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  • Latin America:Intense Religiosity and Absence of Anti-System Confessional Parties
  • Francisco E. Gonzalez (bio)


The salience of religious political parties might have come across as an anachronistic inquiry to the adherents of modernization a generation ago. But the continuing influence of religion in politics—be it in terms of the religious activism that fundamentalist Christians exert in the U.S. Republican party or in the multiple contemporary conflicts and civil wars with a strong religious undertone—reminds the reader about the dangers of wishing away fundamental sections of highly organized and motivated groups in societies around the world. The supposedly irreversible march of secularism is wishful, naïve thinking from the early decades of the twenty-first century.

Latin America is a region of the world that has been relatively homogeneous in terms of religious belief since the Iberian conquest in the sixteenth century. Roman Catholicism, albeit suffused with important Amerindian and African characteristics that have produced a rich syncretism, rules the roost. Different branches of Protestant and Evangelical churches have also made important inroads in some Central American countries, such as Guatemala, Chile, Mexico and, significantly, parts of Brazil. Their presence tends to be more visible in urban slums and cut-off indigenous rural communities.

The bottom line, however, remains: Latin America is overwhelmingly Christian. The role of religion in politics and, reversibly, the influence of politics on organized religion throughout the subcontinent remains a rich and variegated tapestry. Its historical evolution underlines the notion that there is no irreversible secular progress.

There are many open lines of inquiry on the future of religious political parties. Latin America evidences the difficulty of signaling [End Page S-105] out long-term trends—let alone establishing general laws. This essay explores the reciprocal influence between religion and political parties in Latin America. It will proceed chronologically from the region's independence from Spain and Portugal until today. One key is the extent to which organized religion has been committed to pursue its aims through the laws and norms that underpin representative democracy. Of more specific interest is the extent to which confessional parties have committed to proceed likewise (i.e. to be pro or anti-system).

The historical evidence suggests that the region followed an irregular trajectory. It is not possible to identify long-term pro or anti-system political attitudes within organized religion. A myriad of factors underscores this complex relationship between religion and political parties. These range from large scale structural ones, such as state formation trajectories during the latter two-thirds of the nineteenth century or the Cold War period, to highly specific ones, such as the personality of different leaders.

In short, this essay supports the perspective of authors such as Jean Meyer that highlighted that the difficulty of channeling the political action of Catholics (i.e. not defying the fundamental rules that provide the framework of representative democracy) derives from the original ambiguity in the tenets of the Church's social doctrine, Catholic Action and Christian Democracy. Poised against both socialism and liberalism, the Catholic Church's social doctrine—officially born after the publication of Pope Leo XIII's Encyclical Rerum Novarum in 18911 —left individuals, groups, and the Church hierarchy significant latitude to apply their own subjective judgments about the social, economic, and political conditions in their countries.2 Generally, they found reality to be below the ideal standards set by Catholic principles and in need of structural repair. Such diversity of living conditions is particularly evident in Latin America, a region plagued by socioeconomic and political privilege, abuse and impunity, inequality, poverty, and a weak adherence to the rule of law.3

From the Iberian Conquest to Independence in Latin America (1490s-1820s)

Religion and political domination were deeply intertwined throughout Latin America in the pre-European past: polities were underpinned by theocratic government.4 The Iberian conquest of Amerindian populations between the closing years of the fifteenth century and the middle of the sixteenth century was led by conquistador soldiers, monks, scribes, and priests. During the years of Iberian colonial rule, religion and political domination remained closely woven together. They reinforced the underpinnings of the social and economic systems run...


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