which religious practice often takes place. For example, Dr. Johnson mentioned that personal testimony and tangible changes in personal behavior were a priority for those who had converted, especially in the case of those who had retired from gangs. When these inmates return to their neighborhoods, will this emphasis on the individual transformation be helpful or not for them to become aware of the structural causes of the deplorable conditions experienced in their communities, and the importance of collective solutions for development? Also, Dr. Johnson explains that Pentecostalism offers a platform for a strong identity and even the opportunity to assume leadership in the autonomous churches that exist inside prisons. Therefore, could the inmates’ experience as leaders in the private space increase their willingness to subsequently become active in community organizations?

The answers to these questions are also essential in regard to after-imprisonment reinsertion and relapse prevention because, if the context to which the inmates return is not improved in any way, it will continue exposing them to social exclusion, translated, among other elements, in deficient education opportunities and difficulties incorporating into labor life, two of the structural causes of the criminality epidemic in Latin America (Kliksberg 2008). In the particular case of inmates who previously belonged to gangs, this complex scenario demands that reinsertion initiatives –including those promoted by religious entities– have a holistic approach that transcends the pursuit of individual change; such initiatives have to be articulated, and coordinated with different resources and efforts, in order to impact the individuals, their families and closest relationships, but also the public spaces, the access to employment, the neighborhoods and communities, and the cultural, social and economic factors that contribute to violence (Aguilar and Miranda 2006).

In sum, affiliation with Pentecostal churches in Río de Janeiro’s prison system can certainly offer important benefits to the inmates in the hostile and dangerous situation that their imprisonment represents. Nonetheless, the transformation promoted by these churches could be very limited if it remains circumscribed to the individuals and those who are closer to them, without helping the inmates to understand and modify the social dynamics that keep them marginalized. This kind of empowerment is only relative if it gives people means to recover a sense of dignity in their lives but not necessarily to stop being killable.

References

Aguilar, J., & Miranda, L. (2006). Entre la articulación y la competencia: las respuestas de la sociedad civil organizada a las pandillas en El Salvador. In Cruz, J.M. (ed.) Maras y Pandillas en Centroamérica, Vol. 4. San Salvador: UCA Editores.

Bourguignon, F. (1999). Crime as a Social Cost of Poverty and Inequality: A Review Focusing on Developing Countries. Desarrollo y Sociedad, 44, 61-99.

Kliksberg, B. (2008). ¿Cómo enfrentar la inseguridad en América Latina?. Nueva Sociedad, 215, 4-16.

Martín-Baró, I. (1998). Religión y guerra psicológica. In Blanco, A. (ed.) Psicología de la Liberación. Madrid: Trotta.

Os serés matáves: Pentecostalism in the Prisons of Rio

BRASIL-997Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is a city of over six million people; it is known for its exotic nightlife, white sand beaches, crystal blue water, and of course, one of the most famous bosa nova songs ever: The Girl From Ipanema. However, beyond the sunny beaches, veritable entertainment, and soothing music lies a very different scene – the Rio de Janeiro prison system. Inside the towering grey concrete walls live Rio’s os serés matáves, or roughly translated into English as, “the killable people”These “killable people” are comprised mostly of proletariat and unemployed minorities with crimes ranging from the benign to the bloody. Gangs rule the prison and every day at 6 pm deafening war cries echo out from within the concrete walls as prison gangs scream allegiance to their “commander” – the head gang leader who runs the prison. The guards largely remain on the outskirts of the prison, they don’t control much of what happens within, as it is too dangerous to go inside. [Note: While the prison system is, of course, very dangerous, the guards’ absence is also due to the penology practiced in that country.]

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Dr. Johnson inside the prison with other inmates during worship.

For Brazil’s “killable people”, there are two prevalent ways to deal with the relative hell of prison – both involving allegiance and devotion. You can give your life to the gang or give your life to God. Only three types of people dare to venture into the heart of a Rio de Janeiro prison: the condemned, the pentecostal pastors leading the prison ministry, and curiously brave sociologists such as Dr. Andrew Johnson.

 

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In his interview with Thomas J. Coleman III, Dr. Johnson begins by discussing the preparation leading up to his ethnography of the Pentecostal prison ministries in Rio de Janero Brazil. He takes the listener through the streets and slums of Rio, and into a prison cell-block. Here, we learn about the gang life that largely runs the prison, and the “gang like” life (Pentecostal prison ministries) that can provide a temporary escape from the physically and psychologically damaging conditions of the jail, and might just provide eternal redemption through the faith of the pious prisoner. Johnson discusses the role of politics in the prison system, why Pentecostalism dominates the jails in a predominately catholic country such as Brazil, and “answers” the question of how to tell if someone is truly faithful. He discusses how prisoners are viewed by their community after their release, and upon conversion as an allegedly devout pentecostal. In closing, Dr. Johnson speculates about the future of pentecostal prison ministries in Brazil, and argues for “the religious lives of inmates being taken seriously apart from recidivism rates”.

Be sure to check out Dr. Johnson’s plenary address, the world debut of his documentary If I Give My Soul, at the 2014 Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Indianapolis Indiana October 31st – November 2nd. You can register for the conference here: SSSR registration link.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Podcasts

Lady Death and the Pluralization of Latin American Religion

In today’s podcast Professor R. Andrew Chesnut reflects on the broad changes in Latin America that show why Santa Muerte is one of the fastest growing religious movements in the world. By connecting Brazil’s colonial past to its pluralist present, Dr. Chesnut explains how folk saint culture connects the country’s diverse population of Catholic, Pentecostal, and Afro-Brazilian religious groups. Focusing on lived religious experiences, including Santa Muerte’s unofficial role in Day of the Dead in Mexico, this episode highlights the many different ways Lady Death operates for her devotees and reveals some of the ongoing challenges of studying the religion amid the rapidly changing religious landscape of the Global South today.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sardines, popcorn, and more.


Lady Death and the Pluralisation of Latin American Religion

 

Podcast with R. Andrew Chesnut (31 October 2019).

Interviewed by David McConeghy

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/lady-death-and-the-pluralisation-of-latin-american-religion/

PDF version of the transcript is available here.

David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. I am David McConeghy, and today I’m joined by Dr R. Andrew Chesnut, holder of the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. A Latin American specialist, Professor Chesnut is the author of numerous articles and five books, including his latest – Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint – which is the first and only academic study in English of the folk saint of death. Dr Chesnut is a regular commentator on news and religious affairs and writes a blog for Patheos, called The Global Catholic Review. Dr Chesnut, thanks so much for joining us today. It’s a real pleasure to speak with you.

  1. Andrew Chesnut (AC). Oh it’s my pleasure. Thanks so much for the invitation, Dr McConeghy.

DMcC. One of the things that I’m really excited about in your work is that you – especially for American audiences – really let us into an entire world that the Global South is participating in, and that is thriving in Latin America. I think here in the US, and perhaps in Europe – our two major audiences, the folks that listen to us – we need some orientation. We need some help, really understanding what’s going on in the areas that you study. So can you say a little bit about your research, and the kind of questions that really drive your focus in Latin America?

AC: Yes. I really started as a specialist in Pentecostalism in Latin America; more specifically, Brazil. My book, Born Again in Brazil, which was published in 1997, was the first book in English on the Pentecostal movement in Brazil. And over two decades later, it’s still very relevant as today, Brazil is home to the largest Pentecostal population on Earth – larger than even here, in the United States – and who were integral in electing Brazilian President Bolsonaro. After that I moved on. It was very obvious to me, as I was doing my field research in Brazil and the Amazonian city of Belém, that there was intense religious competition taking place among the three major religious groups of Brazil: Pentecostals, Catholics, and the Afro-Brazilian religious groups such as Umbanda and Candomblé – the two most important ones. So for my second book, Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy, I look at the religious competition taking place in Latin America, through the theoretical paradigm of religious economy – in which you kind-of look at faith institutions competing with each other, much in the same way that commercial enterprises do in the commercial economy. And so I focussed on those religious groups, who in the past century have had the most success in terms of attracting membership. And that would be the Pentecostals, and the Catholic Charismatic renewal – which is the Catholic Church’s own version of Pentecostalism – has been thriving in Latin America and the Global South, as its response to stiff Pentecostal competition. And again, looking at the religions of the African diaspora I also observed Haitian Vodou and Cuban Santería. And then I moved on. As you mentioned, my latest work is on what is now the fastest growing new religious movement in the entire West. Mexican folk saint, Santa Muerte, which translates in English both as Saint Death and Holy Death. Unfortunately, Pew Research hasn’t stepped in or Gallup poll, so we don’t have any hard numbers. But after a decade of research, I estimate some ten-to-twelve million Santa Muerte devotees, mostly concentrated in Mexico, Central America and here in United States. So, I don’t know, I’d say if there’s one major or two major connecting threads, in my two decades of research, first would be the paramountcy of faith healing. My main argument that the motor driving the Pentecostal boom in Brazil and Latin America is its emphasis on faith healing. I found that so many nominal Catholics had converted at the time of an acute health crisis, which they weren’t able to solve through the Catholic Church or through secular health care either. And so the Pentecostal Churches always kind of put faith healing: “Accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, be baptised by the Holy Spirit and this will cure your affliction of poverty” (5:00). And so that, I really find to be kind-of the motor that’s been propelling the Pentecostal boom in Latin America and the Global South. And I was so surprised when I started my research on Santa Muerte in 2009, that also a key component of her appeal, both in Mexico and here in the United States, is her role as a curandera or faith healer. So many people come to her major shrines in Mexico, either giving thanks for a healing they believe that she performed for them or for a family member, or asking her for that. And so that was just one of the great surprises in my research. Who was going to imagine that this fierce looking death saint is also a potent healer as well? So this kind of thread of the great importance of faith healing has been a commonality in my two decades of research, as is my primary focus, really, that’s been on lived religion – religion as it’s played out in the grassroots, in terms of rites and rituals – and (I’ve been) much less interested in the written word, and dogma, and doctrine in my focus.

DMcC: This is a really interesting way to think about your work. One of the questions that I already had for you – and I’ve been engaging with your work, Born Again in Brazil, for some time – talking about the kind of charismatic exchanges between groups like the New Apostolic Reformation, and folks in Guatemala or Brazil. On those kinds of things, you really frame it as a solution to the health crisis of poverty. And it sounds as if, twenty years later – this is an amazing thing to say – twenty years later, you still think that’s true!

AC: Yes, I make the same argument. And especially, as I throw in, since prosperity theology has essentially become hegemonic theology among Pentecostals, and many Evangelicals across the Americas. And, as we see, it’s kind-of the unofficial theology of the Trump administration here.

DMcC: Right. Absolutely.

AC: So I’d throw in the element of prosperity, which wasn’t as prevalent when I initiated my research – what, twenty-five years ago? But yes, the health component is still, I’d say, the sine qua non of Pentecostalism’s appeal in Latin America and the Global South. And even here, in the United States. You know the great pioneering Pentecostal televangelist, Oral Roberts, who brought the message on TV for the first time in the United States: really the crux of his message was faith healing, as well. Benny Hinn, as well. So the whole prosperity element of it gets so much attention lately, but we can’t forget the other part of the equation.

DMcC: Do you think that part of this is sales pitch for the shift, maybe, from stronger Catholicism that was not charismatic, to the rising Pentecostals, and then Catholic competition in charismatic spaces? That that framework is really only exposed through the kind of lived experience stuff that you work on? You suggested that perhaps the written stuff is less crucial for the way that you think about things. But, when I think of the Pentecostal orientation to what’s important: “Show me the power”, right? “Show me a thing that will have results and that will connect me to the power of the Holy Spirit.” It will do that immediately. It will do it vibrantly. It will do it within my community. It will do it day in, day out. Is that part of the mix, there, that kind of “We’re making really strong claims about what the religious adoption of this can do for you”? And then, collectively, the power of that choice brings . . . the rising tide lifts all boats on that.

RAC: Yes, no doubt, at the macro level. Particularly that emphasis on access and demonstrating the power of the Holy Spirit, needs to be physically manifest, right? And so thus the Pentecostal emphasis, particularly in Latin America, of constructing monumental temples, for being seen with presidents and governmental authorities (10:00). Such as I think is poignantly the case with billionaire Pentecostal Bishop Edir Macedo, who has become one of the most visible and prominent backers of the Brazilian president, Bolsonaro. And who recently had him attend one of his Sunday worship services in San Paolo and gave him a five minute blessing, which you can see on YouTube. It’s pretty extraordinary! So yes, at the macro level, there needs to be physical representations and manifestations of the power. And, particularly if we’re talking about the ascendant prosperity theology, you know, that Pentecostal pastors themselves need to be paragons of prosperity – so, the ostentatious display of their prosperity in terms of their choice of vehicles, and their houses, and the temples themselves. So yes, it’s not only at the grass roots, it’s not only lived religion, it’s also the institution. That just tends to be my focus less, but I’m not saying that it’s a less interesting or valid focus.

DMcC: So in the last two decades you kind-of highlighted that prosperity has really taken root. Can you talk a little bit more, for any of the Listeners that may not be familiar with the background, especially of Brazil? I know that many centuries of Catholic dominance there really started to shift mid-twentieth century, with the growth of Pentecostalism there. But then there’s also this backdrop of West African and syncretic kind of openness. And that configuration is so unique, not only in Brazil, but in each country in Latin America, and the way that they do it. Can you talk just little bit about that? The blending that they do so well?

AC: Yes. I think Brazil is particularly fascinating as a country of over two hundred million people, and such diversity! It’s kind-of the country that most mirrors the United States, and is most similar, really – the religious economy – to the United States. So yes, historically of course, like all Latin American countries, it’s a Catholic country. And at the end of the nineteenth century, you had the disestablishment of the Catholic Church from the Brazilian State. Which, of course, sets the legal foundation for . . . not for Afro-Brazilian religions, but the legal foundation for Protestants to start setting up their chapels. And indeed, at that time in the nineteenth Century, you have some of the major US-based mainline denominations going down to Brazil: Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, etc. They have very little success in converting Brazilian Catholics. But they do have success in setting up prep schools and universities and such. And then, building on this new legal foundation – at least for Protestants to set up shop – Pentecostals arrive in 1910-1911, and find really quick success in converting Brazilian Catholics. To the point that we already start to have a critical mass of converts by the mid-twentieth century, by the1950s. And Pentecostalism really starts to mushroom in the 1970s and really has been growing like wildfire for the past five decades or so. Talking about the Afro-Brazilian religions . . . and I should say I need to make this so clear. Of the twelve million African slaves who were forcibly brought to our Americas, forty-three percent go to Brazil. In comparison only three percent come here, to the United States. So anybody with any interest in matters of the African diaspora, be it religion or any other facet, by necessity has to take a look at Brazil, if not start with Brazil, because of the sheer numbers. And so it’s no surprise that Brazil is the place – maybe with the exception of Haiti – Brazil is the place where today we have the most vibrant religions of the African diaspora, which historically were repressed, suppressed by both Brazilian church and state, and really only are legalised in the late 1960s (15:00). And today, and again the two main ones are Umbanda and Candomblé. And today they’re thriving – however, they’re facing a new round of persecution by Pentecostals, particularly in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, where Pentecostal gangsters raid their houses of worship and try to drive them out of their zones of influence. And so this is another kind of fascinating development. Never, twenty-five years ago, did I imagine that I’d be writing articles about armed Pentecostal gangsters in Rio de Janeiro, who are the agents of persecution and harassment of practitioners of Candomblé and Umbanda!

DMcC: When you tweeted out your latest post on that from Patheos, it exploded on my timeline! It got retweeted so much. Clearly, I think, the rest of us share that surprise – that this is one of the configurations that we’re seeing, right now.

AC: It’s surreal. We’re living in surreal times across the board, though!

DMcC: So if we can take that kind-of grass-roots activism that’s happening: one access point from your current research on that is really the broad appeal of Santa Muerte. Can you tell us a little bit about why it is that this really potent symbol is connected to health, and love, and money, and drugs, and crime and cartels?! How did we get from a folk saint to narco-cartels, Pentecostals attacking Afro-Brazilian religious groups? It’s such a stunning transformation!

AC: Yes. That’s a big question. Let me think about where I should start with that! So Santa Muerte goes back to Spanish colonial times, in Mexico, and really is the syncretism or fusion of the Spanish Grim Reapress. And I say Grim Reapress because in Mediterranean Europe, Spain, Portugal, Italy, more often than not it was a female representation. The Spanish Catholic Church puts over the figure of the Grim Reapress as a tool of evangelisation of the indigenous people, here in the Americas. Because of course, in the beginning, they have no idea who the indigenous people are. They’re not in the Bible. Are they humans are they animals? Do they have their own religion? So the Spanish Catholic Church brings in the Grim Reapress to represent death. And of course, for the Europeans, the Grim Reaper was a mere artistic representation or rendition of death that arises during the great death and dying of the Black Plague of the fourteenth century. Europeans did not venerate or worship the Grim Reaper, or repress and imbue him or her with any supernatural powers. And so it’s the case that the Grim Reapress comes over here, for example, as part of Holy Week processions, representing the good death, the holy death of Christ. And again, one of the English translations of Santa Muerte’s name is Holy Death, referring to the holy death of Christ. And so it’s the case that some of the indigenous groups in Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina, Paraguay – because there’s two other skeletal death saints which I’ll mention in a minute – interpret the Grim Reapress through their own pre-existing religious contexts, in which the Aztecs, and the Mayans, and the (audio unclear) in South America, had their own death deities, their own death gods and goddesses, such as the Aztec Mictēcacihuātl, which presided over what used to be the Aztec month of the dead – which, of course, the Spanish Catholic Church collapsed into the present two Days of the Dead. So anyway, she’s the syncretism of this indigenous belief in death deities and the Grim Reapress. She goes off the historical record in 1797, and only resurfaces a century-and-a-half later, in the 1940s, when American anthropologists report her for the first time on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca, interestingly among Afro-Mexicans (20:00). And, from the 1940s to the 1980s, we have both American and Mexican anthropologists starting to find mostly females, Mexican females, dressed in black, venerating, Santa Muerte. By the time we get to the 1980s, across the Mexican Republic. But during this time, our anthropologist friends were reporting her working only one type of magic, and that is love magic. And so, at the mid-century, the only type of miracle that she is recorded performing is love sorcery – mostly for aggrieved Mexican women who believe their husbands or boyfriends are cheating on them. And so they petition Santa Muerte to take her over-sized scythe, and to cut out the other woman from their husband’s path and to bring that husband, that badly behaving man, back home – humbled at her feet, under the threat of Santa Muerte’s scythe, to never be adulterous once again.

DMcC: That’s a terrifying image!

AC: It is! And so her origins, at least in the twentieth century – and last time I checked and when I did the research for my book, Devoted to Death, her number one selling coloured votive candle was the red candle, not of blood and death, but of the heart: of love and passion. And indeed, still one of her premier roles is as love doctor, or love sorceress. At some point in the late eighties she starts to become associated with organised crime, to the point that today – you’ve probably seen some of my writing along with my colleague and research partner Dr Kate Kingsbury – where she’s been labelled a “narco-saint”. And, in fact, that was the catalyst of my own interest, is when the Filipe Calderón administration ordered the Mexican army, in March 2009, to go onto the border with California and Texas and to demolish some forty Santa Muerte shrines. When I saw that I thought . . . . I knew about Santa Muerte, because I’d been going to Mexico since the early 1980s, but I had no idea that she had been fingered as the religious enemy number one of the Mexican government, at that point. And so . . .

DMcC; Right. If the Mexican Government is issuing statements calling for disruption of roadside temples by bulldozer, you know you’ve really got something on your hands!

AC: Exactly. So we just published with Patheos yesterday about these narco-saints. And so, one of Santa Muerte’s roles is as protectress of cartel members, protecting them from harm, from rival cartel members, law enforcement. But obviously since she’s a folk saint and she’s amoral – she’s not a Catholic saint – they also ask her to eliminate or bring harm to their rivals, as well. And so that’s another important role that she plays – but one of many.

DMcC: Right. One of the things that struck me about it, and I work with far more American stuff, is the work on Saint Jude, for instance, where we really see the lived experience of the relationship of Catholics with their saint of choice as revealing all of the kind-of issues that really matter to a person, and really how it builds their whole world out from the saint, organising the perspectives about it. I think it’s really interesting if Santa Muerte starts off as love . . . the avenging angel for infidelity. We don’t have to work too hard, to draw a line to the cartels, mentally, if we think of the protection of secrecy, right? The protection of the sphere where cartel members are not wanting to talk about their activities, and then avenging those that break that silence, or that are working against them? It’s not a hard road: (25:00) the passion that the scythe brings to the unfaithful husband is the same passion that cartel members hope that she’ll bring to the enemies of the cartel. Is that the kind of way that we should think about it, or is something else going on, do you think?

AC: Right, I think so – particularly since most Catholic saints tend to specialise in one or two types of miracles, such as Saint Anthony will help you find your lost keys or cell phone. And so, very quickly, Santa Muerte morphs from this exclusive focus on love sorcery to, today, being a multi-tasking saint who does it all. So, yes, she covers all bases and that’s part of her appeal, as well. Not only that she covers . . . And going back to her coloured votive candles – which was the schema for the way I organised my book – she has a seven power rainbow coloured candle for those folks who are looking for a miracles on multiple fronts! Which are a lot of people, right?

DMcC: Yes, aren’t we all?

AC: And particularly, we can’t ignore the fact that devotion to Santa Muerte has mushroomed during a time of great death and dying – of bad death, juxtaposed to her name Holy Death – in Mexico. In the last decade, the only country that surpasses Mexico on violent death is another country where I have relatives, Syria. And so we’re well over two hundred thousand violent deaths in Mexico in the past ten years. And so, I’m not making that one-to-one correlation in the mushrooming rise. But there’s no doubt that this hyper-violence of the interminable drug war creates fertile soil. Because there’s a lot of folks who ask her for more life, for more grains of life in that hour glass that she holds, in addition, again, to narcos asking her to cut the life down from their rivals, as well. And so that a saint of death should become so popular in a Mexico of such bad death, in the past ten-to-fifteen years, is of little surprise.

DMcC: You’ve written about a lot of other folk saints as well, like the Our Lady of Oxum, the Black Madonna. Should we be – as Religious Studies observers of folk practice and lived experience – should we be paying far more attention to the kind of constellation of major figures? I think you rightly point that Santa Muerte’s rise reveals how hard it is sometimes for Religious Studies scholars to address the rapid rise of a new religious movement, a new religious emphasis, a new religious symbol. It takes us a long time to catch on to what’s on the ground, to do the research, to publish the research, to have the conversations that really kind-of unpack everything. And what I’ve been really pleased about, every time I see something coming across on Patheos, is how vibrant it all seems. Everything is new to me about this, being a non-specialist in the area. Do you feel like more of this is needed, that we need to pay attention to more of these things, in all the places that we can find them?

AC: Yes. I think what you’re pointing at is . . . . And I’m also a big fan of paying attention to macro trends. In fact, I was a lead academic consultant on the landmark Pew survey of the Latin American religious landscape that came out in 2014. So I paid attention to macro trends as well. So one of the great . . . the greatest trend in Latin America, on a religious landscape, in the past four or five decades is pluralisation. And whereas for four centuries one’s religious identity was inherited or bequeathed, Catholicism now, for many folks – as it is the United States – it’s elected, it’s chosen. And so, you know, there’s Mexicans who are finding Santa Muerte is far more appealing – far more, let’s say, efficacious than certain Catholic saints – and so they go that route. New Age beliefs are also very prevalent in Latin America. And so it’s a diversification, it’s a pluralisation. And indeed, just like in the United States, one of the fastest growing groups are the religious “nones”: those who have no institutional religious affiliation (30:00). The last Pew Survey shows that, here in the United States, the religious nones are up to twenty six percent, which means there are six percent more of them than there are Catholics, because Catholics are down to twenty percent in the United States. And in Latin America it’s about fifteen percent, and exceedingly higher among Latin American millennials and Generation Z as well. So Santa Muerte and all of these other folk saints I would just put under this big tent of pluralisation, of the kind of robust diversification and religious choices that we’ve had for a long time in our own country.

DMcC; It’s really interesting to think about that as a kind of great awakening that’s happening in Brazil, right? The voluntary-ism of America, that we tend to associate with the development of multiple Protestant denominations, really, in my mind, is the kind of language that I’m hearing you talk about with that, to hear the pluralisation of religious impulses there. But also, the nones really surprises me too. I heard a talk recently by one of Pew Forum’s head researchers and like you, he highlighted that the nones are growing basically, in the US, at about one percent per year. Catholics are down to twenty-one percent now. But he cited that globally, when you talk about that, that’s not what we’re seeing. I’m hearing a little pushback from you that Brazil, in its parallels with the US, is actually . . .

AC: Yes. I hate to contradict my associates at Pew, but I just saw the other day on Twitter, that in the Arab world we’re seeing significant rise over the last decade of religious nones as well. So there’s a hemispheric-wide trend from Canada, down to Argentina, and the United States. Western Europe, of course, was the one who really pioneered secularisation. In fact, all the sociological models of secularisation that arose in the seventies and the eighties were mostly based on the Western European experience. Peter and his associates. So, yeah, we have evidence that in other parts of the world –namely, lately, the Arab world – it’s happening as well. So it’s not only peculiar to our own Americas here.

DMcC: I don’t know that those are necessarily contradictory. I think what it tells us is that the situation is changing so rapidly right now, that data that’s even a few years old – if you’re thinking of data from 2010, right? We’re off by many percentage points now, in that data. And when you’re talking on a global scale you run into huge problems. I always tell my students, when we’re talking about China, that as far as I can tell and based on the work of other experts, the survey data that we have on religion in China is basically useless. When there’s a global survey about what religion is like in China, that billion people in China is not being reflected by that data very well at all. And I think we see that in sub-Saharan Africa, where we’re talking about the rise of Islam alongside the rise of Catholicism and Pentecostalism. And at the same time, if there’s a secular movement – it’s all happening all at once! I don’t know that the broadness of the data is there yet, and it may take us decades to sort this out. Which, I guess, I’m thankful for – because hopefully it will keep us all busy and in business, right?

AC: (Laughs) Right, right. Thanks to Pew in particular, right?

DMcC: Yeah. Absolutely. So we’ve been talking a little bit in the last few minutes about this meta approach. One of the things you said right at the start of our conversation today, was a comparison between President Bolsonaro and maybe some of the current American politics that are going on. In a recent interview with Bradley Onishi that I did, he said similar things to a Patheos post that you posted, with Dr Ana Keila Mosca Pinez, about how Brazilian Pentecostals are seeing President Bolsonaro as the Messiah, or as a messiah. (35:00) Can you talk a little bit more about the parallels between how Brazilian Pentecostals and Catholics are religiously relating to their leaders like Bolsonaro, and how, maybe for audiences in the US, that might be resembling the American evangelical relationship to Trump.

AC: Oh yes. There’s a really amazing parallel there. Again, just as white evangelicals are a major religious political constituency of president Trump, Pentecostals are that for Bolsonaro and Brazil. We know that overall about seventy percent of Brazilian evangelicals voted for Bolsonaro. I don’t think we have precise data specifically on Pentecostals. But one has to remember that about seventy-five percent of all Protestants in Brazil are specifically Pentecostals, so there’s no doubt that Bolsonaro would have received over eighty percent of the Pentecostal vote. And in the United States, actually sixty-one percent of white Catholics voted for Trump. I still think he has majority support, although I have seen it declining. Maybe fifty-one, fifty-two percent. And so we see that same convergence of more conservative Catholics allied with Pentecostals in Brazil, and supporting Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro recently was baptised by an Assembly of God pastor, in the River Jordan. And he definitely hangs around and kind-of identifies Evangelical. But historically he’s been a conservative Catholic. Anyway, so he has the support of many Brazilian conservative Catholics who very much oppose Pope Francis’s agenda on the Amazon, the Amazon Synod that’s taking place right now. So there’s just the Christian Zionism that I’ve written about, too, is just as important in Brazil for Pentecostals as it is for white Evangelicals. And so I think Brazil under Bolsonaro . . . . He’s also in the process of probably moving their embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as well. Some of the major Pentecostal pastors in Brazil, such again as billionaire Edir Macedo, actually sometimes dress up in rabbinical vestments and cut rabbinical figures more than they do Protestant pastors! And so, yeah. There’s just a great kind-of parallel taking place politically and religiously between the two giants of the hemisphere these days – Brazil and the United States.

DMcC: Keeping on our kind of current timeliness issue: you said, before we began recording today, that with Halloween coming up – we’re recording in mid-October here, All Saints Day and especially Day of the Dead – that there are actually a lot of really interesting things going on right now, connecting a lot of these themes. The next few weeks are going to be pretty interesting. I heard you say that you were headed down to Mexico for the Day of the Dead. Can you tell us about that? And maybe what you’re hoping to do?

AC: Yes. My current research project focuses on Catholic death culture. So I’m looking at things like Day of the Dead, relics, some of the memento mori that you see in Europe. But specifically, since we’re on the eve of Day of the Dead, this is what I’m kind of most immediately working on. And it’s also related to my previous work on Santa Muerte, in that one of the major trends in Santa Muerte devotion of the past five years is for devotees to integrate the Mexican Death Saint into their commemorations of Day of the Dead. In fact it’s become so popular and so controversial that, annually, the Catholic Church in Mexico issues admonitions for parishioners not to do that, because Santa Muerte is satanic. Honouring your departed loved ones is one thing, but bringing in this heretical Death Saint is quite another. So please keep her out of your commemorations. But I should say, at his point, Santa Muerte has no official annual feast day. But if she ever does in the future, it probably will be November 2nd, the Day of the Dead. Because, again, before the Spanish conquest and colonisation (40:00), it was the Aztecs had this roughly “month of the dead”, roughly corresponding to our August, presided over by Aztec death goddess, Mictēcacihuātl – who many Mexican Santa Muerte devotees see Santa Muerte, really, as the latest kind of incarnation, or reincarnation of.

DMcC: That’s so interesting!

AC: And so it’s like I knew that, since I wrote the first academic book in English on Santa Muerte, that it would probably hard to move onto a new topic. And so here again, in Day of the Dead, we see that nexus with Santa Muerte as well: again, me having trouble moving beyond the Death Saint

DMcC: I don’t know that we should ever apologise when we find something . . . such a rich topic, that connects to so many issues in so many different ways: from immigration, to cartels, to love, to the kind of syncretism that we’re seeing, to politics, it’s such a multifaceted area.

AC: It is, yes. For example my research partner, Dr Kingsbury, is now focusing on her appeal to women and how she’s kind of a defender and protectress of vulnerable women. Because, I didn’t mention it, but, in addition to the narco-violence besetting Mexico, there’s also an epidemic of femicide as well. And so some of these women who are at risk, look to Santa Muerte as a fierce protectress, to protect them from the predatory men. So that’s a whole ‘nother angle that I didn’t really look into in Devotees of Death, that Dr Kingsbury is moving forward with.

DMcC: I can’t wait. I will reach out immediately, so that we can hear the second half of the new story here. One of the things that I’ve really been impressed by, is how collaborative your work is. And as we wrap up here, I’d love to hear about your thoughts about collaboration as a scholar, and what you see as the kind of challenges and benefits of doing that scholarship in a collaborative way. Because I really do think that you and Dr Kingsbury, together, have a special kind of public relationship that feeds off one another, and produces really interesting work. Can you share with us what that’s like?

AC: Yes. For me it’s been very strange because up until I recently started collaborating with her, I had mostly just flown solo. I can’t even think of any other co-authored . . . at least, academic journal articles that I have. All my books were my own, single-authored books. So, yeah, this has been new to me and has taken me by surprise, because our particular collaboration is so easy and seamless. And that, ironically, had been one of the reasons why maybe I had shied away from collaboration: imagining it being difficult, and time consuming, and everything. But yeah. We have great intellectual and academic chemistry, and so everything we do together is as easy as me writing on my own. And so I think both of us have just been fortunate with that. Because one can imagine that, you know, you’re not going to have that rapport with everybody to facilitate that. But it’s been wonderful, because with Patheos, I’ll just say, or she’ll say, “I’ll take this, and you take that” and it all comes together. And she’s British, so at first I was like “OK. So what do we do about our British vs American English?” But we just leave our respective versions of the English language alone and nobody seems to be bothered by that.

DMcC: We run into that frequently at the Religious Studies Project, too! When the emails come from our British founders, Chris and David. You know it’s all the‘s’s and when we’re replying back it’s all the ‘z’s. You just have to roll with it, right?

AC: Exactly. Well, the good thing for me is, she’s in Canada. So it’s kind of up to her to assimilate to our New World English, right?! (45:00)

DMcC: Right. You’re pulling the rug right out from under the English language there. It’s been so wonderful to talk to you, today. I really do appreciate your time, and I hope that all of our Listeners have enjoyed hearing about this really thriving area of research. And if they wanted to find you on Patheos, what’s the name of the Blog that they should head to?

AC: Yes. It’s the Global Catholic Review.

DMcC: Perfect.

AC: And in addition, I also run a Santa Muerte blog with my research partner, David Metcalfe. And it’s called the Skeleton Saint. And it’s like in its seventh year. And it’s the only impartial blog out there, that covers Santa Muerte news.

DMcC: And if folks wanted to find you on Twitter, where you are extremely active and always posting interesting things, what should they look for?

AC: I’m @AndrewChesnut1. Number 1.

DMcC: Perfect. Well, thank you so much for your time, and have a great day.

AC: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it, Dr McConeghy.

 

 

 

 

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Politics of this world: Protestant, evangelical, and Pentecostal movements in the Peru

riverEvangelicalism in Peru has become a driving force in politics and decision making across major subjects, such as gender-related policies and institutional power. But it’s relevance today in the current political landscape is only the result of a much larger process, one that started around the end of the nineteenth century, with the entrance of the first protestant denominations and the establishment of their grassroots across the country. In this podcast, professor Juan Fonseca aims to elaborate a brief history of Protestantism, in order to comprehend its current mainstream manifestation.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Podcast with Juan Fonseca

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock  and revised by  Sidney Castillo.

Sidney Castillo (SC): Professor Juan Fonseca is Licentiate in History for Pontificia Universidad Catholica del Peru. He’s also Master in History at this university. His work focuses on the historical development of non-Catholic Christian movements in Peru, mainly Protestant evangelical, and intertwined with an interest in politics and social movements. Welcome Professor Fonseca to the Religious Studies Project.

Juan Fonseca (JF): It’s a pleasure to speak with you.

SC: The pleasure is also ours. Now, we’re here to learn some things about the non-Catholic Christian movements in Peru. In order to do that we would like to know a bit more about the classification of these movements. Since the Protestant and Pentecostal landscape of Peru is, counterintuitively enough, a diverse one in terms of origins, theology and political tendencies, based on your previous research, would you please elaborate a brief specification of these movements?

JF: Of course. In my last writings I have raised a typology of Protestantism. This typology is based in the following aspects. First its historical roots – national level and worldwide level – and some interreligious characteristics, that is to say, the beliefs and the religious practices that make them singular within the set-up of Christianity.

SC: Mmm

JF: This includes. . . There’s two things. There is theology and there are ecumenical practices: a type of religiousness practised by these members.

SC: OK.

JF: And third is the religious emphasis, which includes the ways that this person is articulated in the public sphere. For example, their political attitudes, some of attitudes towards social practices and some ideological points. Moreover, I believe that Protestant and Pentecostal are like two specific faces within Peruvian Christianity. These two faces co-exist in Peru, within the non-Catholic population. These two groups share some theological characteristics, but also they reference the Bible to define the dogma. However, there is a fundamental difference between the symbolic epistemology that constitutes the basis on which the religious practices – or the religious devotes – are constructed. On the one hand Protestantism, which is basically rational religion sustained in the Bible. On the other hand Pentecostalism is a sensorial religion, sustained in the constant intense experience with the numinous. Protestantism is like a religion of modernity, Pentecostalism is a religion of post-modernity and, in this sense, Catholicism is like a religion from pre-modernity. (5:00) About this theoretical base I suggest the following typology. So, two big groups: Protestantism itself and Pentecostalism. In Protestantism itself we can distinguish two groups: mainline Protestantism and evangelical Protestantism. Mainline Protestantism, for example, includes churches like Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian. These churches have a very ecumenical attitude and missiology. Their theology is liberal and their political attitudes are very progressive. And the evangelical group includes some churches, for example, the Christian Missionary Alliance, The Nazareth Church, The Baptist Church, the Anabaptist Church. And their theology is more moderate, not necessarily liberal. Its political attitudes are moderate: centre-right or centre-left. And in the Pentecostal sphere we can distinguish two groups: classic Pentecostalism, for example, some churches like Assemblies of God, Church of God. Pentecostal churches in general, in this field, their theology is more conservative, sometimes fundamentalist. Its religiosity is very pietistic and its political attitudes are more conservative. And the last group, inside Pentecostalism, is the charismatic churches. The charismatic churches, for example include very large Christian communities: Agua Viva is a very large community here in Lima; and Camino de Vida; Emmanuel Church – the Church of Humberto Lay, who is a very outstanding evangelical congressman. These churches are very enthusiastic. Their religion is very conservative theology but these churches have very good work in politics, too, very effective work. But with politics, they’re very conservative, too. So they’re sometimes linked to the political right and their morals are very conservative. I think this is the spectrum, like you said.

SC: That’s a very interesting present-day analysis. But as a historian you, of course, have researched about the very beginnings of non-Catholic denominations in Peru. In that sense especially, what was the relationship between the first wave of Protestant missions and the social movements or institutions that were present in first years of the twentieth century? We could name some like indigenism, syndicate movement, student movement or feminists.

JF: On the one hand, the brothers and missionaries of the early decades of the twentieth century developed a strategy combining the following aspects. (10:00) First, a political objective: the decline of the power of the Catholic Church, which will coincide with the most progressive sectors in different periods. Second, a cultural offer: the Protestants as carriers of civilisation in which they will also receive the support of the liberals. And third, a religious agenda: Protestantism as a confessional eternity programme. Well this strategy was based, on the other hand, in the countries from which it came. In the United States, their so-called social gospel had a strong influence on the missionary group – particularly the Methodists, which is the third denomination in Peru. Although, the more conservative groups such as evangelicals from Great Britain, or other places, had the most pietistic disposition. But they were also clear that socialisation was part of their mission. On that basis, they developed a series of missionary initiatives in the social sphere. For instance: the development of the employment option for women; promoting female employment and education in their schools; or fostering the development of the nursing profession, which at that time was only confined to Catholic nuns. In addition, it is well known the link of the Protestant missionaries with the first leaders of the Peruvian feminism, such as Maria Alvarado. In fact, one of the very old Methodist schools – Lima High School – is Maria Alvarado School. Furthermore, they developed links with indigenous people, several of whose leaders – Manuel Vincente Villarán, Dora Mayer de Zulen – expressed their appreciation for the help with this work. Similarly Protestant missionaries developed some missionary projects within areas such as: the Amazonas,with the Awajún people; or in the Perené, with the Asháninka people; or Puno, with the Aymara people; with the Azangaro people of Puno; and in the area of trade unions and the university movement. The closeness between the Methodist pastor Roberto Alcorta and workers and the labour movements are well-known. In fact, Roberto Alcorta was part of the temperance movement in the beginning of the twentieth century. John A. Mackay, the very renowned Scottish educator, had the very closest links within circles of intellectualism in Lima, in the 1920s. In addition, Presbyterians of the Peruvian school had very close link with some intellectuals and politicians like Victor Raul Haya de la Torre,  Jose Carlos Mariátegui and Victor Andrés Belaúnde.

SC: Now, you talked about the intellectual movements linked with the Christian denominations and all theses initiatives were properly from the first decades of the twentieth century Peru. But nowadays you could trace a little bit from the mid twentieth century, there’s a change in the way that these denominations do pastoral work. In that sense, I would like to ask you . . . .Your research shows that these first waves of Protestant missionaries were agents of modernization, directing their work to many institutions and social groups. But it also refers that in the last fifty years a great portion of Protestant evangelical and Pentecostal denominations aligned themselves with more conservative ideas and political parties. When and why, would you say, is the turning point for this particular way of doing missionary work and overall being Protestant, evangelical or Pentecostal?

JF: (15:00) Well, I think that transformations of social approaches of missionaries started around the 1940s. On the one hand, the global context at this stage of the post-war period and the beginnings of the cold war influenced the conservatism of the Protestant churches. Thus, since the 1950s, new waves of missionaries with an anti-communist mentality and with a pietistic missiological approach focussed basically on proselytising and the spiritualisation of the Christian missions when they arrived. In China, there was a communist revolution during 1940-49 so, two years after, all the protestant missionaries were expelled. Like ten thousand, so most of them came to Latin America with very anti-communist ideas. This was going to be acute in the following case when they were from nations of ideological Christian progressivism: communism, versus the Christian evangelical conservatives who were there. These troubles between the conservative majority and the progressive minority – mainly grouped in the Methodist church and the Christian NGOs – began in the ’60s. Similar to what happened with Catholicism, the nature of the debate was focussed on the ideological dimensions of the Christian mission in communism. In the ’70s, it was clear that theological conservatism had been imposed, but in a moderate version, whose best expression was the Latin American Theological Fraternity, and the Association of Evangelical College Groups of Peru (AGEUP in Spanish). At the side of it, the great evangelical mass – people attached to large denominations – basically developed pietistic religious practices and a fundamentalist hermeneutic. And on the other hand, the complex process of nationalisation of the leadership of the Protestant denominations of course, in that context, just when conservative speech and fundamentalism was in progress. Obviously, that explains why many of the protestant national leadership took a conservative, anti-ecumenical and even fundamentalist speech. So the CONEP (in Spanish): the National Council of Evangelical Churches starts its activities in the 1940s. And the CONEP was, well, the leadership of CONEP was very national – national people. They became institutionally independent but they inherited the ideological imprint of the missionaries from whom they complained. Thus, as we enter into the 1980s the field was ready for the emergence of fundamentalism. Somehow a violence of terrorism delayed that process for a short while, because moderate evangelicalism made this speech, hegemonize at least in evangelical cooperation entities and especially in CONEP, the Evangelical National Council of Peru. Since then, most of their leaders have belonged to the moderate evangelicalism. However, this hegemony began to be questioned by a growing and very well organised fundamentalist force, which caused a big crisis in CONEP. (20:00) So this neo-fundamentalism, represented in the leaders of the charismatic movement, was different from moderate evangelicalism in its mission of the church, and its political ideology. Neo-fundamentalism is not necessarily anti-intellectual. You can even say that it is relatively illustrated and fits very well into the parameters of the democratic party sphere. This neo-fundamentalism is very active, politically speaking, always a part of the agenda of right-wing political groups. Between 1993 and 1995 an outpost of this group decided to take control of CONEP. The damage that this battle produced in the main evangelical institutions was prolonged, although later on the moderate groups would take control of the situation. But the neo-fundamentalists empowered themselves and began to construct the spaces of collective institutions on the basis of which, they would promote their agenda. Thus FIPAC – the International Fraternity of Christian Pastors and the Peruvian Fellowship of Evangelical Pastors – were developed. These institutions are very conservative, very fundamentalist. So throughout the 21st century the strength of neo-fundamentalism and conservative groups has continued to grow. CONEP has been the battlefield between the ultra-conservative groups and the moderate minority that still maintains its presence here. Sometimes CONEP seems a very strange institution, because their presidents – these last years – were always moderate, or even liberal pastors, but when they took the presidency, immediately they acted like prisoners of the conservatives. So the CONEP people say, “Well the president is liberal.” But it’s just a symbolic position, they have no power, no effective power inside the institution. So the UNICEP, the formation of the Union of Christian Evangelical Churches, its partner institutions, different from CONEP, begin a new attempt by the right-wing evangelical groups to hegemonise their reactionary speech. So, an additional factor in this brief history is the influence of the American neo-conservative agenda – the North American conservative agenda. Since the 1980s, the right-wing religious parties have been strengthened considerably in the United States and is globalized in the last decade. So, the objectives of the crusade to the demands of sexual minorities, feminism, and secularism in general, and for a decade their actions have become globalized. I think it is one of the protagonists of, for example, homophobic speech and the practice of Christian conservatism in Peru.

SC: As you may know, on March 12 2016, La Marcha por la Familia y la Vida, or March for Life and Family took place. It is an annual international march organised by the Archdiocese of Lima and gathers most of the conservative Christian and political wings of Peruvian civil society against abortion and same-sex unions. In that sense, what is the current impact of the Pentecostal and evangelical movement as part of a wider conservative coalition in these political struggles. (25:00) Also, why would you say are they so focused on these particular issues?

JF: At present, it is clear that neo-fundamentalists have managed to hegemonise at least on this point. On the Catholic side, the statement of the Episcopal Conference, the Bishop’s Conference, have been clearly reactionary. And at this point, all the wings of the Catholic church handle the same speech, at least publicly. Progressive groups are afraid of saying something for fear or for indifference. Well, but on the Protestant evangelical side, the internal battles which have occurred in the past few years about this subject also show that the neo-fundamentalist speech succeeded in cornering moderates and progressives, in a way that they had to abide to the falling tide, which at this time has been extended by the evangelical churches. The neo-fundamentalists have succeeded in associating their speech with the essentiality of the evangelical identity. I think that the Protestant evangelical members, their identity did not necessarily imply being, for example, homophobic. Thus part of the conservative strategy was to normalise and naturalise the relationship between evangelical religious discourse and fierce opposition to sexual diversity or abortion, and other issues like this. The conservative pressure has been so strong that it has managed to neutralise almost all voices inside the local Protestantism, that began to show some sympathy to the LGBT cause. They have gone with unethical methods many times, but have finally been effective. For example, the campaign for recall of Susana Villarán[1] ecognised the conflict of powers in which the neo-fundamentalists won and important repositioning. There are some similar areas affecting this outbreak of homophobic speech and religious practice of conservative Christianity. On the one hand, theology and Biblical hermeneutics produce the ideological conditions for the constitution of pastoral homophobic discourse to the interior of the churches. On the other hand, the political discourse of religious hierarchies in the public sphere is more and more careful with using religious categories except for less sophisticated groups. Finally, in practice, this trans-confessional alliance of neo-conservatism, or “ecumenical fundamentalism”, has a more active set of actors who are positioned in the various political groupings within the country, as well as in social spaces. Traditionally, they were reluctant to change, for example, the location of the militant institutions. However, the progressive minority, silenced for decades, also begins to build a theological discourse where the practice of the faith are compatible with promotion of sexual diversity rights or some other issues of progressive agenda.

SC: (30:00) Well, now that we have covered the conservative part, I’d like to go to the other side of the spectrum with this the next question. Now we’re facing the second round of presidential elections – on June 5, 2016. While there is a common misconception that being Christian equals being a political conservative – thus favouring religious and secular conservative candidates – a recent statement of an interdenominational Christian collective, favouring a left wing candidate, has been circulated in different social media. Why these kind of political stances hardly find any correspondences in the majority of Peruvian Christians?

JF: Well, I’m not sure that this manifest of progressive Christians, on which I include myself as well, has impacted too much on the electoral decisions of evangelical voters. I think the evangelical voter is more independent than many people believe and votes according to rationales that are not always religious. However I think that, actually, there is an ultra-conservative fundamentalist core that is militant in the anti-rights crusade that its hierarchies have initiated. Although it is a minority, it is very powerful in its media presence. They have managed, as I said, to naturalise the relationship between the Gospel and the conservative media and public opinion in general. Well, in that context, progressive evangelical voices are even less than the fundamentalists, but hold key positions in evangelical institutions, for example the CONEP, the Bible Society, Christian NGOs, some seminaries and even some denominations. In that sense, I think the dissemination of the pronouncements of Christians in favour of Veronika, the left-wing candidate, is a very positive step. Because it shows that some of them are already learning to position themselves in the public debate with the same aggressiveness as conservatives, and articulated with national political actors, in this case, with the left-wing Frente Amplio. In that way, I think that an interesting way has been marked so that, in the future, progressive positions expand their capacity of incidence within the churches and also in Peruvian society in general. And I think it’s very possible.

SC: Well, Professor Fonseca, it has been a pleasure to have you here on the Religious Studies Project. We have learnt a lot about non-Catholic Christian movements that are in our country for more than a century now.

JF: Well thanks for this opportunity.

SC: See you next time.

[1] The mayor of Lima during the period 2011-2014. She was indicted in a widely mediatic process for being, alledgedly, inefficient as a public official. During that process, the several conservative Christian denominations came out to denounce the former mayor for being pro-LGBT rights, since several of her public policies targeted sexual minorities, sex workers, and the like. [Note added by SC]


Citation Info: Fonseca, Juan 2017. “Politics of This World: Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal Movements in Peru”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 17 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.2, 1 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/politics-of-this-world-protestant-evangelical-and-pentecostal-movements-in-the-peru/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

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The Faith of the Killable: A Faith for Empowerment?

As one listens to Dr. Johnson describe the high homicide rates of Río de Janeiro, the gap in between the haves and the have nots, as well as the appalling conditions he witnessed –through use of an admirable methodology– in this city’s prison system, something that stands out clearly is how all these elements are strongly concatenated as pieces of the same dehumanizing setting. It’s not a coincidence that, in several countries within Latin America, scandalous levels of inequality coexist with elevated delinquency rates. Francois Bourguignon (1999) stated that, in developing countries, crime and violence are likely to be a socially costly by-product of, among other factors, uneven or irregular economic development processes, and affirmed that economic theory shows how property crime and, in general, all the violence associated with illegal activity may in part be the consequence of extreme inequality and poverty. This framework of socioeconomic disparity and violence is key to understand how entire population sectors in Río become and remain killable people, and to assess the serious restraints that inmates who proceed from these sectors will face again, once their time in prison is finished. Dr. Johnson refers to Pentecostalism as the faith of the killable and suggests that one of the reasons why Pentecostalism succeeds among those who come from impoverished areas –which is the case of many inmates in Río’s prison system– is that “it can empower people who are, otherwise, thrown into the edges”. In this response, I would like to argue that, in order to appreciate to what extent Pentecostalism could be considered empowering, it’s pertinent to take a look at its impacts (or absence of impacts) in the social context of those who convert to this faith.

Ignacio Martín-Baró (1998) stated that religious conversion has important social implications –even if each person experiences it as an individual process– and that, although conversion brings the knowledge of a new meaning that can make individual life more rewarding, this new meaning can either separate people from their social reality and history, or it can make people become more aware of that reality and turn them into subjects of their own history. Martín-Baró also proposed that the individual motivations for religious conversion acquire a wider historical meaning when they are situated in the net of social forces that affect a person, which can be humanizing or dehumanizing. Taking this into account, if we seek to estimate the empowerment potential of the conversion and affiliation to Pentecostal churches among the inmates of Rio’s prison system, it would be valuable to situate these events in a social background and to inquire: are these conversions able to generate only individual changes in the inmates, or do they also confer on them any resources to bring a positive contribution in the dynamics of their marginalized communities?

Recent research conducted in Central America has attempted to answer a similar question, and has explored the impact of Pentecostal and Charismatic movements on communitarian organization and civic participation. In the case of a traditional Pentecostal church, studied in El Salvador, the research results showed that this faith community conferred high importance upon evangelization and to the individual changes derived from religious conversion, as ways of making a contribution to society; an individualistic view was also present in the way this church interpreted the causes of social problems and in the type of solutions that they considered effective to confront them. In addition, they proved to give utmost importance to the involvement of their members in activities that belonged mostly to the private sphere, without encouraging their interest in the public sphere. Regarding the communitarian participation and political attitudes of the members of this church, it was interesting to find that, from the four faith communities that were studied and compared in El Salvador, the traditional Pentecostals reported the least favorable attitude to political participation in general, the lowest willingness to join political parties or to take over public positions, the strongest reluctance to take part in demonstrations, and a scarce participation in initiatives of their neighborhoods and municipalities. These results, of course, show only coexistence between some religiosity traits and political attitudes –not a cause-effect relation between them– but they suggest that the emphasis this Pentecostal church placed on individual change and on the private space participation didn’t offer favorable conditions for its members to recognize the importance of being active in communitarian organizations and articulating efforts with other citizens to pursue collective goals.

It can be useful to take into account these findings as we go back to considering the social impacts that would be reasonable to expect from the conversion of the inmates in Río´s prison system and from their affiliation to Pentecostal churches. In this sense, it would be interesting to analyze if what Dr. Johnson could observe in the prison churches provided reasons to anticipate that the inmates will, in the future, promote changes beyond their individual behavior and beyond the private space in which religious practice often takes place. For example, Dr. Johnson mentioned that personal testimony and tangible changes in personal behavior were a priority for those who had converted, especially in the case of those who had retired from gangs. When these inmates return to their neighborhoods, will this emphasis on the individual transformation be helpful or not for them to become aware of the structural causes of the deplorable conditions experienced in their communities, and the importance of collective solutions for development? Also, Dr. Johnson explains that Pentecostalism offers a platform for a strong identity and even the opportunity to assume leadership in the autonomous churches that exist inside prisons. Therefore, could the inmates’ experience as leaders in the private space increase their willingness to subsequently become active in community organizations?

The answers to these questions are also essential in regard to after-imprisonment reinsertion and relapse prevention because, if the context to which the inmates return is not improved in any way, it will continue exposing them to social exclusion, translated, among other elements, in deficient education opportunities and difficulties incorporating into labor life, two of the structural causes of the criminality epidemic in Latin America (Kliksberg 2008). In the particular case of inmates who previously belonged to gangs, this complex scenario demands that reinsertion initiatives –including those promoted by religious entities– have a holistic approach that transcends the pursuit of individual change; such initiatives have to be articulated, and coordinated with different resources and efforts, in order to impact the individuals, their families and closest relationships, but also the public spaces, the access to employment, the neighborhoods and communities, and the cultural, social and economic factors that contribute to violence (Aguilar and Miranda 2006).

In sum, affiliation with Pentecostal churches in Río de Janeiro’s prison system can certainly offer important benefits to the inmates in the hostile and dangerous situation that their imprisonment represents. Nonetheless, the transformation promoted by these churches could be very limited if it remains circumscribed to the individuals and those who are closer to them, without helping the inmates to understand and modify the social dynamics that keep them marginalized. This kind of empowerment is only relative if it gives people means to recover a sense of dignity in their lives but not necessarily to stop being killable.

References

Aguilar, J., & Miranda, L. (2006). Entre la articulación y la competencia: las respuestas de la sociedad civil organizada a las pandillas en El Salvador. In Cruz, J.M. (ed.) Maras y Pandillas en Centroamérica, Vol. 4. San Salvador: UCA Editores.

Bourguignon, F. (1999). Crime as a Social Cost of Poverty and Inequality: A Review Focusing on Developing Countries. Desarrollo y Sociedad, 44, 61-99.

Kliksberg, B. (2008). ¿Cómo enfrentar la inseguridad en América Latina?. Nueva Sociedad, 215, 4-16.

Martín-Baró, I. (1998). Religión y guerra psicológica. In Blanco, A. (ed.) Psicología de la Liberación. Madrid: Trotta.

Os serés matáves: Pentecostalism in the Prisons of Rio

BRASIL-997Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is a city of over six million people; it is known for its exotic nightlife, white sand beaches, crystal blue water, and of course, one of the most famous bosa nova songs ever: The Girl From Ipanema. However, beyond the sunny beaches, veritable entertainment, and soothing music lies a very different scene – the Rio de Janeiro prison system. Inside the towering grey concrete walls live Rio’s os serés matáves, or roughly translated into English as, “the killable people”These “killable people” are comprised mostly of proletariat and unemployed minorities with crimes ranging from the benign to the bloody. Gangs rule the prison and every day at 6 pm deafening war cries echo out from within the concrete walls as prison gangs scream allegiance to their “commander” – the head gang leader who runs the prison. The guards largely remain on the outskirts of the prison, they don’t control much of what happens within, as it is too dangerous to go inside. [Note: While the prison system is, of course, very dangerous, the guards’ absence is also due to the penology practiced in that country.]

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Dr. Johnson inside the prison with other inmates during worship.

For Brazil’s “killable people”, there are two prevalent ways to deal with the relative hell of prison – both involving allegiance and devotion. You can give your life to the gang or give your life to God. Only three types of people dare to venture into the heart of a Rio de Janeiro prison: the condemned, the pentecostal pastors leading the prison ministry, and curiously brave sociologists such as Dr. Andrew Johnson.

 

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In his interview with Thomas J. Coleman III, Dr. Johnson begins by discussing the preparation leading up to his ethnography of the Pentecostal prison ministries in Rio de Janero Brazil. He takes the listener through the streets and slums of Rio, and into a prison cell-block. Here, we learn about the gang life that largely runs the prison, and the “gang like” life (Pentecostal prison ministries) that can provide a temporary escape from the physically and psychologically damaging conditions of the jail, and might just provide eternal redemption through the faith of the pious prisoner. Johnson discusses the role of politics in the prison system, why Pentecostalism dominates the jails in a predominately catholic country such as Brazil, and “answers” the question of how to tell if someone is truly faithful. He discusses how prisoners are viewed by their community after their release, and upon conversion as an allegedly devout pentecostal. In closing, Dr. Johnson speculates about the future of pentecostal prison ministries in Brazil, and argues for “the religious lives of inmates being taken seriously apart from recidivism rates”.

Be sure to check out Dr. Johnson’s plenary address, the world debut of his documentary If I Give My Soul, at the 2014 Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Indianapolis Indiana October 31st – November 2nd. You can register for the conference here: SSSR registration link.

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