FIVE HUNDRED YEARS HAVE ELAPSED since the arrival of the Spaniards to America. That event has continued to have profound implications concerning the culture, race, mentality and religion on Latin America.
Recently, the Roman Catholic church held public discussions in Santo Domingo asking for forgiveness of America’s indigenous peoples, its self-criticism leading the way for a desire for a new protagonism. But these discussions were marred by the Catholic Church’s constant reference to the “problem of sects” in Latin America.
Though the Catholic Church nobly recognizes its share of responsibility for the “shadows” that accompanied the arrival of the Spaniards five hundred years ago, it fails to take a real stance on the explosive growth of evangelical Christians in Latin America. In spite of being able to submit to self-criticism in recognizing its many internal problems (lack of Christian testimony, lack of priests, formalism in church participation, etc.) the evaluation of growth of the non-Catholic churches is unreasoned and non-objective.
The easy answer is that “the sects” (a perjorative and dehumanizing label many Catholics insist on using to describe evangelicals) are financed by groups in the United States. Those who support this position, like the ostrich, hide their head in the ground and fail to see the reality of change that surrounds them.
On the other hand, with abundant documentation, a number of Catholics have recognized the genuine and native character of the evangelical churches and the powerful social impact of their message.
But what is it that makes Latin Americans flock to the evangelical churches? First, it is two fundamental messages: the person of Jesus Christ and the Bible. Second, the evangelicals build an empirical theology, based not so much on theological reflections, but on experience and daily reality. Their detractors do not hesitate to label them “fundamentalists” and even “fanatics.”
How is the evangelical message presented? It states that the common person, though poor, sick, full of problems and lacking a reason to live, can find a solution. Which one? “Jesus Christ!” answers the evangelical with energy and conviction.
Phrases such as: “Jesus is alive” – “He has power” – “God will take you out of your problems” – “God can heal you” – “You can find meaning for your life if you surrender to Christ” are recurrent and common in the preaching of the evangélicos.
Thus, while the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America is seeking ecclesiastical reform, the evangelicals have concentrated their message in two elements (Christ and the Bible) and have discovered that it is exactly what the people want and need to hear. Of course, the message does not exhaust itself with the preaching, but innumerable testimonies show that it is really helping the people to reorder their priorities, giving them an optimistic outlook in life, helping them solve their family problems (i.e., by saving and investing money that otherwise would be spent in alcohol and “fiestas”) and encouraging them to seek a better education for their children and more productivity at work.
Not without reason, the evangelical message constantly emphasizes that “everything you do, you do it for God.” Moreover, can anyone imagine the impact on the poor when they hear that “you have access to the unlimited power of God through prayer, and control over your circumstances,” rather than the other way around?
Some say that evangelical Christians are exclusive and think they possess the only truth. However, exclusivity is not in Christianity but in Christ himself. He said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6).
Religion, whatever it may be (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) by its nature is exclusive. If religion accepts that the others are also true, it loses raison d’etre and ceases to be true.
Truth, by an ontological requisite inherent to itself, has to be the only one. There cannot be many “truths.” That is why, when some sectors of the Roman Catholic Church and even the evangelical churches attempt to combine themselves with theologies substantially different from the Christian doctrine, such as “Andean Theology” (pantheist) or rescue some Marxist elements through “Liberation Theology,” they end up diluting their message, discouraging evangelism and questioning their own identity. Religious syncretism ultimately is not beneficial for any of the theological currents, which in the process of combining themselves, being contradictory in principle, lose their identity and their purpose.
A story is told about a boy who was brought before Alexander the Great to be tried for robbery. Alexander the Great solemnly asked, “Boy, what is your name? The boy timidly replied, “Alexander, sir.” Raising his voice, Alexander the Great sentenced, “Boy, you either change your conduct, or you change your name.”
Christianity does not admit middle grounds, syncretisms or doubts with respect to its identity, mission and purpose.
Finally, and going beyond this ontological and doctrinal analysis, we cannot overlook the fact that a religious society cannot be intolerant toward different religious, ethnic, cultural and linguistic expressions. The exclusive character of religious doctrine that we touched upon earlier takes place in the realm of idea, but should not reflect as an attitude of rejection toward people of different ideas.
In fact, we can have unity while respecting our diversity. We cannot impose diversity by force any more than we can impose uniformity by force. A society presupposes the existence of mature, reasonable and free citizens, and they will be the ones who will choose whatever fits them best regarding their religion, culture and life in general. We can be united and work toward a better country, a better standard of living, a better future for our children, without necessarily having to think and act in the same manner.
Pedro Moreno is representative of The Rutherford Institute for Latin America.