“Green wave” of progressivism sweeping Latin America puts religion on defensive

While the “green wave” of progressive politics that is sweeping much of Latin America is unlikely to secularize the continent, it is creating a new pluralism as well as a growing divide between younger and older generations on religion and morality, according to specialists. RW was in Bogota, Colombia, shortly after Gustavo Petro assumed the presidency of the country in early August. The leftist former member of the country’s M-19 guerilla organization, who won an unprecedented victory over his conservative rival, is the latest example in the trend of progressive leaders and policies gaining a foothold in Latin American countries, with Chile and Peru having also recently joined the leftist standard bearers of Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba. In a wide-ranging interview, sociologist William Beltram Cely of the National University of Bogota told RW (with the translation assistance of Hector Cifuentas) that it may be too early to ascertain Petro’s impact on religion in Colombia, since the new president has taken a cautious attitude with Christians in the overwhelmingly Catholic country. “I sense Petro is conscious of the power of the church, especially the Catholic Church. In that sense, he’s searching for the churches’ support.” Petro was a supporter of rebel priests and theologians and was influenced by liberation theology decades ago. “It could be sincere or a strategy to win church support,” Beltram said. “But all other churches oppose him. They are afraid of the leftist government in imposing limits on the church. So they don’t trust Petro or leftist movements. But Petro is very careful not to feed the opposition. If you don’t have Catholic support [in Colombia], it’s very hard to do anything.”

Source: WLRN / AP

Yet Beltram said that the situation in Colombia is now following in the tracks of Chile and Argentina (except that Colombia does not have these countries’ large immigrant populations) and is becoming “less Catholic everyday.” Citing surveys he and his colleagues have conducted, he said that about half of the 60 to 70 percent of Colombians who identify with Catholicism show weak commitment to the church, and that 10 percent of this population are “Catholic in name only,” even if they believe in God. The Protestant (mainly Pentecostal) resurgence that has spread across Latin America arrived in Colombia belatedly, representing about 20 percent of the population. About five percent of Colombians are atheist and agnostic, along with another five percent who either are adherents of other religions, including the LDS Church, Islam, Judaism and indigenous religions, or mix faiths and spiritualities, as seen in the New Age movement. The more positive role given to indigenous religions by the Petro administration could be observed in the indigenous ceremonies that were held during the swearing in of Vice-President Francia Márquez, an Afro-Colombian.

The Catholic Church has lost much of its social and political power, with a parallel education system existing alongside the Catholic one. The robust rate of vocations, which allowed the church to select an elite priesthood, has weakened. “The church has to accept most candidates now…With the success of Protestants, more young people also see it as an option to become pastors,” Beltram said. This decline also is due to the clerical sex abuse crisis that is becoming more visible in Colombia and the rest of Latin America. All of these dynamics are related to the green wave of progressive politics in Latin America, and they tie into the generational divide that can be seen everywhere from the polling booth to the church pew, Beltram said. Even if they claim the Catholic label, young Colombians differ considerably from older ones on moral issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriages (now both legal to some extent). Beltram added that about 20 percent of Colombian Catholics represent the concerns of the older conservative elite, especially on abortion, and are pitted against a progressive sector espousing leftist causes, who find a hearing among young people, especially in the major cities. But the younger generations are also drawn to evangelicals and other religious groups, so it is hard to say which side in the culture war has more adherents, he said.

More than progressive politics and the emergence of leaders such as Petro, Beltram concluded that it is the forces of secularization, but more significantly globalization and pluralism, that are remaking much of Latin America religiously, most dramatically in Colombia, where Catholicism still retains social influence. The culture wars in Colombia and other Latin American countries were also the subject of a session that RW attended earlier in August at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting, which suggested religion’s changing role and strategy in these conflicts. Progressive changes on abortion and gender issues in El Salvador, Chile, Argentina, Colombia, and parts of Mexico have galvanized the pro-life movements in these countries. But in Colombia, pro-life activism has mimicked the green wave groups in their use of banners, flags and street mobilizations and has become more secular, eschewing its older use of marches and prayer vigils. The older arguments on the sacredness of life from conception until death have lost ground to more libertarian and religious freedom arguments against abortion policies. Instead of priests, anti-establishment figures are regularly used in pro-life demonstrations.