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What is behind the growing power of Evangelical churches in Mexico?

The contemporary history of Brazil and other countries show that the Evangelical churches are a growing political force in Latin America and Mexico is no exception

What is behind the growing power of Evangelical churches in Mexico?
Arturo Farela president of the National Fellowship of Evangelical Christian Churches (Confraternice) - Photo: Yadín Xolalpa/EL UNIVERSAL
English 02/08/2019 16:48 Gabriel Moyssen Mexico City Actualizada 15:40

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The contemporary history of Brazil and other countries show that the Evangelical churches are a growing political force in Latin America and Mexico is no exception, after its new moves demanding television and radio concessions, as well as a reform allowing members of the clergy to present as candidates and access to public office.

While the activities of Evangelical or Protestant churches in the country dates back to the XIX century—paradoxically, it was reformist President Benito Juárez who authorized its presence—it is no secret that the electoral victory of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) gave it momentum to launch an assault on the very pillars of the secular State.

Reportedly close to the now-defunct Social Encounter Party, which contributed with 1.5 million votes to AMLO, Arturo Farela president of the National Fellowship of Evangelical Christian Churches (Confraternice), said it is necessary to change Article 130 of the Constitution which establishes the principle of separation between the State and the church, in order to grant political rights to the clergy.

We need to analyze secularism in Mexico, which no longer means an “antireligious” concept, Farela told EL UNIVERSAL last week.

The Religious Associations Law and Public Worship also needs modification to conduct religious acts outside of the temples and to have radio and television coverage without previous authorization from federal or local officials, he added.

Leaders from various churches, including the Catholic Conference of the Mexican Episcopate, are negotiating with the Senate a law initiative to grant them electronic media and telecommunication concessions, arguing that religious freedom “has lost visibility” compared with the progress of other human rights.

Confraternice confirmed in July that the first 10,000 copies of theMoral Handbookof AMLO’s government would be distributed and delivered in homes through their temples.

The powerful national teacher’s union is also involved in the distribution of the so-called “moral constitution,” seeking to support the fight against violence and corruption.

According to Farela, a personal friend of AMLO, Confraternice represents 7,000 Evangelical churches and nearly 35 million followers in Mexico.

Many of them converted to the Evangelical faith in recent years, frustrated by the sex abuse scandals plaguing the Catholic church, and the moral decay of its leaders.

Others found in the Protestant preaching an answer to the changing social trends and an effective opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage, abortion, and marijuana, also rejected by AMLO in spite of his “leftist” credentials.
 

Power elites

However, the Evangelical’s overt political proselytism and their close connections to power elites have also led to scandals reminiscent of the old Catholic hegemony. 

On June, Naasón Joaquín García, leader of The Light of the World Church was arrested in Los Angeles with more than a dozen sex crimes, including child abuse and human trafficking.
 

Less than a month before the detention of the self-proclaimed “Apostle of Christ” in California, dozens of lawmakers, including head of Senate Martí Batres gathered in Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts in breach of its internal rules, to pay a pompous privatehomage” to García in celebration of his 50th birthday.
 

Specialists on the matter, such as the sociologist and historian Roberto Blancarte, have stressed that the closeness of AMLO to the Evangelicals is generating a “new logicregarding the role of religious institutions in public life.

For his part, sociologist Bernardo Barranco remarked that secularism has been the foundation of democracy; “to defend secularism is to defend democracy,” he said.

On a regional level, the rise of the Evangelicals, who opposed the 2016 peace agreement in Colombia, is symbolized by the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who went to be baptized in Israel to boost his popularity among believers.
 

Bolsonaro’s electoral victory in 2018 is considered the result of 50 years of right-wing efforts to combat Catholic Liberation Theology and other progressive movements in the South American country.

The efforts started after a visit to the region made by United States President Nixon’s special envoy Nelson Rockefeller, who recommended spreading the Neopentecostal denomination, characterized by an intense individualist faith, an anti-intellectual attitude, and a denial of structural inequality in favor of individual responsibility, just as liberal and neoliberal economics.

In 1977, the “prosperity theology-based Universal Church of the Kingdom of God was founded by Edir Macedo, currently one of the richest and powerful men in Brazil as the owner of the second-largest television network in the country, RecordTV.

Various charges have been brought against Macedo for criminal activities, including child trafficking in Portugal.

In this context, the book by Gerald Colby and Charlotte Dennett Thy will be done: The conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil (1995), affirms that the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL)—an American missionary organization—was responsible during the 70s in Brazil of destroying indigenous peoples’ cultural values to abet penetration by U.S. businesses, employing a “virulent brand of Christian fundamentalism that used linguistics to undermine the social cohesion of communities and accelerate their assimilation into Western culture.”

The SIL, also known as the Wycliffe Bible Translators, was founded in 1934 by William Cameron Townsend, an American missionary-linguist who enjoyed the friendship of Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas.

In 1951, Townsend and Public Education Secretary Manuel Gual Vidal signed a deal authorizing SIL to “uproot vices in the indigenous communities, among other services ranging from translations to the promotion of sports.

Nine years later, a decree issued by President Adolfo López Mateos highlighted that SIL workhas achieved considerable success and my government will continue supporting this ambitious endeavor.”

Nevertheless, an investigative commission from the Mexican College of Social Anthropologists and Ethnologists (CEAS) reported in 1979 that SIL is “an undercover political-ideological institution,” and “a tool for the U.S. government project of control, regulation, penetration, intelligence, and repression” supporting “capitalist expansion in natural resource-rich areas, which are opened to markets while its population is transformed into a docile, cheap labor force.”

EL UNIVERSAL in English sought an interview with linguistic consultant and current head of SIL in Mexico Steve Marlett, who rejected these allegations as “old” and “unsubstantiated.”

Marlett underscored in an email that over more than 40 years of experience working with different linguistic groups in Mexico, he has been able to appreciate the collaboration of his SIL colleagues for the preservation and enhancementof the native languages.

Distinguished specialists from university and academic institutions such as Miguel León-Portilla, Carlos Montemayor, Leonardo Manrique, and Jaime Litvak King, have shown us their confidence and friendship, said Marlett, who was invited as keynote speaker for the plenary session during the act celebrating 50 years of the Department of Linguistics at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (ENAH) in 2018.

Editing by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen