Posted August 17, 2006
Interview with Samuel Escobar
Conducted August 14, 2006
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
What explains the growth of Protestantism in Latin America?
One way of explaining it would be the pastoral failure of the Catholic
Church, which does not have the resources to educate the people in the faith.
They have a religious sensibility, but are often basically unattached to the
church, and consequently they look for alternatives. The Catholic Church
recently carried out a study of more than 1,000 converts to Protestantism in
Latin America, which concluded that if the Catholic Church had offered deeper
Bible study, better worship and more personal attention, these people would not
have converted. One factor in this pastoral failure is obviously the shortage
[Note: In 2001, there were 7,176 Catholics for every priest in Latin
America, compared to 1,325 Catholics per priest in the United States, according
to official Vatican statistics.]
A deeper reason is the way Christianity was implanted in all of Latin
America. There was never really a complete missionary effort the way the
missionary orders envisioned it. It was done quickly in order to turn the
Indians into subjects of the King, and to collect their tithes. There was no
real missionary process that made people understand the faith.
But that was four hundred years ago. Surely the church has had
opportunities to catch up in the meantime?
That’s true. But one also has to recall what happened to Iberian
Catholicism when it was imported here. In Latin America, it’s
characterized by a kind of superficial church allegiance, which under the right
conditions turns into syncretism. In earlier eras, this was described as
“popular religiosity.” In general, the colonial church was weak and
not really interested in mission. Those interested in true mission were a
minority, and so catechesis and education in the faith never received sustained
attention except in isolated pockets.
Some argue that today’s conversions to Protestantism are equally
superficial, and that many of these people will eventually return.
That would be a possibility. There’s a recent study in Costa Rica
of people who deserted the Catholic Church for the evangelical churches, which
was carried out by a Protestant team. It found that eight percent of Costa
Ricans who at one point joined a Protestant church eventually left, some to
return to Catholicism, while others moved on to something else.
In general, however, experience shows that most Latin Americans who
become evangelicals endure, because they find a different approach to the
understanding of faith and the church. For one thing, evangelical Christianity
in Latin America is very much a movement of lay people. Of course, there are
pastors, many of whom don’t have as complete a theological training as
Catholic priests. But in general, evangelicals rely on their ability to
mobilize the people. Protestantism is also more home-grown. In Peru, for
example, 60 percent of Catholic priests are foreigners -- Spaniards, Americans,
Canadians, and so on. The number is just 10 percent in the Protestant
I was in Peru two summers ago and read a study of the bishops’
conference on the growth of evangelical Protestantism, which asserted that one
factor was a conscious policy on the part of the American government and
American Protestants to undercut Latin American Catholicism. What do you
That’s what we call a conspiracy theory. In fact, those groups that
have grown the most dramatically are not related to Protestant bodies in the
United States. Those with the most expansive power are national bodies, with
little or no contact with North American Protestantism. There are some American
denominations that have made considerable missionary efforts, but the bulk of
Latin American Protestantism is not an American product. The pastors and
leaders are almost entirely native, which disperses the conspiracy theory.
What else explains the Protestant expansion?
It’s connected with the growth of cities. New arrivals in the
cities in recent decades were disoriented, away from their familiar
environment, and also from the traditional means of social control. Many of
them found a home in the evangelical churches, which became in some ways a home
for the homeless. The correlation between urbanization and the growth of
Protestantism has been clear since the 1950s, and has accelerated in recent
years. They found a spiritual home in evangelical Christianity.
These people underwent a conversion experience in which they became
masters of their own life. It put an end to an old way of living. Their
decision to accept Christ meant a change in patters of behavior which helped
people to reorient their lives. David Martin talks about this in his book
Tongues of Fire.
What kind of behavioral changes do you have in mind?
For example, ending alcoholism, which is a major problem among the urban
poor. Also, becoming better parents, better husbands, and in general developing
a stronger sense of personal morality. Non-Protestant sociologists have studied
this, and it continues to be the case.
Some Catholic observers say there’s an additional factor in the
attrition -- the impact of liberation theology, which they believe
“politicized” the church and drove some percentage of the middle and
upper classes into Protestantism. True?
There may be some truth in that, but I think it has to be qualified.
Liberation theology had its high point in 1968, when the Latin American bishops
in Medellín committed to the “preferential option for the
poor.” In turn, Medellín stemmed from what happened in 1955, when
the Catholic Church recognized that it was losing both to Protestantism and to
Communism. The working class and the young both seemed more attracted to
Marxism than to the church. The bishops asked for help from abroad. In Peru,
for example, they went to the United States and asked for missionary priests to
come to the country as a kind of “tithe.” The idea was to save these
people from Communism. These foreign missionaries were sent to work with the
poorest of the poor, and when they got there, they discovered that the problem
was not Communism but rather that the church was part of the oppressive
structures of society. Influenced by these foreign missionaries, the bishops
decided to realign themselves with the poor. In some forms, this choice became
highly politicized, and they forgot about the spiritual dimension -- that is,
people need a spiritual experience from the church, not just political
guidance. This produced the popular saying that the Catholic Church opted for
the poor, and the poor opted for the Pentecostals!
At the same time, however, I’m very conscious that liberation
theology responded to a reality in Latin America. We still have the pastoral
question of poverty.
Are you saying that it’s unfair to blame liberation theology for
the declines in the Catholic Church?
Yes, I think it’s unfair. For example, the small Christian
communities that were one of the fruits of liberation theology are one of the
areas in Catholicism in which there has been new life, and a new commitment to
the basics of the faith, with an effort to turn that commitment into social
awareness. Civil society in Latin America owes much to these small Christian
communities, which have their parallels in Protestantism.
Will the growth in Protestantism in Latin American continue?
Two things need to be said.
First, there’s a new phenomenon in Latin American Protestantism,
which is the emergence of new charismatic mega-churches, which is not typical
of the Protestant churches of the past. They have some similarities with the
mega-churches in the United States, though the strongly charismatic element
makes them different.
These mega-churches in Latin America appeal to some deep-seated aspects
of Catholic culture. For one thing, they rely on symbols such as blessed water,
which classical Protestantism shunned. They also feature a more authoritarian
pastoral style and a denial of the priesthood of all believers, which has
historically been a key element of Protestant churches.
We might say, therefore, that Protestantism will continue to grow in
Latin America, but what will grow is not classical Protestantism as we have
Second, Latin American Protestantism faces a serious pastoral challenge.
People are coming to the churches, so the numbers are increasing, but they have
very basic pastoral needs. Like in Catholicism, some of these Protestant
churches may fail if they don’t develop a pastoral strategy that comes out
of a reflective theological approach.
What should be the top priority?
Education in the faith. In Peru, for example, a charismatic pastor
recently got 500,000 votes in national elections. That’s real political
clout, but it’s not coupled to any deep theological understanding of
relations between church and state, between religion and public life, which
could under gird this political action. It has to go deeper.
Why is the charismatic element so appealing to Latin
It appeals to the continent’s Catholic culture. It relies on
symbols, which doesn’t come naturally for most Protestants, who stress the
Word and the proclamation of the Word. Maybe it’s a better ‘fit’
for the post-modern world that’s developing. It doesn’t care much
about history or theology in the classic sense, but it appeals to post-modern
attitudes -- emotion over reason, the individual over tradition, and so on.
What will the rise of the south mean for global Christianity?
The real significance of what it means to be global, plural, and
‘catholic,’ will have to be understood in a new way. The Catholic
Church in particular has had a way of existing in which elements of uniformity
have had the upper hand. It has even had a single language, Latin. There’s
a unity which comes from a center that defines things. But the church of the
first century was not like that. The Protestant scholar Justo Gonzalez has
written on why there are four gospels rather than one. He says the point was
‘catholicity,’ meaning the capacity to respond to different contexts.
Today, there’s a need for Christians to have their own way of being
Africans, Asians, Americans, and still be part of the church. In other words,
this is testing catholicity. It will have to be understood in a new way.
Protestantism faces the same challenge, and perhaps the mega-churches may be a
new shape of Protestantism that eventually finds theological expression.
What are the characteristics of southern Christianity?
Expression in worship is very different. Feeling is more important than
thinking, and the emotional is more important than the rational. There’s a
stronger sense of the church as a body, that we belong to one another here in
the church, that we are brothers and sisters. This is of course also said in
North America, but it may be truer in theory than in practice.
We can get some glimpse of all this in the United States through the
experience of African-American Christianity. If you go to these long services,
often three hours or more, it’s totally different from white Christianity.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Philadelphia, and there’s been a slow
process of mutual discovery there. This will happen on a global scale.
For some, this change in perspective is difficult. Some believe that
anyone who’s not like us is not really a Christian. But it’s futile,
because there’s already a process of change underway. In Protestantism,
for example, we see this in recent evolution in music and worship expressions,
which reflect the encounter with the rest of the world.
How will the typical white Christian in, say, Kansas City feel the
For one thing, they may find the global church in their own backyard.
Given the realities of global migration, today we find African, Asian and Latin
American Christians everywhere. The question becomes, how will the traditional
congregations in Middle America have fellowship with that strange church down
the street? They’re very different, but they still have something in
common. Can we recognize that these people with a very different way of
practicing their faith are still Christians, and we may have something to learn
from them? It’s a humbling experience to realize that this other way of
being Christian is also legitimate, also a valid expression of the faith.
It’s all there in Paul’s letter to the Romans -- the
multiplicity of cultures, the oneness and richness of a new global reality.
Let me test some impressions of southern Christianity on you. Are
Christians in the developing world generally more theologically conservative,
especially on sexual morality?
I think so, and it’s generally true across the board. Immigrants
from Africa, Asia and Latin America tend to choose more conservative churches
in the United States and Canada. Indian churches are more conservative on these
issues. It’s also true that Eastern European churches are more
conservative than Western churches. When it comes to personal morality,
therefore, the growth of a global church will probably mean a harder line.
In Spain, to take just one small example, the Romanian Baptists
won’t drink wine, and they don’t let men and women sit together at
services. These are certainly not the classical patterns of Spanish
Why is this?
It’s difficult to say. In general, southern Christianity is closer
to Biblical patterns of thought. Its way of reading scripture does not make
much room for higher criticism, or a modern approach that takes away the
supernatural elements and rationalizes everything. It’s a way of reading
scripture that some might call “naďve,” in the sense of not
The strong stress on the supernatural is also a fact. In a context where
medical services are very limited, for example, people view sickness with a
different attitude. They believe that behind health issues, God can act.
It’s not only a matter of going to the doctor, but of asking God for
health. Southern Christians enter into the mystery of the supernatural; they
have an awareness of it, and take into account in daily life.
In the West, we seed a form of this approach in the charismatic
movement, and its growth suggests there’s openness to this way of seeing
the supernatural also in the West, despite being a highly secularized society.
Reason and modernity clearly have not given answers to all of life’s
Another impression of southern Christianity: On political and
diplomatic questions, southern Christians often see their people as victims of
the established global order, which among other things suggests that as
southerners take up leadership positions in Christian bodies, they may push
them into more critical positions regarding American foreign policy and
commercial interests. True?
I think so. Southern Christianity generally believes that religion
should apply to all areas of life, so that justice questions have to be dealt
with by the churches. That’s a fact. If I can tell just one brief story to
make the point, I used to teach hermeneutics in Peru to very poor catechists
from around the country. I once wrote the expression, “The poor you will
always have with you,” on the board and asked these poor teachers in the
village market what it meant. One poor lady said, ‘This means there will
always be exploiters in the world.’ If I had been among middle class
people in the north, the interpretation probably would have been different.
There’s a strong awareness of exploitation and oppression in Third World
Does this mean greater conflict with Western interests, especially
the United States?
Probably so. The church will not be able to avoid dealing with social
issues in those places where it has growth and development, and the
repercussions will be felt in the global church. This is one of the great
challenges: Will Christians in the West really hear the voices of Christians in
the rest of the world, or just continue their old way of life?
The relation between the faith and social issues is complicated, and the
theological articulation that puts these things together will take time, but
sooner or later the reaction will come. In Africa especially, there’s a
growing awareness of the intersection between Christianity and structural
Are southern Christians generally more interested in issues outside
the church than in internal debates?
I would say so, though of course southern leaders are often aware of the
inadequate balance of power in the church, which is an issue for them. Bishops
in the south have a desire to have their voice heard, to be present, to have
influence. This leads them to talk about internal questions.
Certainly the great concern is external, but one has to make a
distinction in the case of Latin America. There, theological reflection has
addressed ecclesiological issues. Take the Catholic theologian Leonardo Boff.
His Christology may be questionable, but what got him into trouble was his book
Church, Charism and Power, meaning his ecclesiology. Latin America is
different from Africa and Asia, because it inherited the long debate with
Protestantism that was part of the established form of Christianity in colonial
times. It thus has a more developed internal conversation.
Is southern Christianity generally less interested in ecumenism and
In the case of Latin America, it’s true that there’s less of a
tradition of ecumenical concern. It’s much like southern Europe -- Italy,
Spain and Portugal. Historically, where the Catholic Church finds itself a
majority, it has found it difficult to talk about religious freedom. At the
Second Vatican Council, the document on religious freedom came from an American
Jesuit, John Courtney Murray, who reflected a culture where the Catholic Church
was not established and there was a strong consciousness of religious freedom.
In Africa and Asia, Christians often represent a minority within a world
of other religious options. In Asia, it’s the great religions of the East,
while in Africa it’s Islam and traditional tribal religions. They tend to
be more open to cooperation and dialogue than in Latin America.
In Europe, ecumenism is a conversation with a long tradition of
institutions, journals, and so on, which is not the reality of Africa, Asia and
What’s the nature of southern ecumenism?
I would say that on issues of faith and order, there are differences
between the various Christian groups which are basically insurmountable. But on
issues of service, this is not the case. In Peru, for example, relations
between the Catholic Church and Protestants are very bad, almost non-existent.
But on a personal basis, when it comes to issues regarding children, the
defense of human rights, and so on, there’s a grassroots kind of ecumenism
that will continue, because of the seriousness of the issues at stake.
It’s an ad extra kind of ecumenism.
What about other religions?
Islam is a great mystery and a great challenge for global Christianity.
I would go so far as to say that the possibility of a truly global Christianity
is dependent upon how we react to Islam.
Islam cannot be global in the same way as Christianity. It is far more
conditioned by its relationship to a particular culture and language. It cannot
conceive of globality as Christians are able to understand it in light of the
Incarnation. The belief that Christ took up the human condition, making every
culture a potentially valid arena for his presence, provides the basis for the
living reality of a global church. It gives us the capacity to accept a wide
variety of expressions of the Christian faith, while still maintaining the
Christianity will be tested by Islam, and the question is whether Islam
will push Christianity into a kind of exaggerated uniformity. I think
we’ve seen this historically. Latin American Catholicism, for example, was
highly influenced by 800 years of the Islamic presence in Spain, which made
Iberian Catholicism more “Islamic” than other forms of European
Catholicism -- militant, closed, nationalistic. The question now is, will this
happen on a global scale?
National Catholic Reporter, Posted