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The Growing Evangelical Population in Latin America

PUBLISHED: March 19, 2013


Several Indigenous Mayan Guatemalans wait outside the Catholic Church in the town of Almolonga for the K'iche' service, following the earlier Spanish service.

Several Indigenous Mayan Guatemalans wait outside the Catholic Church in the town of Almolonga for the K’iche’ service, following the earlier Spanish service.


I have been living in a small town in Guatemala’s Highlands for the last few months, and fireworks at night are common. Yet around noon last Wednesday, I heard loud explosions and saw the tell-tale hanging smoke cloud indicating somebody was setting off rockets. As I walked to the center of town for lunch, I could hear the church bells ringing, and I wondered if there was some kind of emergency. Finally, the local family with whom I eat lunch told me we have a new Pope. My friend, Maria, beamed at the news. She told me all the Catholics were happy.

An hour later, I was at a café. Just to make conversation, I remarked to the young Guatemalan woman behind the counter that there was a new Pope. I was proud to be a bearer of big news. She wasn’t impressed. “Oh, new Pope?” she said, absently. A few seconds later, I heard her mention it to a co-worker in a tone you might use to say “The neighbors’ daughter is pregnant again.”

I realized then she was probably an Evangelical Protestant. To her, a new Pope wasn’t something to celebrate. It was just something that the Catholics were excited about. The town I live in is still majority Catholic, but there are at least a dozen Evangelical churches. The next town over is overwhelmingly Protestant. (The terms “Evangelical” and “Protestant” are used interchangeably in Guatemala, probably because nearly all Guatemalan Protestants are members of Evangelical churches).

I spent nearly two months reporting “The Soul of Guatemala”, a half-hour radio documentary that aired March 19th on American Public Media’s  The Story With Dick Gordon. The documentary examines the growth of Evangelical churches in Guatemala following a major earthquake in the 1970s, and a brutal Civil War that displaced hundreds of thousands of people. One theme that I tried very hard to explore was the tension between Catholics and Evangelicals. Evangelical Christianity is growing in popularity throughout Latin America, and Guatemala is leading the trend, as nearly half of the population has converted from Catholicism to Evangelical Christianity in the last 30 years.

However, whenever I asked Guatemalans about the tension between Catholics and Evangelicals, nobody would talk about it openly. I always got the same answer, whether the speaker was Catholic or Evangelical: “We respect them, they respect us. We don’t say anything bad about them. They don’t say anything bad about us.” I heard it so many times that I stopped believing it.


An indigenous Mayan woman prays and sings during a fiery Evangelical Sermon at El Calvario Church

An indigenous Mayan woman prays and sings during a fiery Evangelical Sermon at El Calvario Church


Yes, it’s true, in most places, Catholics and Evangelicals treat one another with a veneer of respect, and in some cases, I think the respect is sincere. But privately, many hold the other in some contempt. Many Evangelicals see Catholics as idolatrous and complacent, using a variety of Saints’ Days and festivals as excuses to drink and party. Many Catholics see Evangelicals as rule-bound, teetotalling squares who are fond of crying and falling over in church. As with many stereotypes, there are tiny grains of truth in these characterizations.

This division creates real political tension in many Guatemalan towns. I’ve heard of families in which the siblings no longer speak, or have made a truce wherein they NEVER speak about religion. I’ve heard about towns where Catholics or Evangelicals can’t get a job or don’t get civil services as fast as their counterparts. Most people tell you that Catholics and Evangelicals might greet one another in the streets, but they never spend time socially. Your friends are either one or the other.

In a country with many division and problems, the tension between Catholic and Evangelical is bound to have ill effects. I’ve heard Guatemalan community organizers complain that it’s nearly impossible to organize around any issue anymore because people are so divided. Many people think Evangelical leader Harold Caballeros, who I interviewed for the documentary, could help spearhead a serious reform movement to address the rampant corruption and fraud in Guatemala’s political system. He’s shown an ability to work with Catholics and others, but he’s also on record expressing contempt for Catholic and Mayan beliefs.  I think many Evangelical leaders sincerely hoped that they might convert an overwhelming majority of Guatemalans to Protestantism. (They believe that if everybody truly lives out Evangelical Christian ideals, corruption, violence, and poverty will end).  However, their conversion rate has tapered off recently, and with a new Argentine Pope signaling the Catholic Church will be paying more attention to Latin America, it seems unlikely Evangelicals will take over Guatemala. So if Evangelical leaders like Harold Caballeros are serious about reforming the country, they will need to address the low-level, but ever-present tension between Catholics and Protestants.


Support for Jesse Dukes’ research into Evangelical Protestantism in Guatemala was provided by The International Reporting Project and The Open Society Foundations. “The Soul of Guatemala” is part of PRX’s Global Stories Project.

About the author: Jesse Dukes is an independent writer and documentary maker. He studied radio at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, worked for With Good Reason at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, and is a principal at Big Shed Media. In 2011, his VQR essay “Consider the Lobstermen” was selected as one of Byliner’s 101 Spectacular Nonfiction Stories. He recently produced the radio documentary “The Great Moonshine Conspiracy,” which aired on APM’s The Story and public radio stations. He is a VQR Contributing Editor. Read more of his work at VQR.


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Thom Bastian's picture
Excellent article Jesse, it pains me to see this ugly beast of religious divisiveness rearing its ugly head in yet another part of the world. I only hope and pray that the religious leaders on both sides are well versed in world history, and will take the proper measures in order to ensure that their followers practice tolerance and understanding towards those not of the same faith…
Eric Ehrmann's picture
Eric Ehrmann · 11 years ago
Looking at this situation on a broader scale through Latin America, former bloody dictator Rios-Montt has been a member of a U.S. guided sect in Guatemala for half a century. Death squad operator “Blowtorch Bob” d’Aubuisson had close ties with evangelical groups with a political agenda in El Salvador. And a former UVA professor certainly employeed evangelicals in his arsenal to push back Shining Path and fringe groups whilst he was ambassador to Peru during the Regan-Bush years. It is bigger than a “same faith” issue. It is social, political and a subset of power policy making the tics. One only need look at Brazil, where evangelicals subordinate the female to the male who is the “leader” of the family and the woman the rice and beans cooker, baby maker and washerwoman. Enormous corruption among evangelical sects in Brazil, and plugged in at highest levels of government. There is no “fair” in this culture war. In Brazil, evangelicals know how to boogie and even smoke pot and having fun it is encouraged to keep them coming back to the huge arena-sized cathedrals that accept their contributions and provide the requisite benison for the buck. One would be remiss to say that evangelicals have not been an asset to U.S. Latin policy objectives since even the days before Liberation Theology. And to think that the new Pope will be a major influencer, one ought to remember that Argentine military factions during the “Dirty War” provided military and other training to right wing evangelicals and Roman Catholics in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama. It’s a long slog.

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