Religion and Politics in 20th-Century Central America
- Virginia Garrard-BurnettVirginia Garrard-BurnettDepartment of Religious Studies, University of Texas at Austin
The role of religion shifted dramatically in Central American politics during the 20th century, as the Catholic Church moved from a position as conservator of the status quo to a powerful force for reform and human rights. The century also witnessed the rise, then the “boom,” of Protestant—specifically Pentecostal—religion. By the century’s end, Central America had become among the most Protestant regions of Latin America, with every country except Costa Rica and Belize measuring a large and rising evangélico minority. These changes unfolded alongside, and deeply affected, one of the most traumatic and violent periods in the region’s history, the so-called Central American crisis of the late 1970s and 1980s, when Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala became the battlegrounds for one of the last large proxy wars of the larger Cold War, between Marxist insurgencies and authoritarian governments.
- Roman Catholicism
- liberation theology
- Oscar Romero
- Efraín Ríos Montt
- Christian Base Community (CEB)
- Vatican II
- Medellín conference
- Gospel in Solentiname
- El Salvador
- Costa Rica
- social justice
- Catholic social thought
- Pope Francis I
- Pope John Paul II
“Religion has been one of the most disturbing factors in the history of the republics of Central America.”—John Lloyd Mecham, Church and State in Latin America, 1934
The Church in Central America in the Early 20th Century
The Roman Catholic Church in Central America entered the 20th century greatly diminished by church-state struggles that the church had lost on almost every front. Over the course of the long 19th century, secular and anticlerical governments, especially in northern Central America, had steadily chiseled away the church’s rights and privileges. In historian John Lloyd Mecham’s words, written in the 1930s, “The Catholic Church in two of the republics, Guatemala and El Salvador, undoubtedly suffered more vicissitudes in its fortunes than any other Latin-American [sic] country, with the possible exception of Mexico.”1 By the dawn of the 20th century, its secular privileges and property gone, its holy feast days trimmed back, its clergy reduced and restricted, the Catholic Church as a formal institution had largely receded from the social landscape of Central America. In the coming years, however, the church would rally, recovering for a time a moral voice not only in spiritual but also in political matters. By century’s end, however, the Latin American Catholic Church and the Central American Catholic Church, in particular, would again be greatly reduced, battered by religious, sociological, and political forces alike—its numbers and its authority diminished as the exclusive religious arbiter of religious matters lost to religious pluralism and secularism.
Background to the 20th Century
As the institutional church largely vanished from the distant countryside in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Catholicism as a lived religion, however, did not. To the contrary, in many places, popular Catholicism as practiced and interpreted by an enthusiastic local laity emerged to supplement and, in some locations, even replace orthodox Catholicism. The manifestations of popular religion were not merely reactions to the reduced presence of the church but also represented the kinds of local adaptations of vital elements of the faith that ordinary people would make without benefit of clergy. This grassroots Catholicism would lend itself to considerable theological and social innovation as the century progressed and became a fertile seedbed for new theological and political ideas.
In some areas, this unlicensed “folk Catholicism,” typically grafted elements of local spirituality, legend, and shamanism onto orthodox Catholic dogma, resulting in a fusion of indigenous and Catholic beliefs that were specific to and resonant with a given locality and community. This was especially true in Guatemala, where the large Maya population adapted Catholicism to their traditional cosmovision and interior spirituality.2 It was also the case in places where indigenous influence was not as great, as local religion produced a great proliferation of popular venerations to virgins, saints, and images that were not necessarily recognized or sanctioned by the church itself. Even Costa Rica, the “whitest” and “most European” of the Central American nations (by its own self-understanding) produced the Virgin de los Angeles, popularly known as La Negrita—a small, black, stone image—who made her own apotheosis into Costa Rica’s patron in 1824.3
In the 1940s, the Catholic Church sent missionaries to Latin America to weed out syncretic practices and reintroduce Catholic orthodoxy into communities where “folk Catholicism” remained the dominant system of belief.4 As late as 1958, clergy from the US-founded missionary Maryknoll Order in El Salvador reflected on this tension, noting that in a country where the ratio of priests to Catholics was 1:7,600, rural Catholicism was “not Christian but pagan” and that “Catholicism was practiced only occasionally.”5 By the early decades of the 20th century, in Central America’s cities, other threats—emerging labor movements, new political parties, and religious indifference bordering on secularism, for example—also threatened to erode Catholicism’s moral and spiritual authority.
The church at large had begun much earlier to address the multiple challenges to its spiritual hegemony in a papal encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII, popularly known as the “working man’s pope.” In his pivotal 1891 encyclical, Rerum novarum, Pope Leo advanced the position that social morality and the principles of justice and charity should regulate the relationship between capital and labor.6 This encyclical resulted in important new currents in Catholic social thought and praxis, most notably the creation of the Catholic Action movement in 1931, which empowered “the participation of the laity in the apostate of the hierarchy,” in the formal court-like language of Pope Pius XI, and which in Latin America channeled other types of Catholic energy into ordinary spheres of life, such as the mobilization of workers and students, and even—with caution—entered into new political venues.7 The early work of the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, in particular, would be among the first works to outline the basic precepts that would, in Latin America, deeply influence both Christian democracy and liberation theology several decades later.8
Concern with what became known in Catholic circles variously as “the social teaching,” “the social question,” or “Catholic social thought” had important implications in Central America even in the early decades of the 20th century. For example, one of El Salvador’s most prominent intellectuals, Alberto Masferrer incorporated Catholic social thought in his influential El minimum vital (1929), which argued that every individual, without exception and despite differences in race, class, or gender, was entitled to a “vital minimum” standard of life, including the right to proper education, food, and shelter. Although Masferrer’s time in El Salvador was cut short by the Maximiliano Hernándezndez Martínez dictatorship in the 1930s (Masferrer died the same year that the 1932 Matanza, or massacre, took place), the Salvadoran Left would revive many of his ideas in the 1960s and 1970s.9
Catholic social teaching also left a lasting impact in Costa Rica, a deeply Catholic and generally more “orthodox” region than northern Central America. There, two figures, Jorge Volio Jiménez and Victor Sanabria, used the principles of Catholic social thought to frame a new social contract with the Costa Rican people that remains in effect even today. During the 1920s, Volio, a former priest and general, guided the Costa Rican legislative assembly toward codifying social support in favor of the poor, with the aspiration to elevate Costa Rican society across the board. It was Volio who is credited with issuing one of Costa Rica’s guiding mandates that the small nation aspire to always remain a democratic country with “more teachers than soldiers.”10 The other essential Catholic leader was Victor Manuel Sanabria, an influential Catholic bishop who strongly advocated that the church be a voice for its people’s temporal as well as spiritual well-being. Sanabria was a strong proponent of legislation in favor of workers’ rights and other social guarantees in the 1940s, including during the nation’s crucial 1948 revolution.11
From the Social Question to Liberation Theology in Central America
Catholic social thought in Central America and in Latin America more broadly transformed dramatically in the period after World War II, as new kinds of ideologies—mostly political—began to flame the passions that had once been kindled by active Catholic religiosity. In particular, the Cuban Revolution (1959) served notice to the church that it would consider no land to be inexorably Catholic, not even in Latin America. Many of these hostile forces were those associated with the “modern” world: communism, secularism, urbanization, and other demographic changes that pulled people away from traditional lifestyles and worldviews. In addition, by the early 1960s, Protestantism also presented an ever-greater challenge to Catholic spiritual hegemony.
With all this in mind, in October 1962, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council. The object of the Second Vatican Council was to “open the Church,” a goal that was meant to reclaim Catholicism’s moral and temporal authority by reasserting its relevance in the modern world. Between 1962 and 1965, the council issued sixteen major documents that set the course for the most dramatic change in universal Catholicism to take place since the Counter-Reformation. The most important of these changes included the following: a dramatically increased role for the laity; an emphasis on Bible reading and reflection over formulaic ritual; increased accessibility to the sacraments through liturgical revision and abandonment of the Latin Mass for modern vernacular languages; a conciliatory attitude to ecumenism, including a definition of Protestants as “separated brethren”; and a renewed emphasis on the church’s engagement with the problems of the secular world.12
Applying the Principles of Medellín
With the sea changes of Vatican II and Medellín, Catholic clergy in Latin America found themselves suddenly cast in a new paradigm of social justice that departed dramatically from the traditional Catholic social thought that preceded it. Earlier formulations had been built largely around customary ideas of charity, noblesse oblige or, in the early 20th century, the welfare of “corporate” groups, such as workers and youth, that organizations such as Catholic Action had promoted. The call for a preferential option for the poor turned traditional Catholic social thought, based on patriarchal and top-down hierarchical models, on its head, by emphasizing the majority of Catholics in Latin America who were poor and by calling on clergy to join the poor and share their struggles. From rectories that were luxurious by the standards of the surrounding communities, clergy moved into barrios and remote rural communities to live among the poor as fellow compañeros with their parishioners in the struggle for social justice.
This transition was not always an easy one for parishioners or clergy; Vatican II’s emphasis on rationality and worldliness often unsettled those whose faith centered on the saints, popular devotions, and sacred images the church seemed now to disdain. Even priests who were coming of age at the time of Vatican II had been trained in Tridentine seminaries. Lumen gentium, Vatican II’s encyclical challenge to take the “church to the world,” gave a whole new meaning to what constituted evangelization and parish work.
Nor did the institutional church at large or diocesan bishops offer clear instructions as to how these changes should be implemented. One of the paradoxes of the 1968 Medellín conference is that, while the “radical,” liberationist members of Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano (CELAM) managed to push forward a highly progressive agenda for the Latin American clergy, less liberal and even very conservative bishops, a vocal minority at Medellín, managed to block many of the conference’s mandates. In El Salvador, for example, where liberation theology produced some of its greatest theologians and also its most noted martyrs, the hierarchy was divided from the start, resulting in a decidedly mixed pastoral message. El Salvador’s archbishop, Luis Chávez y González, a strong anticommunist, was deeply affected by the new direction proposed by Vatican II. The bishops instructed their clergy that they could, and should, “accompany”—that is, support the poor in their daily lives but they should not put themselves in the vanguard of change; least of all were they to take express political positions on the struggle of the poor.13
Nicaragua’s Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, primate of the three large metropolitan dioceses of what would be revolutionary hotbeds in the coming years, was another ambivalent figure. Although he opposed the corrupt and venal Somoza family dictatorship, he also disliked radical solutions, including the experiments practiced by his own priests in Nicaragua. However, Obando’s gesture of selling the Mercedes Benz that Somoza had bestowed on him and giving the money to the poor clearly signaled that the institutional Nicaraguan Catholic Church wished to distance itself from the dictatorship.14 Guatemala’s Archbishop Mario Casariego, the most conservative of all the Central American archbishops—who is reputed to have remarked that had he “not been a bishop, [he] would have liked to become a general”—vociferously opposed Medillín’s progressive liberationist documents and refused to sign them.
The gap between ecclesiastical discourse and praxis, between the episcopacy and the “lower” clergy, overshadowed the promises of Medellín from the beginning. Thus it fell to the local clergy to figure out how best to put the new mandates of liberation theology into motion, although the word local here has a precarious meaning, since many decades of anticlericalism had taken such a toll that most clergy in Central America were not native to the region but instead foreign born. Two religious orders—the U.S.-based Maryknolls and the Jesuits, of which many were Spaniards—took the lead in this effort, although many other clergy, both secular and those from orders such as the Franciscans, Sacred Heart, Dominicans, and Salesians, also became integrally involved in the process. The terrible inequities of wealth, the poverty, and the deep religiosity of people who had for many decades been largely responsible for their own spiritual welfare, coinciding as it did with the emergence of new guerrilla movements fighting for the overthrow of autocratic governments, provided fertile ground for the liberationist message.
Liberation Theology in Central America
In 1968, the bishops of Latin America convened the Second General Conference in Medellín, Colombia, where they called for a specific application of the Second Vatican Council decisions to the region. In particular, the convening bishops articulated the church’s “preferential option for the poor” and called for “concientizatión” (consciousness raising) through Bible reading and discussion in small groups known as Christian Base Communities (CEBs), to help the poor take control of their lives in the secular world. This rearticulated action-based faith became known as liberation theology. Liberation theology had a galvanizing effect throughout Latin America but most of all in Central America, bringing thousands of the faithful to informed understanding of the linkages between their faith and social action for the very first time.
It is hard to overstate the significance of the strong position taken at the Medellín conference, not only for the Catholic Church but also for ordinary Catholics all over Latin America. This was especially true for Central America, where in three countries—El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala—armed leftist movements, many of them influenced and supported by revolutionary Cuba, were forming to overthrow repressive and conservative governments. The movements varied considerably in their ideologies and alliances, but virtually all of them sought to bring about a more equal distribution of resources, especially land, that had long been in the hands of tiny elites and foreign interests.
It took some time, but eventually these two powerful forces—liberating Catholicism and the popular armed movements that were springing up in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and even Honduras during the 1960s—came uneasily together, linked not by ideology or even, generally speaking, methodology (although many liberationists did not disdain Marxist analysis), but by a shared concern about inequality and injustice. Where Marxist guerrillas might blame dependency, exploitation, and capitalism, liberationist Catholics decried “structural sin” and “institutionalized violence.”15 A common concern with the welfare of the poor, ideology notwithstanding, would eventually make radical Catholics and Marxist guerrillas very strange bedfellows in Central America.
This is not to say that the Central American Catholic Church overwhelmingly supported the Left: it did not. With a few notable exceptions, members of the church hierarchy remained dubious of alliances with “godless communists” (a suspicion that was entirely mutual), and many lower clergy and ordinary Catholics abhorred the violence and discontinuities that the armed revolution seemed to offer. But even given that, Central America from the 1960s into the 1980s—more than any other place in Latin America—became the ultimate workshop for liberationist Catholic theology and political action.
Putting the “Option for the Poor” into Practice
Because so many, if not the majority, of the clergy in Central America were originally from outside the region, their notions of what constituted “social justice” for the poor varied. Clergy from the United States working in Central America were likely to conceptualize social justice along desarrollista lines, more or less paralleling the aid-and-development model favored by U.S. government entities such as the Alliance for Progress and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). This approach was designed to deter the advance of communism with social betterment for the poor through access to education, land reform, increased agricultural productivity and industrialization. This decidedly middle-of-the road alternative to Marxist revolution was stridently nonviolent in its approach and envisioned the rise of an educated, middle-class citizenship that favored a Catholic and, ideally, a pro-U.S. outlook. The emergence of Christian Democratic parties in the region during the 1960s, which incorporated Catholic social thought, democracy, and a gradualist approach to reform, especially in El Salvador, embodied this vision precisely.16
In time, some Catholic clergy began to determine that this centrist approach was simply not enough. Constant contact through living and working with the poor radicalized some clergy, especially as government repression of Catholic projects and violence against lay Catholic activists escalated in places like Guatemala and El Salvador, convincing them that there was no longer a “middle way” toward reform. Blase Bonpane, a U.S. American priest working in Guatemala in the 1960s, for example, explained how he came to the decision to ally with the Frente Armada Revolucionaria in 1967. Joining the guerrillas, he wrote, “implies not abandoning the flock: [it is] going where they go.”17
“There Is No Contradiction between Christianity and Socialism”: The Case of Nicaragua
Nowhere was this truer than in Nicaragua, where activist clergy and lay Catholics became integral to the fight against that nation’s decades-long authoritarian government—and with good reason. Under the long and rapacious rule of the Somoza dynasty, Nicaragua laid claim to some of the lowest social indicators of any country in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti. Life expectancy in Nicaragua in 1970, for example, was only fifty-three years; only 49 percent of the population was literate. Nicaragua’s “superlatives” were equally dubious, bespeaking a society at risk on nearly every level: it suffered the highest murder rate, the highest accident rate, and the highest alcoholism rate in Central America.18
Here, local circumstances were so dire that Catholic clergy had undertaken progressive social action early, as they began to reinterpret the Gospel from a see-judge-act perspective. One of the first such theological experiments in living took place on the island of Solentiname, a poor community located in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, which Ernesto Cardenal, a Catholic priest, established in 1966. In 1976, Cardenal produced a highly influential book on this exercise in applied theology—the book itself was written from edited tapes of participatory discussions of the Gospel in the community—entitled The Gospel in Solentiname (El evangélio en Solentiname). First published in Spanish and eventually in multiple languages, The Gospel in Solentiname soon became a road map for community liberationist hermeneutics throughout Latin America.19
The Solentiname experiment was only one of several new Catholic initiatives toward social justice that inexorably propelled the church away from its support of the Somoza regime. As these popular Catholic organizations spread throughout rural Nicaragua and in the slums of Managua, their members directly contributed to the Sandinistas’ growing insurrection against the Somoza regime in the late 1970s. Christian catechists (members of CEBs) became active members of Sandinista cadres, taking up arms against the Somocista National Guard.20
At first, the Sandinistas, who originated as a fairly orthodox armed Marxist group, disdained religion for raising false consciousness. Even after Medellín and the church’s experiment in Solentiname, many guerrillas, including their founders, remained dubious of Christians’ participation as combatants in a struggle for the violent overthrow of the government.21 Yet the enthusiasm of young catechists and priests, inspired by their faith, if not always by Marxist ideology, to fight against a repressive regime, eventually persuaded them to take them in as comrades in arms.
Fernando Cardenal, a Jesuit priest and brother of Ernesto Cardenal, came to openly embrace the Sandinista cause and fully understood that doing so meant engaging in violent acts. Unlike some former revolutionary clergy elsewhere in Central America, Fernando Cardenal remains completely unapologetic about his role in the armed uprising, noting with uncharacteristic pride that he was able to “help idealistic young people overthrow a brutal dictatorship.”22 When the Sandinistas first invited him to join their movement, Cardenal recalls asking himself, “What would God do in this case?” Of this moment, Cardenal writes, “I had never read a book by Carlos Marx, I had never read a book by Lenin, but I had read the Gospel and I had read the Latin American reality.” Cardenal adds, “Thus did this Nicaraguan priest become a militant of the Frente Sandinista de la Liberación Nacional, putting myself and all I had at the service of the revolution of our people.23 After the Sandinista victory and because of their integral involvement in the insurrection, several Catholic clergy assumed high positions in the new administration. Among them, Jesuits Fernando Cardenal headed Sandinista’s all-important national literacy campaign, and Miguel D’Escoto served as foreign minister, while poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal served as minister of culture.24
It was in part the high profile of the clergy in the Sandinista government that provoked Pope John Paul II’s censure of the leftist regime during his controversial visit to Nicaragua in 1983. In 1983, Pope John Paul II, a conservative pope whose experience as a Catholic in Communist Poland made him opposed to church associations with revolutionary popular movements, paid a visit to Sandinista Nicaragua. Upon his arrival at the Managua airport, he pulled his hand away from Father Ernesto Cardenal, who had knelt to kiss the papal ring. In front of the media and a large crowd, the pope shook his finger at the priest. “You must straighten out your position on the Church,” he chastened the withering Cardenal.25
Pope John Paul II criticized the radical clergy for their overinvestment in what he considered to be a dangerously socialist regime; later on the same visit, Sandinista cadres attempted to drown out the pope’s homily with political slogans during the celebration of Mass in the Plaza of the Revolution. This event symbolized, perhaps above all others, the moment of separation between the Vatican and liberation theology. As a result of this visit, Pope John Paul II ordered all priests, including the Nicaraguan clergy, to resign from public office or suspend their priestly duties. All of the Sandinista clergy accepted their suspensions, which remained in effect for nearly thirty years, until Pope Francis lifted the penalty for Miguel D’Escoto, one of the few who had remained in the priesthood, in 2014.26
By the mid-1980s, the Nicaraguan Catholic Church had become seriously divided between pro-Sandinista Catholics (the “popular church”) and an institutional church led by Archbishop (later Cardinal) Miguel Obando y Bravo, who increasingly opposed the regime. In 1989, the Sandinistas relinquished power after losing in presidential elections. Here, the winning candidate, Violeta Chamorro, credited her victory in large part to the support of Cardinal Obando y Bravo and the conservative sector of the Catholic Church.27
“Be a Patriot: Kill a Priest”: El Salvador and Guatemala
In neighboring El Salvador, by contrast, the institutional church took a somewhat different role. As in Nicaragua, “lower” clergy—parish priests and religious who worked among the poor—in El Salvador took an active role in establishing CEBs in poor rural areas. Over time, liberationist Catholics began to ally themselves with popular movements that sought a fundamental reorientation of politics and society that would redistribute wealth, land, and power from the military government and the so-called “Fourteen Families” who controlled at least 80 percent of the nation’s wealth in the mid-1970s.28 Although Salvadoran Catholics were initially reluctant to take up arms and join one of several armed guerrilla movements that coalesced in 1980 into a single organization, the Frente Farabundo Martí Liberación Nacional (FMLN), radical Catholics eventually played essential roles in the movement, particularly in running social programs in the ravaged cities and in the “liberated territory” that the FMLN claimed in Chalatenango and Morazán provinces during most of the 1980s.
El Salvador’s history between 1979 and the end of hostilities in 1992 is especially dark. Between 1979 and about 1982, in particular, the government’s counterinsurgency campaigns and its approval of paramilitary activities, especially the use of “death squads” resulted in a chaotic and violent social milieu that killed more than seventy thousand by the war’s end. The church found itself very much in the line of fire, as hundreds of activist lay Catholics and dozens of clergy were especially targeted for torture, “disappearance,” and assassination. One of the most prominent victims of the entire civil war, San Salvador’s archbishop, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, fell into this group. Romero, a political moderate who had become a vocal opponent of organized violence, was assassinated while saying Mass on March 24, 1980, the victim of a right-wing death squad.
Archbishop Oscar Romero, a Case Study in Faith in Politics
Rightly or wrongly, Archbishop Romero’s life and death are so strongly associated with liberation theology that the process for his canonization for sainthood—usually fast-tracked for martyrs of the church—was stalled in the Vatican for many years, where conservatives, in the words of Manuel Vásquez and Anna Peterson, have attempted to “domesticate and privatize” his image.29 A little more than a month after assuming office, however, Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, officially “unblocked” Romero’s path to canonization.30 On February 3, 2015, Pope Francis officially recognized Romero’s death as a martyr—meaning he was killed for his faith, not for his political views—thus paving the way for full canonization (the last stage in saint making), perhaps sometime in the near future.31
Beyond his official image today, Romero’s ministry and martyrdom are instructive, since at the time of his elevation to archbishop, Oscar Romero was a most unlikely martyr or revolutionary. The context of this period in El Salvador was one of chaos and dramatic escalation of violence between the armed popular movement, the FMLN, and the Salvadoran government, which at the time was still civilian but which operated under military authority. Liberation theology had set down roots in El Salvador by the late 1970s, and many priests and nuns working in poor parishes—along with thousands of ordinary Catholics—had taken the new theology of the poor deeply to heart.
It was through the process of Catholic conscientización that any newly awakened church people began to find common cause with the guerrillas, forming relationships that ranged from moderate sympathizers (such as women who might provide food and water to the “muchachos”) to outright combatants. In mid-1977, government repression of the Left and of Catholic radicals, in particular, accelerated and then calmed slightly, only to surge again; Romero’s assumption of the archbishopric of San Salvador roughly coincided with the beginning of the Salvadoran armed conflict. The coup on October 15, 1979, that brought a military junta to power marked a tipping point that shifted the conflict from armed conflict to outright civil war. Government repression and rebel insurgency both resurged dramatically, and government-sponsored violence continued to escalate throughout the remainder of Romero’s episcopacy.32
Unlike militant clergy working in many parts of Latin America at this time and in El Salvador, in particular, at the time of his appointment as archbishop in 1977 all sides saw Romero as a moderate, which was not necessarily a compliment in the highly polarized El Salvador of the late 1970s. Some described him as “timid.” Some worried he would exacerbate divisions among the clergy.33 Rich and powerful Salvadorans first distrusted and then reviled him for what turned out to be his strong support of the Church of the Poor. The radical Left, including some of the clergy under his authority, mistrusted him for his failure to endorse the armed revolution.34
Yet Romero quickly proved to not be the milquetoast that the religious Left initially feared, although he would never embrace the idea of armed revolution. Romero’s devotion to the plight of the poor and ordinary people—a dedication that had carried different valences earlier in his career—and the government’s brutal repression of ordinary people began to transform both his political and theological perspectives. His “conversion,” of sorts, fueled in part by his reflections following the death of his friend and fellow priest Rutilio Grande a mere three weeks after Romero’s consecration as archbishop—the first of any number of government-authored clerical assassinations and disappearances during his episcopacy—was matched by his profound belief in the power of nonviolence.35
Not that it was easy to retain such a commitment. In 1977, within a matter of months after his appointment as archbishop, another priest, P. Alfonso Navarro, was killed by the government. Around the same time, Salvadoran soldiers took over the church in Aguilares, the parish of the murdered Father Grande, and desecrated it. In June, a death squad threatened to assassinate the entire contingent of Jesuits in the country. Thus, in the first four months of his ministry, two priests had been killed and the entire Jesuit order threatened, while graffiti appeared around the capital city of San Salvador reading, “Be a patriot: kill a priest.” This violence, of course, played out against a much larger context of state-sponsored violence against an emerging popular movement.36
During the nation’s descent into a nightmare of violence and chaos, Romero issued a series of four pastoral letters between 1977 and 1980. To today’s reader, the sermons are striking for their consistency and their passion for social justice and against inequality, but also for their tone of calm restraint. The third letter is especially salient. Issued in August 1978 and entitled “The Church and Popular Political Organizations,” it spoke directly to the question of violence, and revolutionary violence in particular. “‘The Christian is peaceful … not simply a pacifist, for he can fight, but prefers peace to war.’”37
This same pastoral letter exhorted Salvadoran Catholics—that is to say, practically all Salvadorans at that time—to adopt a position of nonviolence. Like a “voice crying in the desert,” he said, we must continually say “no to violence, yes to peace.”38 The letter outlined the evils of “institutional violence” and repression but emphasized nonviolence as a response: “The gospel’s advice to turn the other cheek to an unjust aggressor, far from being passivity and cowardice,” he wrote, “is evidence of great moral strength that can leave an aggressor morally defeated and humiliated. The Christian can fight, but prefers peace to war.”39 As violence in El Salvador rose dramatically in 1978 and 1979, the reticent Romero became increasingly outspoken, especially in his pastoral letters and in regular Sunday homilies that were broadcast across the country. These broadcasts were by no means Romero’s only public voice, but they were certainly the most widely heard. By 1979, Archbishop Romero’s weekly sermons regularly attracted the largest listenership in the country.
To the end of his days, Romero remained firm on the issue of violence, which he could not condone from an ethical perspective. “I am accused by the ultra-Right of being a communist and by the ultra-Left of being in collaboration with the Right,” he insisted, “but I’m neither of the Right nor the Left. I am simply trying to be loyal to preaching the Word of the Lord.”40 Romero was fully aware that his sentiments echoed not only the teachings of Jesus but also those of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.; he was equally mindful that all three of these figures came to a violent end. In early March 1980, he told a Guatemalan reporter, “I have often been threatened with death,” he said. “If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. If the threats are fulfilled, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality.”41
Although his words and gestures were not, strictly speaking, partisan, El Salvador’s murderous right wing, the authors of the most pernicious violence of those days, correctly understood his denunciations as directed at them. As violence escalated at the turn of the decade, so did the bishop’s demands for it to end. His words, directed in particular toward the leaders of death squads, hit their mark. On March 23, he issued his most blistering indictment against violence in a weekly radio address, speaking directly to members of the armed forces and the paramilitaries:
I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, to the police, to those in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. And before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law … In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!42
The next day, March 24, 1980, Archbishop Romero was himself shot to death while saying Mass, joining other great champions of nonviolence in martyrdom. Among Romero’s last words were these: “[May we] give our body and our blood to suffering and pain—like Christ, not for self, but to bring about justice and peace to our people.” At his funeral, security forces attempted to disperse the crowd with tear gas and rifle shots. Between thirty and fifty people died in the resulting chaos.43
Although Archbishop Romero’s death shocked the world and made him a martyr across Latin America, his murder was not the last of its kind. At the end of the same year, in December of 1980, four American churchwomen associated with the Maryknoll order were raped and killed by members of the Salvadoran security forces. Then, in 1989, clergy deaths formed a grim parentheses around a decade of violence, when officers from the Salvadoran military ordered the assassination of six Jesuit priests associated with the University of Central America, who were killed as a warning from the Salvadoran authorities to all who might wish to be “intellectual authors of insurgency.”44
In Guatemala, too, during the same period of time, Catholic activists and clergy paid a heavy price for their efforts toward bringing social justice to the poor. According to one of the Guatemalan Truth Commission reports, outside of labor rights activists and trade unionists, lay Catholic and clergy suffered the highest number of victims of any category of people during that nation’s armed struggle, which lasted from 1960 to 1996. There, no fewer than twenty-seven priests were assassinated between 1976 and 1983, alongside many hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of Catholic lay activists.45 But Guatemala’s archbishop, Mario Casariego (who served as archbishop from 1964 until his death from natural causes in 1983), was certainly no Romero. When asked about the repression of his activist clergy and their flock, Casariego is said to have responded, “If you mix in politics, you get what you deserve.”46
Central America’s Protestant Boom
Against this backdrop of Catholic activism and persecution, an alternative religious form was rapidly emerging on the Central American spiritual landscape: Protestantism, specifically Pentecostalism. Although the number of Protestants in Central America was very small until the 1960s—in no place did Protestants number more than 5 percent of the total population—Protestantism has a long history in the region, much of it tied negatively to the expansion of the political and economic hegemony of Protestant nations, specifically Great Britain and the United States. In part because of this legacy, it took many decades—nearly a century, in fact—from the time that the first permanent Protestant missionaries set foot in Central American until the new religion took solid root. In Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, the boom in Protestant (specifically Pentecostal) conversions did not take place until the late 1970s and 1980s, coinciding with those nations’ decade of civil war and crisis.
By the first decades of the 21st century, however, Central America had become among the most Protestant regions in the Americas. According to the generally reliable Pew Research Center, in 2014 the populations of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua were 40 percent or more Protestant; El Salvador was 36 percent Protestant. Even Costa Rica, long a Catholic holdout, ranked an all-time high Protestant population of 25 percent.47
The profound, even startling, growth of Protestantism within Central America has taken place over the past few decades, although the history of Protestantism in Central America reaches back more than a hundred years, to the days of missionaries and Bible salesmen. The 1960s are a pivotal era in the Protestant story in Latin America. In the wake of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, a new type of missionary from North America began to operate in Latin America, promoting Protestantism as a “spiritual alternative to communism.” This line of thinking intentionally positioned conservative Protestantism in direct competition with Catholic liberation theology. While the mainline evangelical denominations that sponsored this initiative did not experience substantial growth, the net result of Central America’s crusades and revivals of the 1960s was to open the door to new types of evangelization and, more important, to an increasing receptivity within Central America to new religious options.48
It is worth noting that this all coincides with a time when the Catholic Church was suffering from a severe shortage of clergy and the institutional church itself was in turmoil owing to the many changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council. Given what was for the new missions such a favorable convergence of factors, the efforts of such interdenominational agencies quickly bore fruit, and Central Americans’ innate distrust of evangelical religion began to break down. The Protestants’ propensity for proselytization and their belief in the “priesthood of all believers” gave them a certain advantage. As one observer noted, for example, “In 1960, there was a Protestant community in El Salvador totaling … nearly 2.2 percent of the population. [But] they were served by 293 ministers—a formidable number considering that the total number of Catholic priests was 277.”49 By the middle of the decade, locally run Protestant churches began to sprout in urban slums and rural villages of Central America for the first time.
The link between sociopolitical conditions and religious change were especially clear in Guatemala, where rapid urbanization, a Green Revolution, and the exigencies of the armed conflict and a repressive state pushed ordinary people into seeking new solutions, including religious ones. Prior to the 1960s, less than 5 percent of Guatemalans were Protestants, despite a continuous missionary presence from “mainline” denominations that dated back to the 1870s. By the mid-1980s, “church growth” experts thought that by the year 2000, Guatemala might be Latin America’s first evangélico-majority country—a prognostication that did not come true but which nonetheless underscores the rapid expansion of Protestant religion in Guatemala during the last century’s final decades.50
Case Study: Ríos Montt and the Growth of Pentecostalism in Guatemala
Guatemala’s Protestant boom—which is at its heart a Pentecostal boom, since more than 80 percent of Guatemalan Protestants are also Pentecostal—is unique, in the sense that it is inexorably linked to that nation’s tragic contemporary history. The background to the growth is the thirty-six-year-long armed conflict that followed the overthrow by right-wing military officers and civilian elites (with considerable help by the Central Intelligence Agency) of Guatemala’s freely elected leftist government in 1954. The aftermath of this coup provoked a three-decades-long armed conflict between leftist guerrillas, who hoped to correct Guatemala’s profound social and economic injustices through a Cuban-style revolution, and an intractable military government, which sought to crush the communist threat at any cost.
The conflict reached its nadir between 1982 and 1983, a period Guatemalans now call “la violencia,” when the military government conducted a brutal and effective counterinsurgency campaign against the insurgency and, along with it, the indigenous Maya population, which it defined as an “internal enemy of the state.”51 The primary, though not the exclusive, perpetrators of this violence were the Guatemala security forces under the authority of a Pentecostal general by the name of Efraín Ríos Montt, who launched a deadly efficient scorched-earth policy against the insurgency and all who might potentially support it. The result of Guatemala’s armed conflict, which ended in December 1996, was one hundred thousand or more civilian deaths, the majority of them indigenous Maya people. Coincidentally or not—we suggest not—the rapid expansion of Protestantism in Guatemala roughly corresponds to this period of trauma, violence, and anomie.
Within Guatemala’s unique historical matrix, certain significant factors support these interpretations. The first is expressly political, having to do with the beginning of the armed conflict in the early 1960s and the concomitant emergence of military government.52 In popular memory, if not in actual reality, a single event seemingly was responsible for Guatemala’s Pentecostal boom. This was a catastrophic earthquake that shattered the country on February 4, 1976. The earthquake killed tens of thousands of people, destroyed much of the infrastructure of the capital city, and, most important, broke wide the grievous fault lines that divided the country: racism, violence, and vast social and economic inequities.53
The natural disaster also revitalized the nation’s languishing guerrilla movement, thus setting off a wave of violent insurgency and counterinsurgency that would precipitate the darkest days of the civil war. The earthquake also opened the door to religious aid workers, who offered succor to the quake’s victims alongside promises of divine deliverance by way of the Holy Spirit. Although cynics quipped that such pragmatic intervention offered an example of “lámina por ánima”—free corrugated roofing in exchange for one’s soul—Guatemalans, especially in the most affected rural areas, ignored their critics and flocked to Pentecostal churches in droves.54
As Guatemala swirled downward into a vortex of violence over the next few years, Pentecostalism grew by leaps and bounds. By 1980, Pentecostal adherents already accounted for nearly a quarter of the overall population.55 Two years later, in 1982, one of those post-earthquake converts—Efraín Ríos Montt, an army general and active member of a large neo-Pentecostal church, Iglesia Cristiana Verbo—assumed Guatemala’s presidency in a coup d’état.56 Ríos Montt made a very public association with Pentecostalism (he “preached” every Sunday night on TV, addressing the nation on a variety of patriotic and religious themes) and the scorched-earth violent campaign of his government against the guerrillas and much of the civilian population. He wove together a vision of a “New Guatemala” that was grounded in anticommunism and “national unity”—a call for the cultural assimilation of the Mayan people into the ladino nation-state, grounded in biblical values.57 His critics, who were many, claimed that this was a “holy war” pitting right-wing anticommunist Protestant religion against activist Catholicism. This trope spread much further than Guatemala, and although the facts do not necessarily bear it out, it remains part of a common understanding of Protestant religion in Central America even today.
Proponents of the holy war argument in Guatemala in the early 1980s—including the president’s brother, the Catholic bishop Mario Ríos Montt—insisted that the Pentecostal general’s terror in the countryside forced Guatemalans into Pentecostal churches either out of a desire for safety or out of political expediency, particularly in an era when Catholics were often associated with liberation theology and politics of the Left—a quite dangerous proposition in this setting. There is ample evidence, however, to demonstrate that the strong attraction that Guatemalans have felt for Pentecostalism that began in the mid-1970s instead had much more to do with the promises of the faith—its claims to heal, to pour supernatural balm over hurting souls, and to provide a clear salvation narrative in the midst of an unfolding crisis of literally biblical proportions (earthquake, war, and terror), soon to be redeemed by the imminent return of Jesus Christ.58
The contrast to liberation theology, which called upon people to think through the “hermeneutic circle” and fight for human rights and dignity, was profound. Whereas liberation theology asked people to take temporal action for their faith, Pentecostalism called upon them to stay in the churches and “pray without ceasing.” On the other hand, General Ríos Montt’s strong association with Pentecostalism and the counterinsurgency strategy unquestionably influenced some Guatemalans—Mayans who lived in the so-called zones of conflict, in particular—to convert to Protestantism in the interest of self-preservation, as people used evangélico identity as a shield to protect themselves from the violence raging in the countryside.59
Yet to attribute the conversion boom to simple expedience underestimates the impact that Protestant conversion had on society and individual lives. The all-out military assault on the highlands had destroyed families, villages, and, where it had still been strong, the costumbre (an all-encompassing epistemology) that had lent indigenous communities their distinctive identities for hundreds of years. In those spaces of utter despair, hope grew back. Small Maya Pentecostal congregations formed in society’s remnants, an effort at recovery that one pastor referred to as “trench faith.” In abandoned storefronts, private houses, or even palm-front shacks, local leaders built makeshift churches. In congregations shaped around local knowledge but with a Protestant theology and sensibility, people found ways to reconstruct shattered lives and to wrest meaning and road maps for a better life from the moral chaos of violence. The fact that what some have called “Catholic Pentecostalism”—Catholic Charismatic Renewal—has also taken off dramatically and is today the fastest-growing form of Catholic religiosity in the region only gives credence to these ideas.60
Religion and Politics in Postconflict Central America
Central America’s “crisis” ended in in the 1990s, bringing an end to hostilities but not tranquility to the region. In the years since, the decades of warfare in Central America’s “northern triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have left a long legacy of criminality, gang conflict, families disrupted by large-scale outmigration, drug trafficking (often involving former security force members who were once involved in the wars), domestic violence, and “femicidio”—perplexing, mortal violence against women—that today makes the region (at least in the north) one of the most dangerous in the world. Moreover, because of its geographical location, Central America is uniquely affected by climate change; year by year, hurricanes and tropical storms lash the isthmus with storms of unprecedented destructive fury, while abruptly changing patterns in rainfall and temperature affect agricultural productivity in each of the countries, all of which are still dependent on agricultural commodities as their main source of national revenue. All of these factors contribute to make Central America (with the possible of exception of Costa Rica, still a regional outlier for its solid political stability and the relative overall welfare of its people) one of the most economically and socially fragile regions in the Americas. Four Central American cities—San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, Honduras, San Salvador, and Guatemala City, Guatemala—rank in the top ten most dangerous metropolises in the world outside a war zone (measured by number of murders per year for every one hundred thousand persons), with San Pedro Sula claiming the dubious title of number one, at 171 murders for every one hundred thousand people in 2014.61
Against this backdrop, religion again has begun to move to the fore. If conversion to Protestantism was indeed, as this article argues, in part a strategic response to anomie and social chaos in the late 20th century, it should come as no surprise that it has expanded rapidly through northern Central America during the chaotic postwar decades. While Pentecostals, in particular, have tended to remain aloof from politics, which they condemn as “worldly” and something to be avoided except for purposes of evangelization, the current sense of crisis now spurring some—if only a few—to involve themselves more directly is touching on issues of social justice.62 Pentecostal ministries to members of transnational gangs have been especially effective in helping to tame, on at least an individual level, one of contemporary Central America’s most pernicious social problems. Legitimate religious conversion, as Robert Brenneman has demonstrated, provides one of the only avenues for exit from a gang beyond that of “blood in, blood out”—that is to say, death.63 Prison ministries provide another venue for Pentecostal social activism, as prison administrators perceive that religious conversion in prison seems to provide some insulation from future recidivism.64 Unlike Protestants in such places as Brazil and Colombia, however, Central American Protestants have not formed effective political coalitions and, with a few exceptions, have not aspired to do so. The taint of historical memory may be one of several reasons why they have not.
After decades of regrouping and general redirection of Central American Catholicism to charismatic renewal and to much more conservative and apolitical expressions of the faith, such as the expansion of Opus Dei, an activist Catholicism is also experiencing something of a renewal, although sometimes in unexpected directions. (One of the most startling representatives of this trend is Nicaragua’s current president Daniel Ortega, a former Sandinista guerrilla. Ortega, raised Catholic, “converted” to Catholicism in 2005 and now uses expressly religious language and imagery in speeches and (some say cannily) supports conservative Catholic policies. During his administration, for example, Nicaragua outlawed all abortion, which had been legal for “therapeutic” reasons prior to that time.65 In El Salvador the Catholic Church led the government in brokering a truce between the country’s two most powerful gangs in 2012; although the truce held for only a little less than two years, it temporarily brought a respite from El Salvador’s horrific murder rate and also signaled a new willingness on the part of some church actors to actively engage again on behalf of society’s most pressing social issues.66
Certainly, the work of Catholic-sponsored alberges in Mexico, such as P. Alejandro Solalinde’s Hermanos en el Camino refuge for Central American migrants, offers clear evidence of the church’s continued, or perhaps renewed, commitment to the poor and voiceless.67 Solalinde, whom some call the “Oscar Romero of migrants,” suffers regular threats and was forced to leave Mexico in 2012 for his own protection, although he returned after only two months. He has written, “The greatest challenge that I must overcome is the intimidation, the harassment, and the constant lack of respect from people who do not want my work helping migrants to succeed. Many local authorities, gangs, and drug traffickers would love to free themselves from the defenders of human rights.”68 Under a Latin American pope, such sentiments suggest that it is quite possible that at least certain sectors of the Central American Catholic Church may return to a more activist stance, in the words of Bishop Oscar Romero, “to bring about justice and peace to our people.”
Discussion of the Literature
The discussion of Christianity in Central America—the salient topics of liberation theology and, to a lesser extent, Protestantism—follows two divergent currents across a variety of disciplines. During the 1980s, the literature on Central American history and the role of the Catholic Church in the region expanded exponentially, as scholars responded to the armed conflicts, the “Central American crisis,” and what was considered by many to be the largely unanticipated role that revolutionary Christianity played in Nicaragua. The assassination of Archbishop Romero also fed this stream of literature on the topic. Foremost among these is the pioneering work of the journalist Penny Lernoux, whose 1982 Cry of the People: The Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America: The Catholic Church in Conflict with U.S. Policy introduced this topic in a readily digestible format to a popular readership and to many academics for the first time.69 Among the seminal academic works are the books of sociologist and former priest Phillip Berryman, such as The Religious Roots of Rebellion and his later, more historicized Stubborn Hope.70 Several works by political scientist Daniel Levine look at religion in Latin America more broadly and establish a broad conceptual framework that is still used by many scholars today.71 By the end of the 1980s, as the crisis began to wind down, the outpouring of literature on Central America and on religion, or at least Catholicism, in the region slowed to a trickle. Although there have been a number of good monographs published on the intersection of religion and politics in the 20th century since that time—the work of Manuel Vásquez, Anna Peterson, and Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens come immediately to mind—the lion’s share of this article is based largely on this earlier corpus of writing, as amplified and updated by the research of Virginia Garrard-Burnett.72
The second body of literature that this chapter draws from is the emergent scholarship on Protestantism in Latin America, a topic that had scarcely any representation in the literature in the early 1980s, save in the seminal books by Christian Lalive d’Epinay (Haven of the Masses) and Emilio Willems (Followers of the New Faith) on Brazil and Chile, which were both published in the late 1960s.73 In 1990, however, two groundbreaking studies, one by David Stoll, Is Latin America Turning Protestant?, and one by David Martin, Tongues of Fire, along with Harvey Cox’s study of Pentecostalism, Fire from Heaven, opened the floodgates to a multiplicity of studies on Protestantism in Latin America.74 These works, in general, have been produced by sociologists, anthropologists, religious studies scholars, and political scientists and not by historians, although the important scholarship of historian R. Andrew Chesnut, who does not focus on Central America, and Carlos Garma Navarro, who works on Mexico, prove the exception to this rule.75 Except for the monograph Protestantism in Guatemala: Living in the New Jerusalem, by Virginia Garrard-Burnett, few historians working in English have tackled this topic for Central America, although works in Spanish by scholars such as Manuela Cantón Delgado, Virgilio Zapata, and Heinrich Schäffer, a German sociologist published in Spanish, offer deep readings of religion’s role during the Central American crisis.76 New work by Stephen Dove on Guatemala does much to remedy that lag in the English literature, while religious studies scholar Kevin Lewis O’Neill’s work City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala advances the discussion to contemporary times.77 That said, scholars in other disciplines—most recently Henri Gooren for Nicaragua; Everett A. Wilson and Ronald Bueno for El Salvador; and Timothy Steigenga, Karla Koll, and C. Mathew Samson for Guatemala—have all contributed significantly to the field from their respective disciplinary silos.78 Scholars of religion more broadly, such as Donald Miller and Tetsunuo Yamamori, who write on global Pentecostalism, and Kate Bowler, whose work focuses on prosperity theology in the United States, advance our theoretical understanding of these historical trajectories.79 The recent work of Todd Hartch, The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity, nicely traces many of these movements.80
The future of the field lies in two directions. The impending canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero, against the backdrop of Pope Francis’s papacy—who is not only the first Latin American pope but also a pope whose spiritual and professional formation took place in the crucible of the liberation theology years—promises to evoke new interest, both popular and scholarly, about the relation between the church and politics in Latin America. These new studies may not necessarily focus on Central America specifically, although this possibility should not be dismissed out of hand. More important, we should anticipate new types of study that transcend classic disciplinary boundaries, freely utilizing history, ethnography, and the tools of the “hard” social sciences to explore these interstices in new and dynamic ways, much as Jennifer Scheper Hughes’s recent work Biography of a Mexican Crucifix has done for southern Mexico.81 The recent publication of Douglass Sullivan-Gonzales study on the Black Christ of Esquipulas—Guatemala’s patron image and one that also serves as a simulacrum of racial divisions and perceptions, along with being a powerful, if shifting political symbol—signals that the new currents of scholarly literature may very well take us in precisely that direction.
Many of the primary sources for this chapter are published items. There is an extensive body of writing produced by and about clergy who were engaged with liberation theology. There are, for example, several published transcripts of Archbishop Romero’s sermons, and his weekly broadcast messages are available through San Salvador’s Museo de Palabra y Imagin, which is a treasure trove of recent Salvadoran history.
Biographies and letters written by priests from this period are numerous and readily available. Among others, Fathers Fernando Hoyos, Rutilio Grande, and Stanley Rother, all of whom died during the armed conflicts, are the subjects of biographies that make ample use of their sermons and letters and provide them verbatim. Former revolutionary priests, such as Blase Bonpane (Guatemala) and James “Guadalupe” Carney, a priest who died with rebel forces in Honduras, published autobiographies and firsthand accounts of their work among the poor.82 Some revolutionary priests wrote their reflections many years later: the memoirs of Nicaragua’s Fernando Cardenal, in particular, offer a valuable first-person perspective, rendered through the lens of time. The written works of El Salvador’s six martyred Jesuits, especially that of the intellectually exceptional and prolific Ignacio Ellacuría, speak so eloquently for themselves that they also serve as a type of primary source.83
Likewise, published transcripts of Guatemala’s General Efraín Ríos Montt of the “Sunday sermons” in which he articulated a Pentecostal-infused vision of a “new Guatemala” are available, although now they are generally difficult to find; the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas includes a copy. Beyond that, the individual histories of churches and pastors and the testimonios of converts and church members are typically accessible not only at local church archives (a quest that often comes up short) but increasingly via multimedia and online documents.
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- Samson, C. Mathews. Re-Enchanting the World: Maya Protestantism in the Guatemalan Highlands. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007.
- Sanford, Victoria. Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
- Schäfer, Heinrich. Entre dos fuegos: Una historia socio-política de la Iglesia evangélica nacional presbiteriana de Guatemala. Guatemala City: CEDEPCA, 2002.
- Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops. The Church in the Present-Day Transformation of Latin America in the Light of the Council: Conclusions. 3d ed. Washington, DC: Secretariat for Latin American National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1979.
- Servicio Evangelizador para América Latina (SEPAL). La hora de Dios para Guatemala. Guatemala City: SEPAL, 1983.
- Sobrino, Jon, and Ignacio Ellacuría. Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990.
- Solalinde, Alejandro. Albergue de migrantes Hermanos en el Camino. October 2009.
- Sparks, Garry. “Xalqat B’e and the Theologia Indorum: Crossroads between Maya Spirituality and the Americas’ First Theology.” PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2011.
- Steigenga, Timothy J., and Edward L. Cleary, eds. Conversion of a Continent: Contemporary Religious Change in Latin America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.
- Stoll, David. Is Latin America Turning Protestant? The Politics of Evangelical Growth. Stanford: University of California Press, 1990.
- Stoll, David. Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala. New York: Columbia University Press,1993.
- Sullivan-Gonazales, Douglass. The Black Christ of Esquipulas: Religion and Identity in Guatemala. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016.
- Thorsen, Jakob Egeris. Charismatic Practice and Catholic Parish Life: The Incipient Pentecostalization of the Church in Guatemala and Latin America. Amsterdam: Brill, 2015.
- Vásquez, Manuel A., and Anna L. Peterson. “Oscar Romero and the Politics of Sainthood.” Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts and Contemporary Worlds 5.3 (2009): 265–291.
- Vásquez, Manuel A., Anna L. Peterson, and Philip J. Williams, eds. Christianity, Social Change, and Globalization in the Americas. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.
- Vela Casteñeda, Manolo E. Los pelotones de la muerte. Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2014.
- Weber, Stephen J. José Napoleon Duarte and the Christian Democratic Party in El Salvadorian Politics. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1979.
- Whitfield, Theresa. Paying the Price: Ignacio Ellacuría and the Murdered Jesuits of El Salvador. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.
- Wilkinson, David. Silence on the Mountains: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.
- Willems, Emilio. Followers of the New Faith: Culture Change and the Rise of Protestantism in Brazil and Chile. Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1967.
- Wilson, Everett A. “Sanguine Spirits: Pentecostalism in El Salvador,” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 52.2 (1983): 186–198
- Wynn, Peter. Americas: The Changing Face of Latin America and the Caribbean. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
- Zapata Arceyuz, Virgilio. Historia de la obra evangélica en Guatemala. Guatemala City: Génesis Publicidad, 1982.
- Zwerling, Philip, and Connie Martin. Nicaragua: A New Kind of Revolution. Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill, 1985.
1. John Lloyd Mecham, Church and State in Latin America (1934; repr., Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966), 308.
2. See Garry Sparks, “Xalqat B’e and the Theologia Indorum: Crossroads between Maya Spirituality and the Americas’ First Theology” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2011).
3. See José Gil, “Un mito de la sociedad costarricense: El culto a la Virgen de los Angeles (1824–1935),” Revista de Historia 11 (1985): 47–129.
4. See Bonar L. Hernández Sandoval, “Re-Christianizing Society: The Institutional and Popular Revival of Catholicism in Guatemala, 1920–1968” (PhD diss., University of Texas, 2011).
5. Mecham, Church and State in Latin America, 325.
6. Robert C. Broderick, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1987), 523.
7. See Jeremy Bonner, Mary Beth Fraser Connolly, and Christopher Denny, eds., Empowering the People of God: Catholic Action before and after Vatican II (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 2.
8. See Jacques Maritain, Humanisme integral (1936; repr., Paris: Les Edicions du Cerf, Collection Classiques du Christianisme, 2006).
9. Alberto Masferrer, El minimum vital: Su definición y alcance (Guatemala City: Talleres de Diario de Central America, 1929). See Karen Racine, “Alberto Masferrer and the Vital Minimum: The Life and Thought of a Salvadoran Journalist, 1868–1932,” The Americas, 54.2 (October 1997): 209–237.
10. See Victoria Ramírez Avedaño, Jorge Volio y la revolución vivente (San Pedro, Costa Rica:: Guayacán, 1989).
11. Eugene D. Miller, A Holy Alliance? The Church and the Left in Costa Rica, 1932–1948 (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1996).
12. See Phillip Berryman, The Religious Roots of Rebellion: Christians in the Central America Revolutions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1984).
13. Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: Origin and Revolution (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1982), 101.
14. Michael Dodson and Laura Nuzzi O’Shaughnessy, Nicaragua’s Other Revolution: Religious Faith and Political Struggle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 120.
15. Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops, The Church in the Present-Day Transformation of Latin America in the Light of the Council: Conclusions, 3d ed. (Washington, DC: Secretariat for Latin American National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1979).
16. See Stephen J. Weber, José Napoleon Duarte and the Christian Democratic Party in El Salvadorian Politics (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1979).
17. Blase Bonpane, Guerrillas of Peace: Liberation Theology and the Central American Revolution (Boston: South End Press, 1985), 45–47.
18. John Booth, The End and the Beginning: The Nicaraguan Revolution (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1982), p. 85.
19. Ernesto Cardenal, El Evangelio en Solentiname (Salamanca, Spain: Ediciones Sigueme, 1976).
20. See Berryman, “Free Country or Death,” in his The Religious Roots of Rebellion, 51–89.
21. Dodson and O’Shaughnessy, Nicaragua’s Other Revolution, 128.
22. Fernando Cardenal, personal conversation, February 5, 2009.
23. Fernando Cardenal. Sacerdote en la revolución, vol. 1 (Managua, Nicaragua: Anamá Editoriales, 2008), 88.
24. Philip Zwerling and Connie Martin, Nicaragua: A New Kind of Revolution (Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill, 1985), 29. The priests in the Sandinista government included Edgard Parrales, Nicaraguan ambassador to the OAS; Ernesto Cardenal, minister of culture; Fernando Cardenal, director of the national literacy crusade; and Miguel D’Escoto, foreign minister.
25. Peter Wynn, Americas: The Changing Face of Latin America and the Caribbean (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 390.
26. Josephine McKenna, “Pope Francis Lifts 29-Year Suspension of Liberation Theology Icon,” Religion News Service August 4, 2014.
27. Dodson and O’Shaughnessy, Nicaragua’s Other Revolution.
28. See María Dolores Albiac, Los ricos más ricos de El Salvador (San Salvador, El Salvador: Fundación Heinrich Böll, 1998).
29. Manuel A. Vásquez and Anna L. Peterson, “Oscar Romero and the Politics of Sainthood,” Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts and Contemporary Worlds 5.3 (2009): 265–291.
30. John L. Allen, “Francis ‘Unblocks’ Romero’s Beatification, Official Says,” National Catholic Reporter, April 22, 2013.
31. Thomas Reese, “Oscar Romero, Martyr to the Faith,” National Catholic Reporter, February 6, 2015.
32. For a much more thorough discussion of the role of the church in Salvadoran politics, see Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador; Berryman, The Religious Roots of Rebellion; and James Dunkerly, The Long War. Dictatorship and Revolution in El Salvador (London: Junction Books, 1982).
33. Theresa Whitfield, Paying the Price: Ignacio Ellacuría and the Murdered Jesuits of El Salvador. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), 103.
34. See Santiago Mata, Monseñor Óscar Romero: Pasión por la Iglesia, (Madrid: Ediciones Palabra, 2015).
35. See Thomas M. Kelly, “Challenging the Status Quo: How Rutilio Grande, S.J., Used Scripture to Address Socio-Economic Inequality,” in “The Bible, the Economy and the Poor,” supplement 10, Journal of Church and State Supplement Series, 16 (2014): 179–189.
36. Anna L. Peterson, Martyrdom and the Politics of Religion: Progressive Catholicism in El Salvador’s Civil War (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1996), 63.
37. Oscar A. Romero, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements, trans. Michael J. Walsh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985).
38. Ibid., 109.
39. Ibid., 107–108.
40. Tejiendo la memoria 14: Monseñor Romero, la voz por los sin voz, Audio recording, Human Rights Documentation Initiative, University of Texas Libraries.
41. John Dear, Lazarus, Come Forth! How Jesus Confronts the Culture of Death and Invites Us into the New Life of Peace (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), 146.
42. Oscar Romero, “Archbishop Oscar Romero, Last Homily, March 24, 1980.” In Liberation Theology: A Documentary History, ed. and trans. Alfred T. Hennelly (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990), 304–306. An audio recording of this and many of Romero’s homilies is available on Tejiendo la memoria 14: Monseñor Romero, la voz por los sin voz, Museo de Palabra y Imagen (San Salvador), and digitally.
43. James R. Brockman, Romero: A Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989), 241–242.
44. See Jon Sobrino, Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990).
45. Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala, Never Again: Recovery of the Historical Memory Project (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999).
46. Quoted in Kevin Clark, Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014), 48.
47. Pew Research Center, “Religious Affiliations of Latin American and US Hispanics,” in “Religion in Latin America: Widespread Change in a Historically Catholic Region,” November 13, 2014.
48. Enrique Domínguez and Deborah Huntington, “The Salvation Brokers: Conservative Evangelicals in Central America,” NACLA 17.1 (1984): 2–36.
49. Mecham, Church and State in Latin America, p. 326.
50. See Servicio Evangelizador para América Latina (SEPAL), La hora de Dios para Guatemala (Guatemala City: SEPAL, 1983).
51. Daniel Rothenberg, ed., Memory of Silence: The Guatemalan Truth Commission Report (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 188.
52. Virginia Garrard-Burnett, Protestantism in Guatemala: Living in the New Jerusalem (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998), 100–119.
53. See Virginia Garrard-Burnett, “Under God’s Thumb: The 1976 Guatemala Earthquake,” in Aftershocks: Earthquakes and Popular Politics in Latin America, ed. Lyman Johnson and Jürgen Buchenau, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009), 156–183.
54. Deborah Levenson-Estrada, “Reactions to Trauma: The 1976 Earthquake in Guatemala,” International Labor and Working Class History 62 (2002): 60–68.
55. See PROCLADES, Proyecto Centroamericano de Estudios Socio-Religiosos (San José, Costa Rica: Servicio Evangelizador para América Latina, 1981).
56. Technically, he took power with two other golpistas, who resigned, and Ríos Montt took the title of chief of state.
57. See Virginia Garrard-Burnett, Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit: Guatemala under General Efraín Ríos Montt, 1982–1983 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
58. See Virginia Garrard-Burnett, Protestantism in Guatemala.
59. See David Stoll, Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), and Tomás Guzaro and Terri Jacob McComb, Escaping the Fire: How an Ixil Mayan Pastor Led His People out of a Holocaust during the Guatemalan Civil War (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010). For more on Guatemala’s armed conflict, see Victoria Sanford, Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); David Wilkinson, Silence on the Mountains: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); and Manolo E. Vela Casteñeda, Los pelotones de la muerte (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2014).
60. See Jakob Egeris Thorsen, Charismatic Practice and Catholic Parish Life: The Incipient Pentecostalization of the Church in Guatemala and Latin America (Amsterdam: Brill, 2015).
61. “Latin American Cities Are the Most Dangerous Cities in the World,” November 12, 2014. See also Amanda Macias and Pamela Engle, “The Fifty Most Violent Cities in the World,” Business Insider, January 23, 2015.
62. See Kevin Lewis O’Neill, City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010). See also Ronald Bueno, “Translating Pentecost into Social Engagement in El Salvador: Community Service as a New and Contested Ritual,” (paper presented at Regent University, Norfolk, Virginia, February 28, 2014).
63. Robert Brenneman, Homies to Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
64. Andrew R. Johnson, “If I Give My Soul: Pentecostalism inside of Prison in Rio de Janeiro” (PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 2012).
65. See Henri Gooren, “Ortega for President: The Religious Rebirth of Sandinismo in Nicaragua” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 89 (October 2010): 47–63; see also Karen Kampwirth, “Abortion, Antifeminism, and the Return of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Leftist Politics?,” Latin American Perspectives 35.6 (November 2008): 122–136.
66. Nina Lakhani, “El Salvador Sees Most Deadly Month in 10 Years As Violence Overwhelms Nation,” Guardian, April 4, 2015.
67. See Laura Valeria González-Murphy, Protecting Immigrant Rights in Mexico: Understanding the State-Civil Society Nexus (New York: Routledge, 2013), 93.
68. Alejandro Solalinde, October 2009.
69. Penny Lernoux, Cry of the People: The Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America: The Catholic Church in Conflict with U.S. Policy (New York: Penguin, 1982).
70. Berryman, The Religious Roots of Rebellion; Phillip Berryman, Stubborn Hope: Religion, Politics, and Revolution in Central America, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994).
71. Daniel H. Levine, Religion and Political Conflict in Latin America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1986), and Daniel H. Levine, Politics, Religion and Society in Latin America, (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2012).
72. See, for example, Peterson, Martyrdom and the Politics of Religion; Manuel A. Vásquez, Anna L. Peterson, and Philip J. Williams, eds., Christianity, Social Change, and Globalization in the Americas (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007); and Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens, The Maryknoll Catholic Mission in Peru, 1943–1989 (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012).
73. Christian Lalive d’Epinay, Haven of the Masses: A Study of the Pentecostal Movement in Chile (London: Lutterworth, 1969), and Emilio Willems, Followers of the New Faith: Culture Change and the Rise of Protestantism in Brazil and Chile (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1967).
74. David Stoll, Is Latin America Turning Protestant? The Politics of Evangelical Growth (Stanford: University of California Press, 1990); David Martin, Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America (London: Basil Blackwell, 1990); and Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1995).
75. See R. Andrew Chesnut, Born Again in Brazil: The Pentecostal Boom and the Pathogens of Poverty in Brazil (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997), and Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); and Carlos Garma Navarro, Buscando el espíritu: Pentacostalismo en Iztapalapa y la ciudad de México (Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Iztapalapa, 2004).
76. Manuela Cantón Delgado, Bautizados en el fuego: Discursos de conversion y política en Guatemala, 1989–1993 (Antigua, Guatemala: CIRMA, 1998); Virgilio Zapata Arceyuz, Historia de la obra evangélica en Guatemala (Guatemala City: Génesis Publicidad, 1982); Heinrich Schäfer, Entre dos fuegos: Una historia socio-política de la Iglesia evangélica nacional presbiteriana de Guatemala (Guatemala City: CEDEPCA, 2002); Virginia Garrard-Burnett, Protestantism in Guatemala; Timothy J. Steigenga and Edward L. Cleary, eds., Conversion of a Continent: Contemporary Religious Change in Latin America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007).
77. Stephen C. Dove, “Local Believers, Foreign Missionaries, and the Creation of Guatemalan Protestantism, 1882–1944,” (PhD diss., University of Texas, 2012); O’Neill, City of God.
78. Henri Gooren, Religious Conversion and Disaffiliation: Tracing Patterns of Change in Faith Practices (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010); Everett A. Wilson, “Sanguine Spirits: Pentecostalism in El Salvador,” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, 52.2 (1983): 186–198; Ronald Bueno, “Listening to the Margins: Re-historicizing Pentecostal Experiences and Identities,” in The Globalization of Pentecostalism: A Religion Made to Travel, ed. M. W. Dempster, B. D. Klaus, and D. Petersen (Carlisle, UK: Regnum, 1999); Karla Ann Koll, “Struggling for Solidarity: Changing Mission Relationships between the Presbyterian Church (US) and Christian Organizations in Central America during the 1980s” (PhD diss., Princeton University, 2004); and C. Mathews Samson, Re-Enchanting the World: Maya Protestantism in the Guatemalan Highlands (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007).
79. Donald E. Miller and Tetsunao Yamamori, Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); and Kate Bowler, Blessed: The History of American Prosperity Gospel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
80. Todd Hartch, The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
81. Jennifer Scheper Hughes, Biography of a Mexican Crucifix: Lived Religion and Local Faith from the Conquest to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
82. Bonpane, Guerrillas of Peace; and J. Guadalupe Carney, To Be a Revolutionary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985).
83. Jon Sobrino, and Ignacio Ellacuría, Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990).