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Underestimating the force of the New Evangelicals in the public sphere: Lessons from Colombia, South America

posted by Rebecca C. Bartel

Colombia Paz | Image copywrite Government of Venezuela via AULA Blog

“We, nosotros, we saved Colombia from being handed over to communists! We saved Colombia from the destructive power of the spirits of homosexuality. We saved the traditional family. We saved Colombia from the ideology of Homo-Castro-Chavismo.”

César Castellanos, the suave celebrity pastor of the Misión Carismática Internacional (MCI), Colombia’s fastest growing mega-church, recently spoke these words to a cheering crowd in Pasadena, California. In a crisp suit, Castellanos reveled in the recent success of a “No” campaign—the popular referendum that voted against the implementation of a peace agreement signed between the government and the insurgent rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). At the Send Us Your Rain convention of the MCI in Los Angeles, Castellanos shared how the evangelical churches had saved Colombia from certain iniquity. With all the bravado of being on the winning team, Castellanos declared: “Colombia was on the verge of becoming the next Venezuela! But we prevailed. Christians are the moral backbone of our society. And you are needed here in the United States now!” The crowd was on their feet, hands in the air, shouting their agreement.

The plebiscite was instated by President Juan Manuel Santos, a recently minted Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Hopes for the ratification of an historic peace agreement between the government and the FARC, the oldest insurgency movement in the Western hemisphere, were dashed when the No vote overtook the Yes vote on October 2. The vote, which was lost by fractions of a percentage point (50.2/49.7), was meant to solidify what President Santos assumed was overwhelming popular approval of the peace agreements. So confident was the Santos government that they had not even considered a Plan B. Yet the influence of the established center of power would demonstrate its fragility; a pattern that seems to be repeating itself the world over.

The peace agreements had been meticulously negotiated and mapped out over five years of talks between representatives of the Colombian government and the FARC. International experts had described the accords as some of the most comprehensive agreements, on par with Sudanese peace accords and the El Salvador Final peace agreement. The accords would bring an end to the civil war waged between the FARC and the government that had raged in the South American nation for over half a century. With seven million displaced, over two hundred and fifty thousand dead, and over one hundred thousand disappeared, the death toll in the Colombian war is so staggering, the thought of voting against an end to the violence was equally so. Even more so, given that these talks came in a long succession of failed attempts at peace between the Colombian government and the FARC—talks that had been attempted by most governments since the administration of Belisario Betancour in 1982.

Yet, the movement to oppose the implementation of the accords shored up significant allies, especially from the growing evangelical Christian right. The No movement was led by former president of the Republic, and staunch opponent to the Santos administration, Alvaro Uribe. Uribe was a notorious president and had governed an era (2002-2010) in which human rights abuses rose, extrajudicial killings escalated, and paramilitary groups were found to be colluding with the highest governmental offices. Uribe was also known for having courted conservative evangelical favor, especially in the growing mega-churches like Castellanos’s MCI enterprise. For many, the links between the No campaign and the evangelical Christian movement was a surprise. But for those who had been watching the rise of the evangelical right into spheres of public influence since the 1990s, the move was less of a shock. The fact that Uribe launched his “No” campaign at the MCI main church, to the chants of “Uribe! Uribe! Uribe!” was more like déjà vu than a surprising innovation. The MCI is where Uribe had been housing the launch of his campaigns—presidential, for the senate, and then for his “Uribista” political party (Centro Democrático)—since 2005.

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The official line of the No camp rested on the argument that to accept the accords was to acquiesce to total impunity. But it was more than that. Uribe argued that the FARC fighters would be given total amnesty, the financing to pay for their reintegration into society would fall on the poor tax-payer, and there was a real possibility that the FARC would be given control of the legislature. What Uribe had been referring to as “Castro-Chavismo” (in reference to Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela) was predicted to come to Colombia if the FARC were to be granted seats in Congress. This was a threat of communist governance that the evangelical right bristled at.

More vital, however, was the perceived threat of equal rights to LGBTI individuals, and the so-called “gender ideology” that the churches read into the peace accords. The church leadership preached to their congregants that the peace accords would embed the spirits of homosexuality and a “gender ideology” into the constitution of the country. The traditional family, so they preached, was under attack. With a simultaneous campaign led by the Ministry of Education to implement more progressive sexual education in the public school system, the conservative Christians linked these themes together and decried that purity of childhood education was under threat. The certainty of communist rule, replete with secular demagoguery and godless chaos, was an imposing possibility.

The leadership of the MCI, César and Claudia Castellanos, banded together with evangelical Christian leaders across the country. While the conservative Catholic church also resisted the ostensibly pro-equal rights agenda of the peace accords, it was the evangelical churches that rang the loudest alarm. And much of the consternation was rooted in hyperbole and misunderstanding of something called “gender ideology.” This term, according to the Christians, opened avenues for not only justifying “unnatural” family composition; “Gender ideology” would permit constitutional amendments that would consecrate abortion, same-sex marriage, same-sex couple adoption rights, and would threaten the very social fabric of the nation. As anthropologist, Winifred Tate writes, pamphlets from the No campaign read, “Colombia is in danger! Of falling under the control of a communist dictatorship and the imminent passage of a gender ideology.”

What the negotiators from the FARC and the government had agreed upon in the actual language of the accords was a “gender focus” that recognized a simple fact: women and underrepresented sexual minorities have experienced the armed conflict as victims in particular ways. Women’s bodies, especially, have been used as targets of violence. Members of the LGBTI community have been targeted because of their sexual identity. Sexual and gender-based violence is a real and underanalyzed concern that the current accords were intent on addressing. Reintegrating female combatants into civilian life must take these particular experiences into account. Addressing the concerns of female and LGBTI victims, according to the negotiators, necessarily considers an intersectional approach to reparation and reconciliation.

On the day of the vote, just over twelve million Colombians went to the polls. Edgar Castaño, president of the Colombian Confederation of Evangelicals, estimates that of the 6,422,136 votes for “No,” over four million were from evangelical churches. With the No vote triumphant, President Santos was forced back to the negotiating table, and this time the evangelical churches were invited to voice their concerns with the government. Of course, other factions that supported the No vote were also invited—the private sector that had worried about the economic impact of large-scale reintegration, large landowners who worried about losing territories through agrarian reforms, politicians from various conservative parties who had expressed consternation at loosely defined transitional justice protocols, and victims’ movements who wanted clearer details on reparations.

However, after an emergency meeting with FARC negotiators and head facilitator in Havana the day after the No vote won the referendum, President Santos’s first phone call was to evangelical pastors. Santos then met with fourteen of the most influential pastors from across the country in an extraordinary gathering. Pictures of the president meeting with evangelical leaders were widely distributed by media, iconic in their unprecedented candor. The message was clear: Evangelical Christianity is no longer a fringe movement of Pentecostal garage churches. Evangelical Christianity has become a political force to be reckoned with. Evangelical Christianity in Latin America has become a transnational moral majority that must be taken seriously, politically and in scholarly attention.

Anthropologists and scholars of Christianity in Latin America have been observing this shift for the last few decades. Already in 1990, David Stoll asked the question, “Is Latin America Turning Protestant?” In 2001, Andre Cortén and Ruth Marshall addressed the question of Pentecostalism from Africa to Latin America, wondering about its global impact. Since Joel Robbins’s clarion call in his 2003 article “What is a Christian?” there has been a veritable deluge of considered anthropological engagement with the New Religious Revival: conservative evangelical Christianity in the global south. However, studies of American religion and religion in Latin America remain stationed in geographical outposts. The disciplinary boundaries between religious studies and research into political economy hold their strength. These silos cause us to miss the transnationality of religion in the Americas, in all of its messiness and flow, in all of its political reality and co-constituting worlds of power and piety.

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In a convention center in Pasadena, California, an enthusiastic crowd of Latino/a, Filipino, and African-American Christians (and an occasional white anthropologist) cheered for the Colombian pastor who had defeated the threat of anti-Christian values at the risk of catapulting the country into another fifty years of war. César Castellanos raised his hand to quiet the crowd, and the tone changed. From triumphalist to fervent, Castellanos urged the faithful to intercede for the United States. He shared that on the day before the referendum vote was to take place in Colombia, he had been visiting an MCI franchise church in Saint Petersburgh, Russia. The Russian Christians, Castellanos admiringly commented, who had lived through the terror of communism and knew the dangerous power of a secular state, interceded for Colombia. And it worked. Castellanos rolled a video clip as evidence. Six Russian evangelical pastors were prostrated on a stage. The worship band played the universal chords that accompany intense moments of prayer, recognizable to evangelical Christians around the world. The pastors wept into the microphone, deep wracking sobs, and moaned prayers in Russian with the occasional word “Colombia” emerging. The camera pans to Castellanos, wiping his eyes, his shoulders shaking. The significance of Russian evangelicals praying for Colombia to be delivered from the clutch of communism was not lost on the crowd in California. And the fact that the Christians had pushed the vote over the edge to secure a victory for the No campaign was proof not only of the objective power of prayer, but that God was on their side.

The “New Evangelicals” in Colombia, in Russia, in the United States, may continue to remind the scholar of the “Repugnant Other,” the impossibly too familiar yet simultaneously too strange subject of study. However, if we are to learn anything from the last few months of “surprise” victories for disenfranchised conservative movements, it is that the concerns are real, the reactions often dangerous, and the political weight enormous. In Colombia, a new conversation was had, and the result has been a newly negotiated agreement.

The new agreement, admittedly better than the first agreement, is based in firm commitment to human rights, dignity of all, and democratic process. It was forged not by ignoring a radical set of religious ideas and hyperbolic misinterpretations of language, but rather through deep and difficult engagement with profoundly differing ideals. While the New Evangelicals are a transnational political force to be reckoned with, and carefully, at that, the possibility of civil debate and dialogue is a lesson we can all learn from a country that has borne the horrific burden of half a century of civil war. Colombia has emerged from the ashes, ready to begin the long process of sustained implementation of peace. Recognizing, naming, and addressing diversity and difference has become key to designing the blueprint for a new country. And religion, as always and for better or worse, has played more than a passive role.

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