Latin America: Evangelical Churches Gaining Influence

By Carlos Malamud*

Five people stand up in front of a screen with their arms raised

The evangelical political party Partido Encuentro Social (PES) held a rally earlier this month in Mexico City. / Twitter: @PESoficialPPN / Creative Commons

The line between religion and politics is getting increasingly blurred in Latin America as evangelical churches grow in strength and candidates try to curry the support of – or at least avoid confrontation with – the faithful.  Tensions over mixing religion and politics have historic roots in Europe and Latin America and persisted throughout the 20th century, but we are witnessing a new phenomenon in Latin America now.  In much of the region, evangelical churches are showing an increased political presence and institutional representation in partisan politics.

  • In Mexico, the secular Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional (MORENA) and the Partido del Trabajo (PT) have struck an alliance with the evangelical Partido Encuentro Social (PES) to back presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales is an evangelical, and Costa Rica – if current polls prove correct – could soon have Fabricio Alvarado, an evangelical pastor, as President.  In Brazil, presidential aspirant Jair Bolsonaro has been building popular support by, among other things, appealing to the an evangelical base, even though most Brazilian evangelical churches aren’t reaching for executive power but rather support parties concentrated on building local, provincial, and congressional influence.
  • The evangelical churches’ membership has grown steadily but unevenly in recent decades. About 20 percent of all Latin Americans are evangelicals.  In Mexico, they account for more than 10 percent of the population.  In Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, and Panama, observers estimate more than 15 percent.  In Brazil and Costa Rica, the number reaches 20 percent, while in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua it surpasses 40 percent.

The evangelical churches’ political agenda is centered on defense of family values – basically opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, divorce, euthanasia, and what they erroneously call “gender ideology.”  On these topics on certain occasions, there’s a striking convergence with the Catholic hierarchy, Social-Christians, and conservative parties.  The evangelicals do not usually take positions, however, on other issues in which the government has a strong role, such as the economy or international relations.

The evangelical phenomenon reflects a double dynamic:  the unstoppable surge in non-Catholic faithful poses an enormous challenge for the region’s deeply rooted bishops conferences, and the growing distrust for political leaders and parties has facilitated the emergence of new options, including evangelicals, with barely articulated platforms.  The faithful who profess the tenets of evangelicalism are disciplined, and pastors’ positions have a lot of influence over them.  Even if not linked directly to candidates through the parties, voters’ evangelical affiliation and their churches’ recommendations have a strong influence over them.  The evangelical vote, moreover, is highly desired by all candidates and at least indirectly influences campaigns.  Candidates in Colombia, Brazil, or Mexico, as in other Latin American countries, are making that increasingly obvious as elections approach.

March 20, 2018

*Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute, and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid.  A version of this article was originally published in El Heraldo de México.

Historic August for LGBT Rights in Colombia

By Juliana Martínez

Colombia Diversa / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Colombia has again shown itself to be a country of contrasts – a society ostensibly ruled by Catholic and conservative morals with one of the hemisphere’s most progressive Constitutional Courts – with two important legal decisions on LGBT rights.  The Court has defended the democratic, pluralistic, and inclusive spirit of the Colombian Constitution against powerful authoritarian and conservative forces for years.  In 2007 and 2008, it granted pension, social security, and property rights to registered same-sex couples, and it ruled that same-sex couples “constitute a family” in 2011.  In spite of some recent rulings tarnishing its liberal record, last month the Court made two decisions that, though limited, have historic implications.

  • It ruled in favor of step-child adoptions by gay couples.  After much political, legal, and even religious debate, the Court broke a four-year silence on the highly contested issue, ruling 6 to 3 that Verónica Botero could legally adopt the biological children of her wife, Anna Leiderman.  The ruling does not explicitly allow joint adoption by gay couples, but the decision cites ample scientific evidence and declares that parental homosexuality cannot be considered a risk factor for children, thus leaving the door open for further LGBT-friendly jurisprudence in the matter.
  • The court recognized the gender identity of trans women by declaring that they do not have to comply with the compulsory military service required of all Colombian males.  The case centered on Gracy Kelly Bermúdez, a transgender woman who filed a lawsuit against the mayor’s office in Bogotá when she was denied a job for failing to provide proof of her military service.  Bermudez had not entered the military because she identifies as a woman, and therefore did not have the Military Service Registration Certificate (libreta militar) required when applying for jobs, studying at the university level or accessing health care services.  She would have been exempted if she had undergone an official sex change – the right to change one’s sex has been protected in Colombia since 1993 – but this can only be legally done after undergoing sex realignment surgery, a procedure that most trans women do not have access to, cannot afford, or do not want.  Therefore, despite their gender identity and expression, the legal sex of the majority of trans women continues to be “male.”  The Court decided in favor of Bermúdez and ordered the mayor’s office to hire her immediately.

These decisions are far-reaching.  In the Bermúdez case, the Court was essentially prioritizing gender identity over assigned sex at birth.  It declared that asking trans women for the Military Service Registration Certificate when hiring them is unconstitutional because it violates their right to define their own gender.  Furthermore, the Court told Congress to draft a bill that regulates the rights of transgender people in Colombia, paving the way for a much-needed Gender Identity Law.  The ruling also has deep regional implications.  Since Argentina passed a groundbreaking Gender Identity Law in 2012, many countries have been struggling to achieve similar results – and the Colombian legal precedent can become a viable alternative for impact litigation.  Currently, at least ten countries in Latin America have compulsory military service with different levels of enforcement attached to non-compliance.  But as the Bermúdez case illustrates, military conscription mandates can turn into strange, yet effective platforms to denounce how the state routinely imposes gender identity on its citizens, often against their own will, and to catalyze legal reform that advances LGBT rights in the Americas.

* Dr. Juliana Martínez teaches gender and sexuality and Latin American Literature in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at American University.

September 25, 2014