Religious Politics in Latin America, Pentecostal vs. Catholic

Brian H. Smith

From the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies

Brian H. Smith’s book surveys recent religious and political developments in Latin American Christianity, especially in the rapidly growing Pentecostal churches and in Catholicism. It finds that despite efforts by the Vatican to make the Latin American Church less involved in politics (in the wake of liberation theology) by the papal appointment of a whole new generation of conservative bishops since 1980, Catholicism is still very much a political force throughout the region.

Catholic bishops, in spite of their conservative religious ideology, have felt obligated to preach the social doctrine of the Church and have vigorously denounced new economic models for enriching a minority of the population at the cost of the majority who are poor. Bishops also have denounced corruption in governments that has grown to epidemic proportions in recent years, and have strongly opposed legislative proposals that are anti-Catholic.

Regardless of these efforts by Catholic prelates to maintain government support for the Church’s institutions and its traditional moral concerns in law, Protestantism—especially in Pentecostal denominations among low-income sectors—has grown at a significant rate in the past twenty years.

Although traditionally reluctant to involve themselves in politics, Pentecostals in recent years have become more active either by forming new Christian parties or by joining or supporting existing political movements. Their political agenda overlaps in some areas with that of Catholics. These shared concerns could lead to a coaltion between Catholic and Pentecostal leaders that could have a real impact on public policy, given that over ninety percent of the population is now affiliated with one of these two denominations.

However, Pentecostal religious and political leaders are also pushing publicly for full separation of church and state (which exists now only in Cuba and Mexico) and for all religions to have equal status in law. Both these similarities and the differences in the political agenda of Catholics and Pentecostals could complicate public policy debate in the years ahead and certainly short-circuit any attempts to remove religion as a significant, and sometimes divisive, influence in politics in newly constituted liberal democracies in Latin America.

Brian H. Smith holds the Charles and Joan Van Zoeren Chair in Religion, Ethics, and Values at Ripon College, Wisconsin. He is the author of More Than Altruism: The Politics of Private Foreign Aid and is co-author of The Catholic Church and Democracy in Chile and Peru, also published by the University of Notre Dame Press.


“An excellent introduction to one of the most important but understudied aspects of contemporary Latin American life.”—Foreign Affairs

“In this volume Brian Smith attempts an overview of a tremendous amount of reflection on the two largest Christian communities in the vast continent of Latin America. Recognizing the complexity of these two communities, the author sees that sharply defined scenarios for them are inadequate. He does see both as having important contributions to make in strengthening democratic values without achieving a broad alliance.”—Missiology: An International Review

“. . . a compact yet very competent summary and critical evaluation of recent literature on religion, society, and politics in the region, highlighting competing explanations of Protestant growth and Catholic retrenchment. The book is highly recommended for undergraduate and graduate students seeking a solid introduction to the subject.”—Religious Studies Review

“Brian Smith’s Religious Politics in Latin America: Pentecostal vs. Catholic exemplifies best the legacy of preoccupation with religion’s impact on larger political (particularly democratic possibilities in the region.”—Latin American Research Review

“Smith’s book . . . consists of four insightful essays. . . . His broad-brushed treatment serves as much as anything as a useful bibliographical review of research on Latin American Pentecostalism and Catholicism since Vatican II.”—PNEUMA

“. . . a slim and focused volume that draws together an enormous body of data from across the entire region under three general headings: the dynamic of Pentecostal growth and Catholic ‘retrenchment’, explanations and implications of Protestant growth; and an assessment of contemporary Catholicism.”—Latin American Studies