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Bernardo L. Campos M.


The Pentecostal movement is one of the most important religious experiences of this century. This has been recognized by Catholicism as well as by the various Protestant families in Latin America and the Christian world as a whole.

Pentecostalism is both a world socio-religious phenomenon and an alternative movement in the life and mission of the Christian church. Pentecostalism is, above all, a religious movement and not a "denomination", nor a religious organisation. Although there are religious communities which call themselves "Pentecostals" and religious groups labeled "charismatic" within Catholicism, it is the Pentecostal movement which confers them their vitality and which gives rise to their organic and visible expressions.

The current political juncture in Latin America has generated such a public debate about the Church, the sects and religious freedom, that a description of the diverse religious expressions - among them Pentecostalism - is necessary in order to provide a coherent theological vision and promote the ecumenical dialogue on sounder foundations.

The following four considerations will allow us a first approach to the understanding of the Pentecostal movement as a sign of the power of the Spirit.


1. A movement of spirituality

According to Pentecostals' self-understanding, Pentecostalism is not a simple socio-religious phenomena, or the result of political and religion expansion of North American financial capitalism. (1)

For Pentecostals, Pentecostalism is the religious and faith consequence of the action of God through his Holy Spirit, which was poured out at Pentecost in the first century of the Christian history (Acts 2-4; Luke 24: 49; Joel 2: 27-32) and expanded from East to West. As a movement, Pentecostalism transcends the exclusive ecclesial boundaries and presents itself within Christianity as a divine action through various religious practices of a certain kind.

From a theological point of view Pentecostalism, in Latin America and elsewhere, is a religious experience of the divine. As a religious experience, it represents a ritualized enlargement of the original Pentecostal event (Acts 2, 10, 19), with the aim and aspiration to express the very substance of Christianity - in this case, the "foundational Pentecostalism" - (2) in the fervour of a spirituality that seeks to repeat the primitive Christian life, which functions as a foundational myth.

What is significant about this behaviour is that, as a movement of spirituality, Pentecostalism is a creator of identities. To be "Pentecostal", just as to be "Catholic", or "Protestant", is a manner of being in society. (3) As a spiritual movement, Pentecostalism is not confined by class or ideological boundaries, nor is it bound by geography or religious traditions. Pentecostalism has the capacity to permeate diverse and frequently clashing social classes, and to pass through radically opposed historical processes. In Latin America, where religion is a decisive factor and secularization usually takes the form of a social protest, (4) the Pentecostal movement has produced a social impact and has adopted cultural forms which threaten to tear down the religious hegemony of the Catholic Church.

The cases of Brazil, Chile and some Central American countries have given a lot of trouble to clergy and politicians. In Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, for instance, some expressions of Pentecostalism have been used by neo-conservative and fundamentalist USA forces to heighten and/or control the political tensions in that region. What is at stake behind this feigned war of religions? Nothing less than the opportunity to assert social identities and political projects and programmess, as well as the attempts to affirm old and new hegemonies through the use of religion.


2. A movement of protest

- The Wesleyan heritage

Many scholars consider that the "Wesleyan renewal" (the source of Methodism and other sanctification denominations), which occurred in England during the 17th century, is the direct ancestor of modern Pentecostalism. (5) The historical thesis explains that Pentecostalism was born in the North American "circles of sanctification", as an offspring of the American form of English pietism.

- A radical religious behavior

Unlike the English Methodists of the 17th century, American Methodism substituted its social ethics for an individualistic ethics and its original millenarism (6) for philanthropy. (7) According to Richard Niebuhr, "the Wesley brothers, founders of the Wesleyan movement, substituted the concept of kingdom (of God) with the symbol of heaven", and understood sin not as oppression or social disorder but as individual wickedness and depravity.

Conversely, Pentecostalism, which was born out of a deepening of religious and spiritual life, proscribed philanthropy from its works, and embraced a radical comprehension of the world as the locus of sin, without further discussion. Yet, Pentecostalism was unable to break away from the individualism inherited from the original missionary societies.

Nonetheless, Pentecostal ethics and morals cannot be explained by historical and theological assumptions only. On the contrary, contemporary sociologists of religion are pointing to social and economic factors. They usually understand Pentecostalism as a way of responding to a situation of social anomaly (8) and as a religious phenomenon which comes along with processes of immigration, industrialization and urbanization in Latin America (E. Willems, Christian Lalive D'Epinay, P. F. Camargo, M. Marzal).

For others, Pentecostalism is the religious expression of a particular social and economic ethics. Sociologists of religion such as Francisco Cartaxo Romil (Brazil) and Jean Pierre Bastian (French-speaking Switzerland) affirm that Pentecostalism is the religion of the poor segments of the society and that it should be understood within the social dynamics of the capitalist system of production which determine its ideology and class condition. (9)

In all these approaches, Pentecostalism is seen as a response to the need of the people to create and structure their own symbolic contexts, which give meaning to the reality and regulate their daily behavior.

Pentecostalism as a "symbolic system" - as was the case for the Catholocisms of Christendom and Neo-Christendom in Latin America, "historic" and missionary Protestantisms, Socialism and Populism - meant and still is for the oppressed people of the continent, an alternative of religious satisfaction for the trauma of the conquest and colonization which destroyed the original social fabric through the use of religion and the manifestations of the sacred that prevailed at that time. (10)

As a form of "social protest" and as an utopia of liberation, the Pentecostal movement reminds us of certain historic movements such as the Taki Onqoy in the Andean society of the 16th century (Huamanga 1560-1570) in Peru. (11) The point of comparison between the two movements lies with their apocalyptic views (the idea of the end of the world through radical historical disorder) rather than with their religious behaviour, which in the case of the "taquiongos" was of a messianic and righteous nature. It is precisely the combination of such a pentecostal apocalypticism with an ideology of sanctification (awareness of being the chosen people, preeminence of a charismatic leader endowed with divine authority, rejection of the worldly life) which mobilizes Pentecostalism and explains that it adopts an ethics of separateness from the world that places the chosen group "outside" the social realm and turns it sometimes away from social change. A phenomenon that is known today as "social idleness".

However, the very reality of poverty in Latin America and the new world scenario (globalization, neo-liberalism) have forced Pentecostal communities to face reality. In Peru as well as in other countries, Pentecostals are becoming actively involved in civil society, re-creating ways of participation which had been previously rejected (social action, political engagement).

This rejection of the organized world, this apparent isolation (fugamundi) which takes the form of ethical righteousness (do not drink, do not smoke, do not dance, keep yourself pure, etc.) and of "substitute societies" to the real society, are the responses that Pentecostals give to the marginalization imposed on them by the dominant religious groups and the economic and political powers. But to characterize Pentecostalism in terms of "social idleness" is out-of-date today. We see that Pentecostalism is coming of age; more and more we are becoming aware that we must be subjects and protagonists of our own history.


3. A popular movement

There are no statistics that can do justice to the breathtaking demographic growth of Pentecostalism. According to David Stoll, "one third of the Latin American population will be Protestant at the dawn of the next century, against 10 or 12 per cent now". (12) In Brazil, Pentecostals amount to 70 per cent of the Protestant population; in Chile, they constitute over 14 per cent of the whole population; in the Bahamas they also make up 10 per cent of the population, whereas in Peru they represent 70 per cent of all Protestants, which as a whole stand for 7 per cent of the country's population. Those are substantial figures considering the supremacy of the Catholic Church which, until recently, enjoyed the protection and support of certain States in Latin America. (13)

It is estimated that Pentecostalism will attain 25 per cent of the total population by the year 2000 in Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua).

Pentecostalism is characterized by its strong popular appeal, which raises some serious questions about the relevance of traditional religious structures such as the official Catholicism and Protestantism. (14)

Pentecostal denominations, like the Church Base Communities (CBC), are truly popular churches in two ways: in the sense that their social base is the people; and by assuming an identity and a socio-political project in which the people, as an organic unity, are the agent of social change by means of religious structures.

However, the fact that a multitude of peasants, workers, poor students, marginalized people and gypsies convert to God daily through Pentecostalism is not only a matter of percentages, religious conflicts or denominational growth. Rather, it should be seen as the opening of social spaces in which, once a truly popular church is constructed, the affirmation of an inclusive and pluralist national identity and the search for alternative ways of democratic life are made possible; it is also an essential factor of social transformation.

This "popular" character of Pentecostalism has direct implications for the transformation of the religious field itself. An autonomous financial structure (not depending on resources from Europe, America or Asia); a liturgy in which the elements and cultural mediations of the indigenous religion prevail over the contents of the ancient Christian tradition (Hebrew, Greek, Latin); a community life which favours socialization and personal involvement and facilitates the social participation of its members; and an organic solidarity with the less favoured sectors of society - all of these are essential features of Pentecostalism which are at the basis of a profound social transformation of the continent.

As a mixture of urban proletariat, popular culture and mass movement, Pentecostalism is the only sector of Protestantism which can identify itself with the regional phenomenon known as "popular reality". (15)


4. A movement of social change

In the present composition of the religious field in Latin America, Pentecostalism - as any other religious charismatic expression of renewal - upholds a two-pronged relationship with civil society. On the one hand, it maintains conflicting relationships with the religious establishment (Catholic Church, historical Protestantism). On the other hand, it sustains relationships of compromise with corporate States which are in the process of destructuring, and even with States which undergo processes of re-structuring, as in Nicaragua and Chile during the '70s. (16)

The fundamental motivation for this struggle on two fronts is the creation of new hegemonies and the affirmation and consolidation of old ones. On any of these fronts, what is actually at stake is not the civil society itself but the political society (the emerging or the established one) which advocates projects and aspirations as diverse as antagonistic - and is ready to use religion as a way to reach its objectives.

It is not too far-fetched to affirm that a symbolic equivalency is possible - on different levels - between Pentecostalism and some messianic groups of political or religious persuasion. These are the religious manifestations which promote, in the long run, socialist alternatives and resist, in spite of everything, the "collapse of hope" after lost battles - such as in Nicaragua, where Christians and Sandinists attempted to recreate hope - or the sens of "loss of hope" created by certain groups which have an interest in the "downfall" of socialism.

Pentecostalism accompanies, permeates and directs ways of being of indigenous groups and of large masses of immigrants who are searching for their identity in Latin America. In the case of Chile, the expansion of socialism and Pentecostalism corresponded chronologically, (17) and also coincided tactically. It should also be recognized that many transactional relationships gave birth to political clientelism on the part of the State with the Church and to religious clientelism on the part of the religious groups with the civil society, through the legitimization of the State.

Of late, some analysts of the Peruvian religious scene have suggested the hypothesis of a possible relationship of interaction and mutual influence between the emerging religious groups and a new type of capitalism. Such a hypothesis is reminiscent of Max Weber's study on Protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism. As is known, Weber emphasized the broader attitudes which are inherent to the character of each religion (in his study, the ethics of Calvinism) and shape the economic motivations and activities. The question is not that religious principles have a direct bearing on the different types of economic behaviour, but that they have the capacity - in religious and ideological terms - to legitimize the development of new motivations, activities and institutions which were not part of the original convictions and impulses.

But if the Weberian insights could be applied to certain sectors of European and North American Protestantism, they hardly find any application to the Latin American situation. And even less to Pentecostalism, due to its largely proletarian social condition and "its eschatological urgency" (the belief in the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God, now and here), and also because of the current changes and fluctuations of international capitalism.

Therefore, Pentecostalism is far from contributing to so-called "popular capitalism" or to provide a favorable milieu for its development, except in the form of consumers or of available cheap labor. In my view, this is due to a number of reasons: It is not asceticism but "mysticism" that is prevailing among Pentecostals; not saving but "spending" is the cultural pattern - because the little they receive is not enough to make savings and because it represents symbolically in monetary terms the value of their life ("fetichization"). Work cannot be considered as vocation and profession because the overriding situation among the Protestants is one of marginalization and unemployment, which sometimes takes on the form of redeeming self-denial. This means that any possible link with Weber has here its negative counterpart. What is more apparent with Pentecostalism is the relationship of mutual influence between pentecostal ethics and the spirit of socialism, or of any other system different from capitalism.

The transforming capacity of Pentecostalism does not rest upon its doctrinal coherence, but in its openness to new social practices at the critical and decisive junctures of a society in transition.

Therefore, born in the heat of a real and symbolic struggle against official Catholicism and Protestantism, as well as against political and partisan dogmatism, Latin American Pentecostalism has revealed conditions of symbolic mediation for what could be an affirmation of proletarian hope and national ethos. Those who fight Pentecostalism, whether religious people or politicians, do so because they are afraid of Pentecostal competition in the civil society, or because they have realized that Pentecostalism could embody a counter-programme in the political society. To the question of which should be the arena where Pentecostalism should fight its battle, the obvious answer is that Pentecostalism should struggle both in the civil and the political society. Yet, it is in the civil society where Pentecostalism will have the possibility to decide the future of the country and of its social involvement. If this is the vision of Pentecostals with their minimal participation in the political society, they would have understood with clarity where their role is more effective. This is not the time, in my opinion, to join the political class neglecting the need to pass through the social organizations. It is in the participation in the social organizations that maximum use should be made of a historical opportunity of far reaching consequences in our countries in the region. And this is possible precisely in the power of the Spirit, which makes possible the renewal of all things.



(1) Such a theory of conspiracy is rejected by Pentecostals, which consider it a widespread political reduction of the religious theory.

(2) Bernardo Campos: "Hacia una teología de la Pentecostalidad de la Iglesia". Buenos Aires: Conferencia pronunciada ante la Fraternidad Teológica Latinoamericana, 1988.

(3) Carlos Rodríguez Brandao, "Ser Católico: Dimensioes Brasileiras. Um Estudo sobre a atribuçao da identidade a traves da religiao", América Indígena. Vol. XLV. No. 4 (Oct-Dic) 1985: 691-722.

(4) José Míguez Bonino, "La Piedad Popular en América Latina", Cristianismo y Sociedad, Año XIV, No. 47, 1976: 39-48.

(5) Walter Hollenweger, El Pentecostalismo. Historia y Doctrinas. Buenos Aires, La Aurora, 1967: 7; Donald W. Dayton, Theological Roots of Pentecostalism, USA: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987: 115-141

(6) Religious belief in a kingdom of peace on earth --real or symbolic-- which will last 1000 years, in which Christ and his church will govern the world.

(7) Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism, 1920: 65.

(8) Weakening of traditional moral standards, crisis of norms and values accepted by consensus or imposed by a given social formation.

(9) F. Cartazo Rolim, Pentecostais no Brasil. Uma Interpretaçao do Protestaismo Brasileiro. Rio de Janeiro: Voces; Jean Pierre Bastian, Breve historia del Protestantismo en América Latina. México: CUPSA, 1986; Gamaliel Lugo, Base Social del Pentecostalismo Latinoamericano. Buenos Aires: Encuentro Pentecostal Latinoamericano (EPLA), 19-22 de Abril, 1989.

(10) Bernardo L. Campos, Religión y Liberación del Pueblo, Lima, Perú: CEPS, 1989.

(11) Cf. Steve Stern, "El Taki Onqoy y la Sociedad Andina" (Huamanga, siglo XVI), Allpanchis, Vol. VXI, No. 19, 1982: 49-77; Marco Curatola, "Mito y Milenarismo en los Andes: del Taki Ongoy a Inkarri", Allpanchis, Vol. X, 1977: 65-92.

(12) According to a dispatch from EFE (Washington, April 17) published in El Comercio, April 17, 1990.

(13) Cf. Ivan Vallier, Catolicismo, Control Social y Modernización en América Latina. Buenos Aires: Amorrortu Editores, 1970: 17 and note.

(14) It is worth remembering the controversy elicited by J.C. Mariategui's handling of the religious factor in his Seven Essays; likewise, the penalty imposed on Father Leonardo Boff (Brazil) for his theological assertions about the "eclesio-genesis", i.e. the church born out of the people, inside the Catholic Church.

(15) Orlando Costas: "La Misión y el Crecimiento Numérico de la Iglesia: Hacia una misiología de las masas y minorías", CELEP, Ensayos Ocasionales, 1976: 13.

(16) Some Pentecostal churches in Europe receive funding from the State. Although this is not the case in Latin America, the support that General Pinochet gave to the Iglesia Evangelica en Chile is well known.

(17) Christian Lalive D'Epinay, El Refugio de las Masas. Estudio Sociológico del Protestantismo Chileno. Santiago: El Pacífico, 1968: 276.


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