Somehow I missed it when it was published a week and a half ago, but The Economist has a piece on the rise of evangelicalism (and the corresponding decline of Catholicism) in Central America. This trend is nothing new, of course. But the story has an interesting take on the reasons for it. If you ask pastors, missionaries or ordinary evangelicals in these countries, they’ll undoubtedly have spiritual reasons to explain the shift. But approached from a secular vantage point, The Economist writes:
Some Central Americans switched during the civil wars of the 1980s, when Catholic priests began criticising their governments. To the authorities, if you were a Catholic you were suspicious, says Gregorio Rosa Chavez, the assistant bishop of San Salvador. After Archbishop Ã“scar Romero was murdered in 1980, many turned to Protestant churches.
I hadn’t heard this specific explanation before, though it does make some sense. Throughout the era of brutal autocratic governments in the region, the Catholic Church didn’t always take the side of the vulnerable and in various ways actually supported the oppressive status quo. Because of this, they undoubtedly alienated a lot of poor and indigenous folks. Finally taking the side of the poor — as Archbishop Romero did in El Salvador — would have seemed to help in bringing the poor back into their fold. But the effect was probably two-fold, since taking such a stance would have at the same time scared off some from the middle- and upper-classes, as well as parts of the indigenous population, who preferred to align themselves with the less politically engaged Protestant churches in order to avoid suspicion of supporting the guerrilla movement.
With the region increasingly violent and economically polarized these days, it will be worth watching what Christians in Central America — evangelical and Catholic alike — will do about it. Those who confront violence and injustice will suffer the consequences; if not from the dictators and death squads of the 80s, from drug cartels and organized crime syndicates of today. Those who avoid speaking or acting out, meanwhile, may attract larger numbers. This dilemma is extremely difficult to navigate, because the pragmatic answer and the faithful answer aren’t necessarily the same. Because of the overwhelming circumstances in which these brothers and sisters find themselves, I hope we in the north will offer them our prayer and support. At the same time, I think we’d do well to listen and learn far more than we propose answers to the life-and-death questions they face. Our circumstances are far less dire, and the last thing Christians in Central America need is advice from a safe distance.
Nonetheless, questions for us to consider in our respective contexts: in the face of overwhelming opposition and potentially fatal violence, does the church have a responsibility to act? Can a church that puts self-preservation and safety above sacrificial love and the seeking of the common good truly be faithful to its calling?
Señor, ten piedad. Cristo, ten piedad. Señor, ten piedad de nosotros.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy on us.
[Photo credit: Christian Science Monitor]