Pentecostalism in Argentinean society and politics
Pentecostals are the fastest growing religious group in Latin America, and the second largest after Catholics. In Argentina Hans Geir Aasmundsen has observed how they are increasingly engaging in social questions, and he predicts that the Pentecostal churches will come to challenge the position the Catholic Church has had in politics over centuries.
Aasmundsen has an academic background in history of religions, and he started on a doctorate at Sødertørn Høgskola in Stockholm in 2006. His work resulted in the book “Pentecostalism, Globalisation and Society in Contemporary Argentina”, and in January 2014 he defended his doctoral dissertation.
The Pentecostal churches have experienced considerable growth in most Latin American countries, and a remarkable growth in e.g. Chile, Guatemala and Brazil. Many researchers are interested in understanding the reasons behind their success, but when Aasmundsen first learned about the growing Pentecostalism in the mid-1990s, it caught his attention that little was mentioned about Argentina.
– At that time this was ‘real’ news and I wondered why some countries, like Brazil, Chile and Guatemala, were always mentioned in the limited literature that I read. The few times I had seen Argentina and Pentecostalism mentioned in reports or academic literature, it just said that there were very few Pentecostals in the country. This caught my attention, and I started to reflect on the reasons why Pentecostalism in Argentina developed so differently from other Latin American countries. Was it because of a different culture, a different social system? Or was there a stronger Catholic Church, or for any other reason? Then, around the year 2000 I set out to see why Argentina was so different.
When Aasmundsen first arrived in Argentina he discovered that he was not the only one who knew little about Pentecostalism – the Argentineans themselves had little or no knowledge about the religion:
Hans Geir Aasmundsen
– I had no clue about Argentinean Pentecostalism when I got there. The second day in Buenos Aires I found the INDEC building (National Institute of Statistics and Censuses) and just went in and asked the receptionist: Do you have any statistic showing religious affiliation? But no, unfortunately no such thing existed. But why do you need that? she asked. I told her I wanted to study Argentinean Pentecostalism. She looked surprised and said: "If you want to study that religion you should go to Brazil, they’ve got a lot of those there. Here we have none". As it turned out she was wrong. Later I found out that there actually was a mega-church just down the street from INDEC.
Academic interest – and the lack of it
Even though there have been more studies about Pentecostalism in many other Latin American countries, Aasmundsen managed to find some literature on Pentecostalism in Argentina. He explains that the interest for studying Pentecostalism surged in the ‘90s.
– From the early 1990s, when Argentina was opening up in many ways, the academic scene became “aware” of the many non-Catholic religious movements. This decade was important because not only was it a time of neo-liberal “Menemismo” but also a time when the Pentecostals started to be more integrated and their presence was felt in the public sphere. The pioneer researcher was Lalive d'Epinay, who already in 1975 studied Pentecostal pastors in Buenos Aires. This work, however, did not come to surface in the Western academic circles until later, when Western scholars David Stoll and David Martin opened up the scene for similar publications in 1990. Alejandro Frigerio set the stage for a new perspective when he introduced a different approach on religion studies in 1993. He included Pentecostalism into the category New Religious Movements and opted for a non-Eurocentric approach to the Latin American contexts.
The reason for the lack of interests in Pentecostalism in Argentina can be explained partly by coincidences, and partly by a more general perception of Argentina as “a less typical Latin American country”, and therefore also as a less representative country for the study of Latin American trends.
– I can speculate that Argentina is often thought as “not so Latin American” as the rest of Latin America and therefore less exotic than the other countries. In addition, many of the studies of Pentecostalism in other regions have been done by anthropologists and sociologists who sort of “stumbled” over this religion when they were doing their fieldwork, and not so many of these anthropologists or sociologists go to Argentina. Finally, a lot of what is written internationally on Pentecostalism today is written by insiders or semi-insiders, that is, people who themselves are Pentecostals or Protestants and who want to tell their story about, what they perceive as, a “tremendous” religion and its egalitarianism and democratic potential.
Reasons for growth
Due to the lack of knowledge and information, Aasmundsen found it surprising to discover that the number of Pentecostals in Argentina is quite high, even when compared with countries like Chile and Guatemala.
– I was surprised when I discovered that there were so many Pentecostals there, between 10 and 15 percent. I also discovered that many Pentecostals in other countries have been inspired by Spiritual Warfare and Unity, both direct results of the Argentinean evangelist Carlos Annacondia’s campaigns in the 1980s.
Pentecostalism is growing in many Latin American countries. The reason for the success can be explained by social, economic and historical aspects.
– Pentecostalism is growing for various reasons. First, it resonates with the spiritual and communal needs of marginalized people, and second, it is a missionary religion with a strong presence and pervasive and massive evangelization. Pentecostalism is increasing in Latin America also because it can: When there are no regulations or other religions in their way, they grow. The growth also has to be understood in a historic context, Latin American societies have gone through some severe changes during the last 20-40 years and Pentecostalism may be seen as a break with a difficult past.
In his studies, Aasmundsen found that the Argentinean Pentecostalism shares similarities with the churches in other Latin American countries. Due to the globalization, Pentecostal movements from all over the world share many of the same characteristics.
– There are many similarities, and the similarities are increasing because of globalization, Latin American integration and regional and global networks that bind the movement together. Focus on unity among the different Evangelical, Pentecostal and Protestant denominations has been one of the hallmarks of Argentinean Pentecostalism. Another hallmark has been the emphasis on Spiritual Warfare, like fighting demons and spirits that possess people, places and spaces.
Values and politics
As the numbers of Pentecostals grow in Argentina, they have gradually been given more attention in political campaigns. Some churches have themselves entered politics and started their own political projects.
– During the Kirhcners’ presidencies they have become integrated into the groups of people candidates have to visit before election. They have experimented with political parties in the 1990s without succeeding. An example of a new political alliance is Valores para mi país (Values for my country) initiated by Cynthia Hotton. They focus on some core values that they mean politics and society need. I have divided these values into interior and exterior values. Interior values are sincerity, honesty and trustworthiness that the Christians, and particularly the Pentecostals, have as members of the Church of God. Exterior values concern God’s “natural order”: nuclear family, pro-life, ban on same-sex marriage and, more recently, protection of nature.
Aasmundsen predicts that the Pentecostal churches will challenge the position the Catholic Church has had in politics over centuries in Argentina:
– Morality is a meeting place for these two Christian branches. Politics is a different matter. The Catholic Church has been around for almost 2000 years and has a lot of experience in dealing with “mundane” affairs. The Pentecostals are still “new” to this world and experiment a lot, in many places. What we are seeing is a politicisation of Pentecostalism in the sense that it is increasingly engaging in social questions. In some places they have stopped to grow and seek now social influence and not only numerical growth. I predict we will see more Pentecostal politics in the coming years.
Even though Pentecostalism is becoming more common among Argentineans, the society as a whole still sees the new religion with scepticism.
– A few are positive in the sense that they appreciate the Pentecostals’ engagement in social work on a local basis and because many of them seem to care for the poor. Most are sceptical or plain negative to what they perceive to be a sect of brainwashers who only care for money. This is especially the case when it comes to the prosperity-churches, which many think of as a church that fools people into false beliefs, ends Aasmundsen, who is now based at the University of Bergen and preparing for future research tasks.