issue 210 - August 1990
Holmes Lebel / CAMERA PRESS
The sword of God
Fundamentalist Christians have become the shock troops of counter-revolution in Central
America. Tom Barry explores the US roots of the evangelical explosion in the region.
The expansive La Perla coffee estate is in the hotly contested Ixcan area of the Guatemalan highlands. La Perla is a case study in counterinsurgency. Besides the army and the plantation managers, the people who come and go from La Perla's heavily-guarded airstrip are US-based evangelical groups. These right-wing Christians are working hand in glove with the army and local oligarch Roberto Arena Barrera - owner of the plantation - to combat Guatemala's largely Indian guerilla movement.
The Indian laborers at La Perla receive less than a dollar a day, live in rows of thatched huts and shop at the plantation store. The estate is guarded on three sides by military outposts strictly controlling all entry into this roadless area. La Perla's supplies are delivered by the Guatemalan Army's Civil Affairs division.
Arena Barrera claims that he has 'turned La Perla over to the Lord'. He is a key figure in the Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship International, a right-wing evangelical/charismatic organization based in California. He is also the Guatemalan representative of Americans for Freedom in Central America. The Florida-based Facts of Faith helps save souls at La Perla, while providing medical and food aid to Barrera's malnourished coffee pickers.
Thirty years ago, few could have predicted the extent and power of Protestantism in Latin America. Religion was the exclusive province of the Catholic Church. More than a religion, Catholicism was a culture, with deep roots throughout the hemisphere. To be Latin was to be Catholic. But the traditional order has begun to collapse. Latin America is undergoing what David Stoll, author of Is Latin America Turning Protestant?, calls a new Protestant Reformation.
Nowhere is this so evident as in Central America, where in the last 15 years fundamentalist Christianity has spread with prairie-fire speed. In Guatemala a third of the population are evangelicos, or non-Catholics. And 10 to 15 per cent of Salvadorans, Hondurans and Nicaraguans now belong to the evangelical community, which is expanding three times faster than the population
The Catholic hierarchy in the region calls it 'the invasion of the sects' and places the blame squarely on the United States. The Honduran bishops accuse the CIA of covertly financing evangelical growth and the Guatemalan church hierarchy brands the evangelical movement an imperialist conspiracy to block revolutionary change and maintain US political and economic dominance.
The 1982 coup that catapulted General Rios Montt, a member of the US-sponsored Verbo evangelical church, to power in Guatemala City was regarded as a sign from God by many Guatemalan evangelicos. Despite his subsequent downfall they have persisted in their campaign to 'save' Guatemala. Rios Montt and another evangelicoJorge Serrano are both running for President in the October 1990 election with the support of the country's vociferous political right.
But political campaigns are merely the respectable side of religious revolution in Guatemala. Numerous evangelical groups co-operated with the military in its bloody counter-insurgency war begun during the Rios Montt regime. Groups like the US-based Youth with a Mission and Christian Broadcasting Network joined with the Reagan Administration to support Rios Montt's crusade to mop up leftist insurgents. These evangelicos worked closely with the military to establish 'model villages' on the ashes of Indian communities destroyed by Rios Montt's legions.
The bloody counter-insurgency campaign razed over 400 Indian villages in the early 1980s. But it still failed to eliminate the insurgents - most of whom were poor Indian peasants. The transition from military to civilian rule in 1986 temporarily raised popular hopes for peace and improved socio-economic conditions. But the army never lost power and human-rights abuses are again on the rise.
The battle for the beautiful northwestern highlands of Guatemala has prompted the most intensive co-operation between the military and the fundamentalist right. In its 'Operation Whole Armor,' Bible Literature International claims to have distributed over 70,000 Bibles to Guatemalan soldiers and paramilitary patrols. The Summer Institute for Linguistics pitches in with interpretation services for the army's civil-affairs and psychological operations teams. Others sponsor food distribution and educational programs in contested areas.
It is not hard to find evidence linking the explosion of evangelical churches - mostly the Assemblies of God church or highly emotional neo-pentecostal sects - with Washington and right-wing forces right across the region. The campaign to overturn the Sandinistas in Nicaragua attracted a stream of US evangelicals to the contra camps on the Honduran border. They passed out Bibles and supplies shipped to Central America on US military aircraft and banana boats.
their own words...
'There's no question there's a hell. It's eternal torment too, like being strapped into an electric chair for ever but you never quite die.'
SOUTH CAROLINA EVANGELIST DR JORDAN
Politics is also behind the hand-out programs that US evangelicals sponsor in many Honduran communities. Alan Dansforth, the US director of World Gospel Outreach, explained that food hand-outs are used as a bait to attract poor families to church services. He said that evangelicalism 'can be a powerful tool to head communism off at the pass'. In El Salvador US missionaries are regularly invited to deliver anti-communist sermons on military bases. The right-wing Paralife International recently sponsored the tour of a Vietnam veteran who told Salvadoran troops that killing in the fight against the communist Anti-Christ was the 'duty of every Christian'.
Evangelism in Central America is supported by a well-financed infrastructure of Bible schools, mission agencies, research centers, publishing houses and radio and television corporations - most of which are headquartered in the US sunbelt. At missionary schools and training centers in the US evangelists are trained with literature and lectures that bristle with military terminology. They are taught to move among 'unreached peoples' and conduct spiritual warfare by establishing 'beachheads' or conducting victory campaigns.
Even better is to win an entire country for Christ. The California-based Overseas Crusades sponsors the Discipling A Whole Nation (DAWN) method. First attempted in the Philippines, a national campaign is now under way in Guatemala. According to the Crusade's domino theory of evangelization, as soon as key nations are convened then nearby countries will quickly follow.
The rise of the pentecostals has marginalized the mainstream and progressive Protestant churches in the region, pushing to the forefront a conservative theology that preached individual salvation and an imminent Second Coming. Followers have been encouraged to abstain from participation in unions, community organizations and other secular groups. At the same time, evangelical leaders have cited biblical references to support the notion that political and military rulers -with the exception of leftists - are ordained by God and should be passively obeyed.
This rightward shift of evangelical politics has been encouraged and applauded by the US government. The Santa Fe Committee - an informal group of Reagan advisers - stressed the urgent need to counteract liberation theology in the region.
The Catholic Church remains the dominant religious institution in Central America. But the continued rapid growth of the evangelical movement feeds on the failure of the Catholic Church to address its own weaknesses and bodes well for evangelical optimism about growth.
Yet it is easy to overestimate the influence and strength of evangelicalism. In Central America, as in the US, the evangelical churches are not monolithic but extremely sectarian and divisive. The lack of training of most evangelical pastors and their failure to address the structural causes of poverty may eventually restrict the growth and credibility of evangelicalism.
Besides, struggling against the reactionary ideology and conservative theology of the Religious Right is a significant minority of Christians. Their interpretation of the gospels could yet lead to a much more progressive religious reformation in Latin America.
Tom Barry works with the Inter-Hemispheric Resource Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico.