Today's guest post is from Stephen Dove, a graduate student in the history department at the University of Texas at Austin. He currently lives in Guatemala where he is writing his dissertation about the ways Guatemalan Protestants in the early-twentieth century shaped the theologies and practices they received from missionaries. Dove aptly reminds us about the problems with some of the designations we use as scholars of American religion.
Summer is here, and for those of us who live in developing countries that means that missionary season has arrived as well. For the next few months, a steady stream of eager, well-intentioned groups in matching T-shirts will offer a visual reminder that U.S. religion—especially evangelical Protestantism—does not stop at the border. Seeing these groups interact with the non-U.S. churches they have helped create also serves as a reminder that our definitions of what are effectively international religious movements can become a little small when viewed exclusively through a U.S. lens.
Take “evangelical,” a label that applies both to most summer missionaries and also to most local churches here in Guatemala. In the U.S., the battle over that term has become increasingly narrow in recent decades as social and political conservatives have essentially elbowed all other Protestants into categories like mainline or liberal. A few outliers like Jim Wallis continue to fight for inclusion under the banner of evangelical, but for the most part, the word has moved closer and closer to being a synonym for conservatism in general. In Latin America, the past century has seen the exact opposite trend occur among evangélicos. This term has become the preferred self-referent for virtually all non-Catholic Christians from Pentecostals to strict dispensationalists to social progressives. This is a diverse bunch, which has led some scholars to caution (correctly) that evangélico does not have the same meaning as evangelical does in the U.S. However, the two groups do share some important foundational beliefs such as an emphasis on the authority of the Bible, a belief that personal conversion is essential, and an imperative to share their faith.
Because of these similarities (and no doubt also because of a love of bigger membership numbers), both U.S. evangelicals and Latin American evangélicos like to consider themselves part of the same team. This weekend, however, I was reminded again just how odd that pairing can sometimes be.
At its Sunday service (attended by at a least one U.S. evangelical mission group), a local church passed out a flyer for a Father’s Day gathering titled “Papás Revolucionarios,” complete with an illustration straight out of Communist propaganda: a woodcut of a stylized worker waving a red, revolutionary flag. This church, which matches theologically with U.S. evangelicals in most ways, was completely comfortable drawing on leftist political imagery to promote its event, and its leaders knew exactly what they were doing. This was not just a convenient clip art graphic or an ironic Jesus-as-Che-Guevara T-shirt worn by an edgy youth pastor. I doubt this particular church has many Communist sympathies, but they could nonetheless imagine the radical social revolutions of their own country’s past as a model for their spirituality. Somehow, I don’t see the same metaphor flying in the average U.S. evangelical congregation. Even left-leaning U.S. evangelicals like Wallis have distanced themselves from such imagery in the current political climate.
At the same time, I have no doubt that this church could turn around next week and draw on imagery from a law-and-order, right-wing political group to make a different point. The reality in Latin America is not that evangélicos are the opposite of their counterparts to the north or even that they can somehow hold people with opposing beliefs together. The truth is that many individuals who identify themselves as evangélico can shift back and forth depending on their context. Their tent is not just bigger; it’s also portable.
Understanding this form of evangelicalism is not just important to the U.S. because of the historical missionary connection. This other evangelicalism is also moving back across the border, not only through immigration but also through reverse missions. Latin American immigration is usually associated with Catholicism when it comes to religion, but in many Central American countries like Guatemala, as much as one-third of the population is evangélico, and the Pew Forum estimated a few years ago that 15 percent of U.S. Latinos are evangélico. The political arena is one place Latino evangélicos have shown their political malleability compared to traditional U.S. evangelicals, with a majority voting for George W. Bush in 2004 but Barack Obama in 2008. In both elections, however, a sizable minority voted the opposite way, again illustrating that this group does not fit easily into political and social categories. This is an important issue in North American religion now, but it is only going to become more so as the evangélico population grows in the U.S. and as Latin American churches build more and stronger relationships with their counterparts in the U.S., forcing both groups to evaluate where their identities merge and where they diverge.