- Religion, Society, and Politics: Past, Present and Future
Nothing dates theories like empirical failure, and theories holding that religion would necessarily fade and disappear in the face of science, education, and “modernization” have proven of little use in making sense of reality in Latin America, as in much of the world. The reality that presents itself in Latin America shows a surge of religious innovation and diversification in environments no longer dominated or controlled by religion, and certainly not by a church in the classical sense. Growing urbanization, education, and access to media have combined to generate not an universal decline in religion but rather the reorganization of an ongoing relationship in ways that suggest patterns of affiliation and obedience far less automatic than those of the past. These transformations have direct bearing on the role churches play in the public sphere. They confirm that there will be multiple voices and multiple actors and that an effort at the reconquest of public space by the churches (or by any single church) is therefore likely to fall short, if not implode.
Religion in all its forms—church, religious association, school, practice, and belief—has been closely intertwined with politics and society in Latin America for more than 500 years. The frequent academic and popular discussions of “religious resurgence” are off the mark—there is no “resurgence,” because religion has never gone away. This is not to say that the relationships between religious belief and society are static; the faces, voices, and issues that occupy center stage change continuously. [End Page 123]
One of the most striking transformations, much commented on lately, is the advent of religious pluralism. Over the last 50 years, Latin America has become religiously pluralist, with a substantial Protestant and Pentecostal presence, and multiple organizations competing for members and public space within all denominations. The surge of religious pluralism has been powered by the spectacular expansion of Protestant and Pentecostal churches and practices. Brazil now has both the largest Catholic population, and the largest Pentecostal population (after the United States), of any country in the world.
The Pentecostal boom in Latin America is not limited to Protestantism. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement has also grown rapidly and is now one of the largest social movements in the region. Charismatic Catholicism is often depicted as primarily a defensive reaction by the Catholic hierarchy, using its opponents’ tools to stem losses, but more is at issue. The late Edward Cleary’s study, The Rise of Charismatic Catholicism in Latin America (2011), uncovers a significant history of grassroots initiatives all across the region America that helped the movement get off the ground and sustain itself. Understanding these changes requires attention to new churches and new religious ideas, practices, groups, leaders, and followers, along with corresponding analyses of society and politics. If we are to understand the relation between religion and politics, we must be willing to engage religion on its own terms. Understanding the sources and dynamics of change within religious spheres enhances the possibility of understanding why and how churches and believers reinvest themselves in society and politics, and what they seek. Religions are autonomous sources of change, not epiphenomena of supposedly more profound changes in other spheres of life. They do not just react, they also innovate: new ideas emerge, new kinds of organizations are created, and networks are built to link the local and national to the transnational.
One commonly reads or hears that the presence of religion in politics has grown or diminished, when what is meant...