Religious Faith and Social Presence: The Identity Politics of Religious Actors in Guatemala and Nicaragua

In Latin American societies, the relevance of strongly religious actors has grown considerably during the last decades. Evidence of this are their participation in public debates on questions with social and moral contents, the influence they wield in the political process, and the religious tone that politicians use increasingly in their communication. In Nicaragua, the leftist-populist government of the Sandinista Daniel Ortega avails itself of an ostensibly religious language derived from the Pentecostal movement. It also co-opts all types of religious leaders for its political project. In Guatemala, for the third consecutive time a leading mega-church from the historically rather a-political Pentecostal movement has organized an evangelical Te Deum to celebrate the inauguration of a national presidential term. The presidents have actually participated, providing evidence that the Guatemalan society is now less Catholic yet more religious than it was in the past. Alongside the growth of the Protestant population, a revitalization of both Catholicism and the Indigenous Mayan movement can be observed. Finally, interviews and conversations with the 'common faithful' have yielded the insight that religious convictions are not only an integral part of everyday lives, but also of social and political strategies and opinions.

In brief, Central America has seen a development that to sociologists may seem counter-intuitive in several regards. After the civil wars of the 1980s and coinciding with processes of technological modernization and formal democratization, the societies of the region have turned more publicly religious. Strong varieties of religious faith have evolved into important operators of social practice in a diversity of fields. A type of civil religion has reemerged, this time contested by several currents of Catholic and Protestant or Pentecostal Christianity and a reinvigorated Maya religion. All this happens within societies that are marked by diverse constellations of political and economic power. Seen from an empirical stance informed by a theory of religion, the situation is mainly interesting because of the strong and complex interplay of political co-optation and opposition, social and moral agendas, ethnic tensions, institutional positioning of the churches, personal practices and convictions, and economic opportunities. A research design assuming a purely functionalist focus on questions regarding compensation, integration, legitimization or (de-)secularization and a priori definitions of dependent and independent variables would not be able to account for these complexities.

Based on Bourdieu's praxeological sociology, we have therefore chosen individual and collective religious actors as the theoretical and methodological point of departure for this research project. We have located these actors and their religious, political, and social dispositions and strategies within the dynamics of the religious field and the societal division of power.

The theoretical framing of religion as a form of practical logic enables us to capture the conditions and effects of religious practice in their interaction with other forms of practice and within the special dynamics of religious competition. This theoretical approach corresponds methodologically with the models of HabitusAnalysis. We use an interviewing protocol developed specifically for the purposes of HabitusAnalysis to generate data on the religious dimensions of how members of diverse religious movements process their experiences. We then triangulate the results with objective data on the structure of the religious field and the distribution of power. We thus reconstruct collective religious identities and strategies of different groups as formations of religious sense in the context of social conflict. In this way, we systematically describe subjective and objective as well as religious and non-religious context factors of religious practice and religious differentiation. The reconstruction of religious practice in a society is more than a goal in itself. It also provides an interpretive framework for a multitude of possible case studies on topics such as the practical organization of evangelical Church growth, the political inclinations of religious actors, etc.

Comparative field research was conducted in Guatemala (Tobias Reu and project director) and Nicaragua (Adrián Tovar and project director). The project director's long trajectory conducting research in both countries, which goes back to the 1980s, enables us to envision a comparison of developments in both countries through time. With regard to the present state, our research shows that the dissimilar development of political regimes has occasioned considerable differences that strongly affect political and social strategies of religious actors. In both countries, our main focus rests on both the small congregations and neo-Pentecostal mega-churches of the Pentecostal movement, which has grown considerably since the 1980s. In addition, we take the following control groups into account: the Catholic movement for charismatic renewal, Opus Dei, Catholic base communities that have sprung from the theology of liberation, Protestant churches of the historic variety, and indigenous Mayan religiosity in Guatemala.

In terms of preliminary results, there are clear indications that the erstwhile marginalized Protestant movement has moved to the center of society, all the while undergoing a marked social diversification. At the same time, the Catholic church and its charismatic currents have understood to mobilize their own membership and to defend their hegemonic position against Protestant competition. Notwithstanding the outward likeness of Pentecostalism and the Catholic movement for charismatic renewal, the religious convictions that are common within them are quite distinctive. Whereas in the Catholic charismatic movement, a focus on a rule-based life of improvement comes linked to the corporative articulation with the official Catholic church, the religious practice of members of neo-Pentecostal mega-churches connects aspirations of social ascent with the charismatic authority of preachers of prosperity gospel. At the same time, the social impact of religiosity occasions the heightened importance of religious forms of legitimization and orientation of positions and processes within the politics of both countries. Civil religion has become an important currency whose definition is twice contested by competition within the religious field and by divergent attempts to use it as a source of moral authority within the political field.

This project counts with the partial cooperation of our counterparts in Central America:

Team/ Research Partners:

Heinrich Schäfer

Tobias Reu
Adrián Tovar
Heinrich Schäfer

Research partners:
Mario Sanchez: Universidad Centroamericana, Nicaragua
Karen Ponciano, Maria Victoria García: Universidad Rafael Landívar, Guatemala

A reasearch report is avaiblable here (PDF) , albeit for the time being only in German.

This project is financed by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft

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