UCSB Latin America/Caribbean Workshop

Question 1: What is the role of religion in social change?

Virginia Garrard Burnett

There has been in recent decades a dramatic increase in religious pluralism in LA and the Caribbean, in what was generally speaking a very Catholic part of the world. In point of fact, there, there has always been some level of unrecognized pluralism—the religions of the African Diaspora, native practices, and varieties of local knowledges represented in LA Catholicism have always been present in the region. However, the expansion of Protestant, and particularly Pentecostal groups throughout LA and the Caribbean in recent decades has made for a very changed religious landscape. In addition, as the religious market place has opened up, new religious movements have also begun some impact to a greater or lesser degree in Latin America, including esoteric religions and Islam, which is finding a small but not insignificant following especially among indigenous people in some parts of the region.


This changed religious landscape has, potentially, significant implications for civil society, although it is hard to tell in which direction these implications point. As people redefine their identities through religion in a way they did not necessarily do in the past, scholars and policy analysts have predicted (for perhaps the past 20 years or so) that Protestants would become a significant force in the political arena, through the formation of evangelical political parties and the fielding of “Christian” political candidates. Generally speaking, this has not yet happened—the few examples of “Protestant” leaders such as Guatemala’s genocidal General Efraín Ríos Montt in the early 1980s have proved to be very poor templates—and, historically speaking, LA Protestants have eschewed political mobilization for its “worldliness.” This antipathy for political participation, however, seems to be changing as a new generation of second-generation evangélicos begin to redefine their place in the world, and see politics as a place where they can bring about “redemption” and reform. This, certainly, is a trend to be watched.


A second, a more concerning trend that is worthy of note is in which religious pluralism creates arenas of conflict in civil society. In certain parts of Latin America, this has played out violently, as in Chiapas, where Catholics and Protestants have taken violent action against one another over conflicts over land and culture that are framed in a religious discourse. Farther south, in Central America (most notably in Guatemala, but also in El Salvador and Honduras, two countries where large-scale conversions to


Protestantism have taken place as a response to serious social challenges such as natural disasters, gang violence, and narcotrafficking), religious organizations serve as functional substitutes for ineffective or absent civil, governmental, or judicial structures. Churches (both Catholic and Protestant) may assume the duty of providing basic services such as daycare, primary health care, education, leadership training, and other forms of “capitación.” But parachurch groups may also take a more intrusive, extralegal roles as well, such as in Guatemala, where, in the absence of an effective judicial system, religious mobs engage in the lynchings of alleged criminals in order to “cleanse” their communities of undesirables. This, too, is a trend that demands our attention.

Jennifer Hughes

In spite of the tremendous growth of evangelical Protestantism in recent decades, most Mexicans (indeed, most Latin Americans) remain Roman Catholic. Yet Latin American Catholicism is far from homogenous: the tremendous diversity of local and regional practices is so pronounced that each expression may be regarded as a distinct religious complex. Increasing globalization and transnationalism have had their impact upon the religious landscape of the Americas, to be sure. Nevertheless, Latin American religious practice frequently continues to be oriented around locally specific fiestas, saints, and religious images (i.e. “folk religion”) that preserve, shape, and narrate specific community identities (ethnic, historical, cultural, spiritual).


In Mexico, as elsewhere, mayordomias, cofradias and other structures of lay religious authority orchestrate the collective practice of local religion (e.g. the celebration of fiestas and the maintenance of saints). But they are simultaneously (today as in the colonial period) vital and versatile modes for ordering the social, political, and cultural life of the community. As administrators of local religion, mayordomias are neither inherently conservative nor inherently progressive, but have facilitated both oppressive and liberating social projects. In specific instances in Mexico mayordomias have supported the efforts of environmentalist NGOs, collaborated with government agencies in the preservation and protection of architectural and art historical treasures, and leveraged transnational financial support for political projects (right-wing and left). That is, traditional, popular or “folkloric” practices (which seem to privilege divine agency over human agency) do not necessarily exclude/preclude participation in political, humanitarian, or human rights projects, but can in fact provide the local infrastructure for such efforts.

Marianne Loewe

The following short extract is taken from a declaration issued by the Guatemalan Conference of Religious CONFREGUA), the Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation, The Social Department of the Archdiocese of Guatemala and published by CRIE in Mexico in 1997.


"The signing of the Peace Accords on December 29, 1996, was an important step in Guatemalan history. That day the door was opened to move toward a different kind of country, a new society, a demilitarized state, a plural nation in which democracy is not only electoral but also participatory. The end of the armed conflict, however did not mean an end to all conflicts…


...There is a premise, the preferential option for the poor, that will not easily be recognized as valid by those people and groups that discredit the word and work of the church. They do not accept the Church as trying to live out Jesus' preference for the poor and needy, the millions of Guatemalans who do not have access to land, tortillas, drinking water or hospitals. ...We confess that in the course of history the Church has not always been consistent with the Gospel ideal and that it still commits its share of sins today. We affirm, nevertheless, that the church authorities under attack today for defending the poor are fulfilling the prophetic role of denouncing injustice and preaching the Gospel to the poor. In some cases, those who are opposed to the action of the Church try to portray themselves as the most orthodox /interpreters of biblical texts highlighting only the spiritual meaning of the texts, while rejecting any reference that does not favor the “traditional winners”: established power, private property owners, those in charge of privatization...


...We believe in the possibility of looking for solutions not based on particular interests. ...We need to approach these meetings with the objective of learning from one another and reaching consensus...


...It is also necessary to approach the bargaining table with the humility to admit that there are no easy solutions. It would not be feasible today to simply carry out a land distribution program. It would have to take into account the Mayan vision of the cosmos: Mother who gives life, center of their culture, presence of God. The specific nature of each conflict would need to be examined.


...There also needs to be a dialogue and transparent information on the situation of every state-owned company and diverse alternatives related to them. This does not mean being opposed to all privatization efforts, but it also does not mean that each one should be accepted without question.


...We repeat our call, in accordance with the peace process, to transform conflicts into opportunities for growth. Only in this way can we move towards a society that corresponds to the project of God, who as Father and Mother, wants the best for his/her sons and daughters. We ask God to teach us how to be just and bless our efforts for peace."

Katherine Marshall

Religion has a wide presence and deep historic roots across virtually all of the Latin America and Caribbean Region. It is part of the region’s history, embedded in its social structures, and an active part of the present. Thus it deserves more focus than it has often received in debates about the region’s challenges. These include addressing the wide income and welfare disparities within the region and balancing conflicting forces in its political arenas.


The Berkley Center’s consultation on the roles of faith-inspired organizations in January 2009 focused on emerging policy issues and on practical matters like enhancing knowledge sharing and networking. The process involved a background paper, interviews with participants and others invited to the event, and a meeting report (all should be available).


Leading issues that emerged during the consultation included:


(a) growing awareness of changing religious landscape and associated potential both for conflict and for new forms of cooperation. This applies especially for Catholic/evangelical relationships


(b) Highlighting traditional indigenous religions and beliefs and their implications both politically and for processes of modernization


(c) Significant if not always visible impact of the 2008-9 economic crisis, especially on families


(d) Growing interest among religious actors in taking action to address inequities and damage associated with extractive industries


(e) Religious roles in addressing education and leadership: significant roles, not well mapped, directions not charted, ambiguous approaches on questions of values


(f) Religious roles on environment: high potential, fragmented, increasing interest.


(g) Religion roles in violence, domestic violence, gangs. Special attention should be paid to gender roles.


(h) Migration as a major social force.


(i) Reemerging issues around land tenure

On all these topics, roles of faith inspired actors, while significant and understood in part, deserve more exploration and research.

Victoria Riskin

The principles of concern and caring for one's fellow human beings are fundamental to all the world's great religious traditions and are in many respects compatible with, if not the inspiration for, the human rights principles founded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Religious institutions have within them those individuals and leaders who work tirelessly on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised as well as those who identify themselves with and support holders of power, including dictators. In Latin America where the Catholic Church dominates the religious landscape and enjoys special status, members of the church have played a central role in the development of human rights movement, but the influence of some segments have been equally repressive. The same could be said for the rising influence of Christian churches in Latin America, particularly evangelicals, where their influence has been both beneficial at times yet complicit in abuses.


One of the important growth spurts of the human rights movement globally took place in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s when a segment of the Catholic Church stood in solidarity with citizens, often peasants, crushed under the fierce brutality of military dictatorships. Until this particularly repressive era in Chile, Brazil, Argentina, El Salvador and Guatemala, Human Rights Watch had focused primarily on the Soviet Bloc countries. This was still during the height of the Cold War. With the blatant atrocities occurring in Latin America, often with the obscured involvement of the United States government, a new Division in the organization was founded called Americas Watch to document human rights abuses committed by these governments. Investigations were often carried out by HRW in concert with members of the Catholic Church who founded the first local human rights organizations in the region. In Brazil, for example, it was Archbishop Arns of Sao Paulo and a Presbyterian minister named Jamie Wright, who at great personal risk, helped to uncovered and make public the details of the atrocities committed by the government and secretly sent their findings to Human Rights Watch for safekeeping before the publication. In El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero became the hero of the human rights movement and, sadly, was shot by the Death Squads on March 24, 1980, after a sermon calling on soldiers to stop carrying out the government's violations of basic human rights. The Maryknoll nuns and lay missionaries from the United States took an active role in opposing the government and several of them were assassinated as well. As a fact-finding organization, HRW was able to expose the government atrocities and the clandestine military aide given the U.S. government, despite their initial denial, at a time when U.S. believed it must fight pro-Soviet elements anywhere and turned a blind eye on the abuses of their allied governments.


Among the Latin American countries, Argentina was the exception where the Catholic Church aligned itself with the dictatorship government. In Chile and Guatemala, there were again courageous Church leaders who were allies to the opposition and who spawned human rights groups who have since become the basis for non-church affiliated civil society groups In highlands of Guatemala, local priests often provided the only sanctuary for those fighting against the government's atrocities and many lost their lives. When the Peace agreement was signed, the Council of Bishops assigned Monsignor Juan José Gerardi Conedera to the official National Reconciliation Commission, a UN sponsored commission. He presented the results of the report on the bloody 36-year war entitled Guatemala: Memory of Silence in 1999 with testimony from thousands of witnesses and victims who testified and placed the blame for the vast majority of the violations on the government and the army. Two days after issuing the report, Gerardi was assassinated. Human rights lawyers and the office of the Archbishop spent the next decade working vigorously and courageously to bring the army officers responsible for the killing to justice and today two of them are in jail. The story of the human rights movement and religion in Guatemala has another dark side with the powerful influence of Rios Montt who helped spread the Evangelical movement and who was responsible for the mass atrocities and crimes against humanity in his country.


In recent years Human Rights Watch has worked actively to advance reproductive rights and family planning for women across the region as well as gay rights. We generally find the atmosphere more open and not as extreme on these issues as the views of the religious right in the United States. The groups we have worked with in Mexico are concerned about the pervasive violence against women in the country, including widespread rape, and the impunity of the perpetrators and resistance of local health providers to assist and support these women if they wish to terminate pregnancy. We have helped to advance laws and practices that allow victims of incest and rape to legally and in a safe medical environment but these activities are not directly affiliated with nor directly undermined by the Catholic Church.


Thus from the beginning days when Human Rights Watch worked in the region to today, we have found countless partners for our efforts both with church affiliated groups - especially the Catholic church -- as well as local secular organizations that continue to make up the vibrant civil society that now exists in the Latin America.

Karel Zelenka

Are democratic systems gaining ground in the world? Is religious fervor increasing / expanding? Affirmative answers imply growing civil society (CS) with religions playing an increasing role in it. Rationale: democracy - by definition - opens debates, which are its sine qua non, and most take place in CS. Democracy also admits religions as equal players in the debates and thus ends monopoly of one religion over another.


Religion - the innermost feeling, strongest sources of identity, belonging and expression of life's meaning based on mystery and fear. Faith and fear closely linked.


Religious leaders can easily inspire the faithful, but also exclude / damn “outsiders”. Religious fervor has grown worldwide - fall of the Berlin wall, 9/11, internet, and especially intensification of globalization often perceived as threat to individuality, thus special threat to religions. Brake: lure of secularist societies. Religion affects all life's aspects -“personalized” now - access to sacred texts - anarchy?


Morality / ethics synonymous with religion - the latter to be kept out of politics, the former should be in and be part of a civil society. Religious leaders no monopoly on ethics, but impactful articulation.


Civil Society - voluntary associations including churches, PVOs, employers' and employees' associations -public spaces where citizens discuss / advocate important societal issues of the day and how to achieve their goal - basically development, i.e., having choices, being empowered and able to decide what people think is best - it is often religions that shape such decision (frequent goal: a democratic system, life in dignity and prosperity in a stable and environmentally sound economic environment). Most public issues have moral dimensions and religious values may significantly affect their discussion and the related / resulting policies.


The Church and CS: until the Enlightenment (l17th century) - politics and religion were one and the Church part of the authoritarian tradition / ruling structure. With the rise of the public sphere in Europe, the Church started to look for its proper role. The turning point was the Second Vatican Council (1962 - 1965), which encouraged the faithful to “infuse the worldly order with Christian values”, and asked them not to ever relinquish their participation in public life to promote the common good.


What does the Church want and how does it enter CS?The Church wants to form conscience, viz. sense of right and wrong so people can make the correct moral choices. The Church enters CS as another player but one that brings the moral values to bear on the societal dynamics by reminding the CS of the common values and effects communal decisions have. The Church is often the “Voice of the Voiceless” (marginalized) in CS.


How does the Church act in CS?Through education of its members (leaders are formed by education!), viz. Catholic Social Teaching highlighting the moral dimensions of public policy and participating in debates affecting common good. Most importantly, the Church encourages believers to be of service in the social field. The work in the developmental & social fields (“witnessing”) is a source of credibility for the Church.


Latin America / Caribbean: “We cannot respond to the enormous needs and urgencies of our peoples - who cannot wait any longer - from sacristies, but from our consistent and concrete commitment in the political, economic, social and academic-cultural sectors.” Cardinal Rodriguez of Honduras at the presentation of a new model for integral human development, Vatican, 11/20/2009. People like too much to stay in power - despite constitutional limits (Honduras!) - tend to manipulate CS to their advantage. Consensus is not a license to dictate - must respect other parties / institutions. Corruption compounds CS situation together with leftist leanings (Nicaragua!). Church very outspoken, strong influence (over 70% Catholics).


Haiti: religion everywhere -even “tap taps” (buses), traditional (voodoos), genuine devotion vs. folklore. The Church - once a very influential institution has lost some credibility over the years due to the involvement of some clergy in politics, and the resulting polarization among different factions within the Church. These rifts are now healing and the Church - with 65% of the population being Catholic - remains a potentially viable force for change in the country. The Church in Haiti is “local” (“Papa Doc” eliminated most non-indigenous clergy) as opposed to the Dominican Republic (DR) and other countries in the region, where there are foreign clergy / missionaries. Many in Church hierarchy in Haiti come from the poorest population, while in others from the ruling elite. Government - deficit of political will to get fully engaged in development as plans “parachuted” on the country (by donors / PVOs). Should be picked up by CS, which is fragmented / uncoordinated and tends to focus on status quo politics / elites. The Church is a player, but keeps a low profile on major issues. However, all 10 diocesan Caritas' (social-welfare arm of the Church) are headed by clergy confirming Church's participation in CS. The CS situation is complicated by the huge UN presence (13,000) preventing demonstrations / expressions of solidarity including students. Anti-foreign / anti-UN sentiment has been growing.


Religions / faith-based organizations need to find a fact-based approach to bring about positive social change, while keeping the ethics / religion front & center, since the latter is the ultimate reality check for many as to their wants and needs.