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Luis Aranguiz

Latin America and the problem of evangelical political theology

Global Horizon

“So, this is the crossroad. It seems that evangelicals increasingly are at the same time in a quest for power and a lack of thought”

These last years, Latin America has been the scenario of a notorious evangelical political engagement. It is not unknown that many of these attempts have been related mostly to a rightwing ideological trend. Without going any further, there is Jimmy Morales as current president of Guatemala. In 2017, Fabricio Alvarado was candidate for presidency in Costa Rica. The impeachment against Dilmah Rousseff was headed by Eduardo Cunha, a leading congressman of the evangelical caucus in Brazil. Last year in presidential elections in Chile, there were more than twenty congress candidatures of evangelicals, many of them rightwing oriented. All these examples are given, of course, without mention the growing phenomenon of evangelical political parties and movements in the region that begun some decades ago.

Derechización or moralization of politics

 As this phenomenon grows, more people start to think that we are witnessing a “derechización” of evangelical Latin Americans. However, this is only a superficial view of the case. It is true: it seems that evangelicals are turning there. But this can’t be understood as a mere ideological turn, not because there is no ideological logic behind the phenomenon, but because evangelicals don’t have clarity about ideology itself. In terms of rhetoric, it is still possible to find people who speak in the language of the Cold War. For some of them, it is still a fight between communism and liberalism. But something more interesting is that political initiatives obey to a moral struggle, so similar to the motivation that American rightwing Christians had to start the famous Christian right. In fact, the interests of evangelicals are not so much economic and political liberties as abortion or gay marriage.

It is possible to think that this phenomenon obeys to the long-term political process of the continent which today opposes a leftist progressivism and rightist conservatism from a moral point of view. In case evangelicals are engaging in politics due to moral key issues, such a focus can lead us to think that the core problem here is a tension between two kinds of theological morality. Then it is possible to notice the triumph of a conservative moral over a progressive one. In this sense, the question could be why progressive morality didn’t triumph among evangelicals. At this level, what appears clearly is that even if we find an answer, we are supposing that evangelicals are moving or reacting according to the logics of codes imposed by outside political discussion, what in a reversal perspective means that political evangelical behavior could have a lack of proper theological thought to avoid falling in one or another side of the table. 

This “moralization of politics”, should not be taken as a simple phenomenon as too often occurs from a simple leftist progressive position. In fact, regarding American politics, Simon Critchley has pointed out that it should be analyzed carefully as a triangulation of faith, moral and politics which provides a powerful framework of intelligibility.[1]This is, in his view, not less than a decisive element in the structure of a “crypto-Schmittianism” that lies behind contemporary American political logic.

With this theoretical insight we could raise the question whether it is possible to consider the current evangelical rightwing politicization in Latin America as consequence of a higher transnational religious phenomenon, under which lies a triangulation of faith, morality and politics. And even more, is this phenomenon functional to US crypto-Schmittian politics?

The quest for political theologies

The outside view given above, now needs to be correlated with an inside perspective. When we speak about political theology in a wide sense, it is not possible to speak about a political theology in Latin America without thinking of Liberation Theology. This major trend was indeed strong in the region a few decades ago but had an evident weakening since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This trend has its theologians who shaped the framework for many leftist Christians no matter if they were Catholics or Protestants. There also are the so-called “genitive theologies”, which are thought to be answers to current social fights like indigenous or feminist. The point is that in all these trends, we can find thinkers and theologians. But, who are the theologians behind the evangelicals engaging in conservative politics today?

To begin, it is necessary to understand that what we call “evangelical” in the region, is not the same that in other parts of the globe. In Latin America, evangelical can mean Pentecostal and today also neo-Pentecostal. These are the biggest evangelical communities in the region following Catholics. This entails mainly two things. First, in general—and with a limited meaning of “theology”—these groups don’t have a uniformed rational production that gives a theoretical framework. When it exists, it is localized and usually is unnecessarily engaged with denominations and churches. In other words, it is more a subject for individuals and not for institutions. Second, these groups believe in the supernatural action of God in their personal lives, through revelations and prophecies. That is why regarding political issues, they tend to spiritualize politics.

If we mix a weak theology and spiritualization of reality in an ecclesiastical, the result is inevitable. But it becomes a different challenge when the same logic applies to public and political issues. At the present, it is possible to find evangelical political leaders and activists, but it is almost impossible to find the names of their theologians and theorists. We don’t know who is exactly thinking –in a disciplinary sense- evangelical conservative politics. Maybe we can follow the path to the American Christian right again. The huge influence they had the past half-century among Latin American evangelicals is well known. Maybe the current phenomenon can find some reference in the American experience. In fact, some neo-Pentecostals read the prophetic seven mounts theory of Johnny Enlow[2]. But clearly that is not even near at least to a theologian like Rousas Rushdoony. The only thing they have in common, and unfortunately is not a detail, but the dominionism, which not surprisingly is strong among Latin American evangelicals with political pretentions. Other minorities are more interested in a broad social Christian line of thought, reading people like Abraham Kuyper. Still, there not appears to be a theological reflection. Who are the Latin American political theologians of evangelicals?

The crossroad of evangelical politics in Latin America

So, this is the crossroad. It seems that evangelicals increasingly are at the same time in a quest for power and a lack of thought. This combination leads to a theologically weak political action which moralize politics instead of making moral politics. More precisely: it is not rejectable to do politics considering moral concerns, because everybody has some set of key beliefs –religious or not- which help us to choose and decide politically. What is rejectable is to do politics only because of moral concerns.

The lack of political theology can be found in this complex relation between morality and politics. Neoliberalism is an issue almost invisible in the agendas of evangelicals. But they however speak about poverty. Why “neoliberalism” is absent in their discourse, being that in some countries this is the structural model of society that produces precariousness? Democracy is other concept almost invisible. Sometimes one could tend to fear that for them democracy is a mere instrument to get the power and manage their agenda, more than a desirable model of organizing society built to have a peaceful and pluralist coexistence.

Although there is also a lack of a regional view, focused in a geopolitical perspective, these evangelicals tend to look with good eyes at the development of evangelicals in American politics. In the case of Chile, it is not difficult to find people who support Trump for declaring himself Christian and congratulates the evangelicals for supporting them. The concept social imaginary of a Muslim-Arab Middle East built as an absolute enemy of western culture and countries can be also found in a germinal level. This kind of opinion, which in some way resembles the crypto-Schmittian triangulation exposed before, is enough to ask whether that concept of “politic” provided by Carl Schmitt in the Nazi Germany of past century, is present today in a seminal form in Latin America among evangelicals by the influence of some American culture.

Anyhow, either with or without crypto-Schmittianism, what is still remaining is the question for the political theology/theologians of this new generation of evangelical politicians and candidates. It is not only necessary for them to have a more clear picture of the world in which they live, and to conceive a healthy relation between faith and reason, church and State, religion and politics, and so on. It is, I say, absolutely necessary for the sake of whole global society.

[1]In his book Infinitely Demanding. London: Verso. 2012.

[2]For further reading, his book The Seven Mountain Prophecy. Florida: Creation House. 2008.

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