Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 371 | Junio 2012


Central America

The third horseman of neoliberalism: The Neo-Pentecostals (part 2)

Religious syncretism—everything can and must be mixed— and the new spirit of capitalism have fused in the Neo-Pentecostal Churches, which came to settle in Central America just over a decade ago. This is part two of my reflections on this third horseman galloping in our region following visits to Guatemala’s and Nicaragua’s most prominent Neo-Pentecostal churches. The first appeared in these pages last month, a preface to my views that described their management culture and positive thinking, ideas that have also penetrated the traditional religions and our societies.

José Luis Rocha

The Neo-Pentecostals, the most inexperienced of the four neoliberal horsemen galloping over Central America, have the greatest worldly success, contrary to what their religious disposition might lead us to think. They are good national and international fundraisers, don’t skimp on investing in the most sophisticated audiovisual media, make use of the latest in communication technology and incubate high-flying politicians: former Guatemalan President Jorge Serrano is a notable El Shaddai follower, while Harold Caballeros, that same church’s founder and pastor, is current Guatemala’s foreign minister, and swears God personally promised he will reach the presidency.

With their electronic media, imposing architecture and doctrine, the Neo-Pentecostals are keeping up—or down—with the times. Unlike the other three horsemen in this series on neoliberalism—drug-traffickers, NGOs and youth gangs—the Neo-Pentecostals have only been riding through Central America for just over a decade, although we could say that their gestation dates back to the seventies and eighties, as does that of the other three.

To gather the information analyzed in this three-part article on the Neo-Pentecostals, I visited their most prominent churches in Guatemala and Nicaragua, observed their services, absorbed the atmosphere, exposed my spirit to the fiery discourse of their preachers and was expelled from two of their sanctuaries. I talked amiably—and sometimes argued bitterly—with some of the faithful, read the texts of some of their most eminent gurus and devoted dozens of hours to the Internet and television to check out the form and content of their shows. I believe I’ve been in the most significant settings of the born again and prospered, and the following are my first reflections—there are more to follow—on what I saw and heard, as well as the meaning I found in their searching.

The profile of Neo-Pentecostalism

The term “Neo-Pentecostal,” also called the charismatic movement by some, wasn’t coined or adopted by any of the denominations it refers to. It’s one more example of the symbolic violence exercised by academics, although the rivers of well-documented ink that have gone into empirically-based arguments appear to justify the common label for those that share enough characteristics to be included in the same bag. Many of them are breakaways from or transformations of Pentecostal churches or other Protestant denominations, such as Lakewood Church—the biggest in the United States, which was originally founded as Baptist by John Osteen and later “Neo-Pentecostalized” by his son Joel.

What does this “Neo-Pentecostalizing” consist of? Brazilian academics were among the first to use the Neo-Pentecostal label, applying it to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus), Reborn in Christ Church (Igreja Renascer em Cristo), Heal Our Land (Igreja Sara Nossa Terra) and International Church of God’s Grace (Igreja Internacional da Graça de Deus). All of them call themselves Pentecostal, but are distinguished from the Assemblies of God group of Pentecostal denominations not just because their churches are bigger.

Ari Pedro Oro, Ricardo Mariano, Paul Freston and Joaquín Algranti, among others, use the term Neo-Pentecostalism “to recognize the rupture with the traditional expressions and characterize the distinctive features of the new Pentecostal expressions. In this sense, they underline a change in the religious ethics and aesthetics, which tend to tip toward the secular world: they use the techniques, language and codes of the communication media, adopt a business structure, participate in politics, build up transnational networks, demonize the Afro-Brazilian groups in Brazil and practice a liturgy based on healing, exorcism and prosperity.”

Not all mega-churches are Neo-Pentecostal
but all Neo-Pentecostal churches are huge

Central America’s Neo-Pentecostal churches share many of those features. For example, I know of at least one in Guatemala that demonizes the religiosity and entire heritage of the Mayan culture.

I’m going to present the features that seem most marked to me, starting with the characteristic of “mega.” The terms Neo-Pentecostal and “mega-church” tend to be used interchangeably, the confusion stemming in part from the fact that the most successful mega-churches in the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala and Nicaragua are Neo-Pentecostal (a May 2011 ranking of Protestant mega-churches in Central America by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research lists 29 whose auditoriums hold between 2,000 and 25,000+, most of which are defined as “independent Pentecostal”).

But defining a church based on the size of its building alone is pretty flimsy. Defining a mega-church as a non-Catholic church with over 2,000 members, as Luisa Kroll does in Forbes magazine, doesn’t tell us very much about the driving force or about the consequences of its big size. The “mega-ness” is a condition of Neo-Pentecostalism but is neither an exclusive characteristic nor does it cover the whole profile. In other words, all Neo-Pentecostal churches are “extra large,” but not all mega-churches are Neo-Pentecostal. “Mega-ness” is an epiphenomenon with various roots.

Sociologists of religion talk a lot about the “religious market,” “consumers of religious salvation goods” and the “purchase of religious goods.” Exploiting this incisive but abusive comerce metaphor allows me to compare Foursquare Gospel, Baptist, Mormon and Catholic churches to big or small stores, and Neo-Pentecostal ones to giant shopping malls.

The pastor is the message

The former, as Church, have varied doctrinal products, due to the diversity of the sects, movements and personalities they consist of, which convert, subvert or pervert their institutional dogmas and guidelines. But in each individual church the supply tends to be very specific. In the Neo-Pentecostal churches, on the other hand, the supply satisfies a more varied demand because they have given up the idea of supplying specific products. The products are the general goods everyone needs: advice, music, hugs, kisses and instructions for life that the pastors distribute by narrating anecdotes about their own lives, presenting them as an example, as models to follow. It isn’t the doctrine that matters, but rather the pastor’s possibility of presenting himself as an identity-bestowing object. The medium—the pastor—is the message. This is another of the main features of the Neo-Pentecostal churches, but not one they have monopolized.

Aiming at middle-class,
good-income members

A third characteristic lies in the sectors they aim their networks at in the search for converts. The majority of their members are from middle-income sectors with a significant presence of high-salaried professionals. In principle, they don’t exclude other sectors, but it’s obvious that they prioritize this segment and have developed an aesthetic, rhetoric and leadership that are hypnotically attractive to that social stratum. This feature really is exclusively characteristic. In contrast to Antoni Negri and Michael Hardt, who focused on the revolutionary potential of the neoliberal masses, which could mobilize around a common goal regardless of class status, US researcher Megan Marie argues that neoliberalism also has classes with clearly identifiable interests. One example is the professional managerial class that packs the Neo-Pentecostal churches.

In the United States, their congregations consist of young professionals who do non-material labor, belong to the middle classes and feel more at home as employees of a mega-corporate chain than anywhere else. They have labor power, are financially solvent and have positions of authority that distinguish them from the industrial proletariat. Without being either big capitalists or petty bourgeoisie, they are responsible for reproducing capitalist class relations. They are the people who do the mental work in capitalist production and commercialization—medicine, law, teaching, publicity, etc.—without directly touching industrial or commercial matters.

They are individuals who grew up in modern societies, or at least the modernized segments of their societies, with access to technological advances, and tend to believe they’re building a fairer society through their mental work. In Central America they range from employees in the finance world to university bureaucrats, but their income levels and labor stability don’t tend to be as steady as those of their US Neo-Pentecostals counterparts.

A very open moral code

The fourth characteristic is their code of conduct, which is less severe than that of the traditional Pentecostal Churches and more focused on attitudes and routines that lead to a successful and pleasant professional and family life.

The neo-absence of invasive private sphere regulations appears to be an absurdity in the religious sphere, and indeed it is. What does a Church exist for if not to provide a superego that tells us how we must behave at each second and in each public and private situation? Neo-Pentecostalism doesn’t condemn people’s tastes in clothes, music, delicacies or liquor. It doesn’t have a dress code or censor risqué cleavage or revealing miniskirts. A Neo-Pentecostal can be abstemious and present it as a religious virtue, but can just as well drink liquor with no pangs of conscience.

Sexual morals give way
to business ethics

Some Neo-Pentecostal churches are explicitly open to homosexuals, lesbians and other children of God whose “unnatural sexual practices” were and continue to be anathema in Catholicism and other Evangelist denomina-tions. This hasn’t stopped Joel Osteen—pastor of Lakewood Church, the veritable cathedral of Neo-Pentecostalism—from labeling homosexuality a sin, because a nodal point of his particular preaching is the traditional version of the family. But in any case, homosexuality is an issue that Neo-Pentecostals only pronounce on when cornered by journalists. Homophobic diatribes are not one of their refrains.

The long shadow of God that Catholic conservatism and Calvinism painted as a mixture of Big Brother and Torquemada, torch in hand and constantly on the alert, doesn’t reach Neo-Pentecostal churches and homes. Gluttony, greed, lust and other deadly sins aren’t a central theme of their talks, but nor can it be said that Neo-Pentecostalism ignores its followers’ behavior. Its pastors insist on the importance of loving one’s children and dedicating time to them, the need for a positive attitude, the paternal image of God, duties to one’s family, an enterprising spirit, proper administration of money, personal prosperity and the desire for a better society… They give practical advice to help the middle-class family man respond to the challenges of the 21st century.

That’s why all aspects of behavior that have secular, immediate, individual and family consequences are important. But the thematic areas and divine propaedeutics change. Sexual morals give way to a business ethic. The worm of nagging conscience has been replaced by the boa of enterprise. The God that went around punishing has been sacked, replaced by a deferential one that likes nothing more than giving encouraging words and comforting pats on the back.

For the Neo-Pentecostal God, there’s no longer a single lifestyle for a believer or the narrow path of privations that led to salvation. Postmodern relativism is open to a diversity of tastes and lifestyles that have to be respected. All paths—only if they are God’s—lead toward prosperity. Contrasting it with conservative Catholicism reveals better than ever what Neo-Pentecostalism is and why it’s so attractive. And it’s precisely Catholicism that supplies the most notable influx of members, of people who find a very welcoming religious niche in the Neo-Pentecostals’ charismatic and secular style and love of personal success.

Room for all beliefs

The most characteristic feature of Neo-Pentecostalism is its non-denominational nature. It wouldn’t be rigorous to say it amounts to a form of ecumenism, because its members can’t share their previous or parallel beliefs; people from all kinds of religious practices are admitted, as long as they leave those beliefs outside the church doors. Rather, it adds up to avoiding having any church adornment, practices, statements, rituals or sermons that might be associated with any recognizable institutionalized religion. Lakewood Church in Houston was and still is like a sports stadium. The Shaddai temple in Guatemala is a somber convention hall. Neo-Pentecostal churches have no stained glass windows or altarpieces: a microphone stands where the Holy Sacrament or Cross would be. No extraterrestrial anthropologist not schooled in the Neo-Pentecostals’ frugal décor would ever associate these arenas with religious worship. Any Guatemalan or Nicaraguan hospital has more religious adornments than a Neo-Pentecostal church.

The same can be said of the rituals. In Nicaragua’s Neo-Pentecostal Hosanna Community of Family Renewal, the marriage ceremony consists of some advice and words of encouragement from the pastor that are very similar to and in fact even more secular than the civil ceremony. That’s at least one key to its success: the doctrinal vacuity scares nobody and is compatible with any past or present religious, labor and political options. It’s thus possible to be a member of Hosanna while also listening to the Pentecostal Maranatha radio and being an expert on the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

This very postmodern “anything goes” policy becomes what Brazilian academic Ari Pedro Oro calls “religiophagy”: an excessive and omnivorous appetite that swallows up any other creed. Religiophagy confuses researchers, which is why Brazil’s Universal Church is at one and the same time treated as Pentecostal (its own label), presented as the most Catholic of the Protestant churches, assumed to be an urban reworking of traditional grassroots Catholicism, ridiculed as a do-it-yourself church, exhibited as a phenomenon that seeks to challenge the cultural tradition, observed as a church that syncretically reworks its adversaries’ beliefs and ritual practices, and sold as a midway point between Evangelicals and the Afro-Brazilian religions.

Each pastor is autonomous

One far-from-negligible sub-product of this nondenomi¬national nature is organizational independence. Each Neo-Pentecostal church is autonomous. It can invite important mentors to share their intangible assets—i.e. fame, prestige, know-how, administrative structure—the kind of assets that multiply precisely the more they’re shared. But mentors have no hierarchical linkage with their protégés. Nothing stops the latter from seeking additional or replacement mentor-protégé relationships anytime they want.

It can therefore be said that each church is a “Church” in itself, except when it’s explicitly a branch, as is the case with Hosanna, listed by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research as affiliated with Assemblies of God. Hosanna’s main church is in Managua, with other lesser ones in Granada, Masaya, Diriamba, Juigalpa and Managua’s San Judas barrio. All are part of the same Church, which claims over 12,000 members and is increasing at a rate of 300 per month.

Neo-Pentecostal autonomy is in very marked contrast with Catholicism’s hierarchy: Neo-Pentecostalism doesn’t have the equivalent of a Vatican that controls the kind and quality of products offered by all branches. Each manager-pastor administers his or her church as he/she considers best, although the final and intermediate products are very similar. Nor do these pastors exploit their overwhelming prestige or “godfather” image to impose dogmas, missals, catechisms, formulae, bulls or prohibitions on their flock or their less distinguished colleagues.

A religious mutation

What sociologist of religion Jean-Pierre Bastian wrote to ponder the effervescence of Pentecostalism applies even more to the Neo-Pentecostal era: “Comparing the dynamic acquired by a religious field until recently regulated by the Roman Catholic Church and the current situation of a religious field gone mad, exploding in all directions, it is possible to talk about mutation. In other words, there is no other dynamic than that of the plain competition of the religious free market economy.”

Neoliberal Central America, that venerator of the free market, liberalized the religious field as well. Malls of salvation are born, grow and are reproduced in that field, while mutations take place by means of syncretism. But what are these malls like, what do they sell and how do they sell it? We need to take a look inside.

Sitting in the last row
of Managua’s Hosanna church

It’s Wednesday May 30, Mother’s Day in Nicaragua. I head back down Managua’s Jean Paul Genie Avenue towards the Masaya Highway having done a U-turn at a crossroads where the sign indicates “Only Hosanna.” This is the only traffic sign that establishes a valid regulation exclusively for one group: those attending the Hosanna service. I pull into the spacious parking lot, adjacent to the giant tent that served as a church during Hosanna’s early days and is now used as a training center. Five young people are making sure everything’s in order. They’re probably church members providing the service as a sort of in-kind tithe.

The church itself is a giant box with no divisions and a cement floor crammed full of folding metal chairs. The monotony of the concrete is only interrupted by the asymmetrically-arranged great wide windows in the form of a monochrome cross. There are no permanent adornments, no sculptures or paintings and no idols to adore. Nor is there any incense to burn. In short, there are no distractions from the hereafter except those of the here and now on stage. Catholic baroque has been replaced by Lutheran sobriety. A group of female attendants between the ages of 20 and 70, dressed in formal blazers and black skirts give little boxes of flowers to mothers as they enter.

Trying not to draw any attention to myself, I sit in the last row, which is a totally unnecessary precaution because the mass of people attending ensures a comfortably impersonal atmosphere in which the faithful can occupy themselves with the most varied activities with complete impunity, free even from reproving looks. Some whisper to people next to them, chat on their cell phones, touch up their hair, do their makeup, even change seats three or four times or nip out for 15 minutes. On the stage, a group sings in praise of God. I find the words disappointing, as they only repeat over and over again that God is on high, strong, glorious and powerful. I’ve suffered this ritual many times, always wondering whether God’s self-esteem really requires this reiterative massaging, or whether anyone really believes we’ll earn the desired prize and free ourselves from the much-feared hell by adulating him.

Music, tithes and contests

The over-simplicity of the lyrics is made up for by the spectacular musical arrangement. The members of the musical group don’t just play and sing very well; they’ve carefully ensured that the songs match the style of the latest secular hit songs. The deafening speakers do the rest. The many young people—the majority judging by the babes in arms or toddlers and recently-formed couples—and the rest of the congregation get to their feet, raise their arms and start swaying rhythmically.

I feel like I’m at a free concert. But nothing’s free here. After 40 minutes the attendants come by with purple velvet bags to collect the offering. They also bear little envelopes in which to place the tithes. The pastor keeps insisting that “God gives according to what He is given,” and that “We have to give a lot for God to give to us.” So the unemployed and poorly-paid are asked to make a big sacrifice if they want a future reward. And those more comfortably off have to deal with their tithe: Praise the Lord and pass the contribution—some hoping to receive and others thanking for what they’ve received and hoping to receive more.

Five songs and a couple of donations later, a kind of auxiliary pastor organizes a series of contests for the children. Three pairs are formed, with the biggest holding the littlest like babies. But instead of a baby bottle with milk, the supposed babes have to guzzle a bottle of Coke as quickly as they can. The first to finish is rewarded with a basket full of gifts for his or her mother. Next a prize is awarded for speed, fecundity and church attendance, as the winning child is the one who reaches the stage first representing cohorts of four or five siblings who all turned up for church.

Women pastors, couples and kisses

Next up is the main course. The main pastor, Arsenio Herrera, takes the stage to present his wife, who’s making her debut. Before passing her the microphone, the preacher lavishly praises her virtues as a partner, saying nothing not directly related to married life. He finishes with a hug and a loud kiss. Both are wrapped in an aura of applause from the congregation.

They are the message. They are what has to be; our best possible “us.” Setting aside my suspicion that the public image probably doesn’t correspond to the private person—just as a stage draped in tinsel doesn’t say much about the dusty, weather-beaten junk behind it—I couldn’t help thinking about the contrast between this scene and the Catholic services—which also have enormous gaps between the public figures and the people they really are. They are usually directed by celibate males, are devoid of spontaneous human emotions and, with the exception of weddings, a couple’s kiss is as out of place in them as a clown at a funeral service.

If after 2,000 years Catholicism still doesn’t have women priests and nuns—the institution’s female officials—can’t regularly preside over a religious ceremony, it’s not strange that many couples in such a traditional Catholic country as ours are now more attracted by the idea of a Neo-Pentecostal service. The participation encouraged among women in these services is more in line with the spaces they’ve opened up—after centuries of struggle—in the labor, political and family spheres.

The “mall” works:
There’s something for everyone

The female preacher gives a very articulate speech about women’s virtues. Relaxing music plays as she speaks, providing a contrast with her husband’s dynamic style. Her speech is sprinkled with family anecdotes, stirring up the audience with instructions they all follow without a word of complaint: “Tell your wife she’s virtuous”… and all the men turn to their wives and repeat “You’re virtuous.” At one point, when she asked us to tell the person sitting next to us that “God is great,” the oldest of the female attendants came up and with a charming smile told me “God is great.”

Nobody dozes off during the sermon. Just when it looks like some in the audience are on the point of succumbing to Managua’s heat, the preacher calls for hugs or handshakes with the person next to us, or for mothers, spouses or offspring. Her sermon ends with a prayer: with heads bowed and eyes closed, everyone listens to her invoking prosperity for those who have not yet had the Lord place his hands on their finances but also for those afflicted with an unstable marriage. She promises we will all be prosperous.

The almost two-hour event was broadcast by Radio Hosanna and posted on the Internet. The “mall” worked, with everyone taking what they wanted from what was on offer: the afflicted took words of hope; those hungry for affection got kisses and hugs; music and MTV lovers received live holy pop music; and those obsessed with cash flow problems were promised prosperity. What happened was what preacher Cláudio Freidzon of the Brazilian Assemblies of God repeated to his faithful during the “Times of Revival” campaign in September 2008: “Receive the force of the Holy Spirit, receive the request of your heart, receive the revival, receive what you came to look for. Take it! Take it! Take it!” Nobody is obliged to consume everything on offer. So what if someone yawns during the sermon or arranges their hair just as the praise of God is reaching its climax? What matters is to be hugged and to pay your tithe.

Crusades are all the rage in
Neo-Pentecostal Guatemala

Guatemala has been blessed by a more belligerent, remunerative and numerous array of Neo-Pentecostal churches than Nicaragua. In 2009 Guatemala’s mega-churches included the Christian Brotherhood (pastor, Jorge H. López; seats 12,200), the Family of God Church of Jesus Christ (pastor, Luis Fernando Solares; seats 5,000) the House of God Church (Carlos “Cash” Luna; seats 3,500), the El Shaddai Ministries (Harold Caballeros; seats 5,000), the Elim Central Church of Christ (founded by Othoniel Ríos Paredes, seats 3,200), the Church of Jesus Christ Palabra Mi-El (for Elim Mission)-Central (Gaspar Sapalu Alvarado; seats 3,500), the Showers of Blessing Church (Ángel Edmundo Madrid Morales, seats 5,000) and the Ebenezer Ministries of Guatemala (Sergio Enríquez, seats 2,500). The first three are classified as clearly Neo-Pentecostal and I was able to visit two of them at the end of 2011.

Guatemala’s northern winds are blowing. I walk into the Bisel Christian bookshop in a capital city mall. It must be a very ecumenical bookshop because there are rosaries on sale alongside books from the best Evangelical pens. In a prominent place, there is a set of plastic crusade armor the right size for a child of around eight. Could it be to train children from a very young age in defense of the faith, gloriously ignorant of the fact that the big men who used the real thing on their long campaign to the Holy Land lunched on children in Bulgaria and Turkey?

When I visited Pastor Cash Luna’s House of God a few days later, I noticed that the only decoration on the walls were photographs of Luna, his wife and some extras dressed as crusaders, acting out a play. Then I noticed that the Thomas Nelson Publishers edition of the book Victorious Warfare, by Harold Caballeros, has a crusader’s shield and sword on its cover. Crusades are evidently in fashion again, just as wars against Satan are in Managua’s poor Reparto Schick neighborhood. They’re acted out on theatrical stages in the former Captaincy General of Guatemala and in hard streets and modest churches here in Nicaragua.

Caballeros sees Mayan culture
as “serpentine idolatry”

The bookshop is dominated by books published by Peniel, one of the most powerful Neo-Pentecostal and Pentecostal publishing houses. I buy De victoria en victoria [the Spanish version of Victorious Warfare], a major work on spiritual optimism by Harold Caballeros, founder of El Shaddai, which claims a congregation of 12,000 members in Guatemala. Caballeros has been a Neo-Pentecostal preacher for over 20 years and is currently Guatemala’s foreign minister. I buy the book because it’s his central work and contains a thoroughgoing presentation of his most developed thesis, according to Canadian anthropologist Kevin Lewis O’Neill, the only researcher to have an in-depth study on El Shaddai, a magnificent work published in City of God: Christian citizenship in postwar Guatemala.

Focusing on the symbolism of the plumed serpent, Caballeros puts the blame for all of Guatemala’s ills on the bloody Maya culture, experienced in human sacrifices and promoter of violence: “This serpent inspired all art in the Mayan, Aztec, Toltec and Inca cultures. We could well call them serpentine cultures, when we observe that, from the architecture of their pyramids to the design of their dresses (huipiles), all come from the design of serpent skin.”

“We had only started to understand the importance of what we had before us. We realized that our country—actually the countries of what is called Meso America—had been handed over to, dedicated to, or given over to this evil spirit. From there branch many of the characteristics of the culta that are still operative today in our countries.” (...)

“Certainly, the Mayas went through all that degenerative process which is provoked by idolatry. From the adoration of God, they placed their eyes upon man, and with this sin they became corrupted. (…) From there, they lowered themselves to worshiping birds (the quetzal), animals (the jaguar) and ended up worshiping reptiles (the rattlesnake). (…) During all of the research process, our attention was powerfully drawn to the bloodthirstiness of that cult—the human sacrifices—and the unique way in which the sacrifices were conducted.”

He explains the wars of the eighties
and promises “super tortillas”

According to Caballeros, the ancient Mayan ball game, in which the losing team’s captain was sacrificed, lies at the roots of our culture and explains the region’s fratricidal fighting of three decades ago: “While it is true that the ball game does not exist anymore, and there are no more human sacrifices in that same fashion, the bloodshed through death caused by one brother against the other continues. Many of the Latin American countries (and others of course) have experienced revolutionary or guerrilla movements, and in each of these cases, the process is the same. They are fratricidal wars with Guatemalans murdering Guatemalans, Nicaraguans against Nicaraguans, etc. Brothers shed their brother’s blood, thus defiling the land.” He says that when he did his research, he thought Mexico was an exception to his hypothesis, but some time later he realized it wasn’t. The massacres related to drug-trafficking had nothing to do with his change of mind; it was rather that “the Zapatista National Liberation Army emerged as one more movement of the ones that have brought so much pain to our people.”

Caballeros says he had a revelatory dream in which God told him he had to be President of Guatemala. Heading up the Vision and Values (VIVA) party he based his election campaign on the proposal to end malnutrition in the country by adding soy, vitamins and minerals to the tortillas from all of the country’s mills to make “Super Tortillas,” described on the “Harold for President” web site as “a product with the same taste as the one we are currently consuming throughout the country, but which would be made with fortified flour to give citizens the nutrients required for their development.”

But divine promises and images in the media of haughty men in suits and ties and dolled-up ladies eating fortified tortillas didn’t have the hoped-for effect. On September 11, 2011, Caballeros’ coalition only obtained 6.15% of the valid votes in the first round. Shrewdly calculating the electoral political economy and attempting to fully exploit his investment in the campaign, Caballeros endorsed former General Otto Pérez Molina in the second round, who returned the favor by making him foreign minister. He thus swapped an impossible birthright—the presidency—for a plate of—admittedly fortified—lentils.

What can be expected of
a pastor-foreign minister?

What can Guatemala’s Mayan majority (51%, 61%?) expect of a foreign minister who promised a spiritual war against their spirituality from his pulpit in El Shaddai? Caballeros preached that the growth of pre-Colombian religion was one of the most catastrophic events in Guatemalan history: “That false cult opened Guatemala’s borders to the devil.” What consequences can we expect from Guatemala’s foreign relations being put in the hands of someone who has lamented and denounced Guatemala’s delivery and dedication to the malign serpentine spirit of the indigenous cultures?

For Caballeros the Mayan cults are an example of rejection of the true God, an error that has bequeathed corruption, dark¬ness pain to future generations. With enormous ignorance of the most basic findings of the phenomenology of religions, he states that if indigenous peoples say that Quetzacoaltl “died for his people and came back to life on the fourth day –we will see that we are facing a falsification of Christ.”

We can’t accuse Caballeros of inconsistency: he’s now serving the general who did the best he and his guns could to exterminate Mayan communities in the eighties. Thus one of the managers of the ethnic genocide and a promoter of culture genocide—or ethnocide—come together in a handshake. The alliance between preacher Caballeros and the general in the presidency should come as no surprise. Caballeros has taken his veneration of military methods and clothes into his church, as his followers can attest. They were surprised one Sunday morning when he turned off the lights, leaving them in the dark, then jumped unexpectedly onto the stage in military uniform, proclaiming “We’re going to be Kaibiles for Christ!” (The Kaibiles are a Guatemalan ar-my special operations force with an abysmal human rights re¬cord.)

In Caballeros’ El Shaddai

I visited El Shaddai on different occasions and made various attempts to get at least an interview with its leaders. I requested an appointment with Cecilia de Caballeros, Harold’s wife and heir of his pulpit. She has been the main preacher in El Shaddai since Caballeros received the divine call to the presidency of Guatemala. An intermediary took me to a conference room, where she interrogated me about my intentions and the nature of envío. We talked for 15 minutes, during which I couldn’t get a single comment out of her about her church: “They’ll give you that information during the interview.” But she can’t have been very convinced of my integrity because she never made good on her promise to call or write me to agree to a date and time for the interview.

In the Kairos bookshop—located in the same complex as the church, conference rooms, offices and the San Pablo University—I was able to buy three other books by Caballeros that I read start to finish and some CDs of international conferences with presentations by the pick of the Neo-Pentecostal world. And there I came across that phrase from the book of Proverbs I had already seen waving its arms and fluttering its eyes from the donations corner of the El Shaddai website: “Honor the Lord from your wealth and from the first of all your produce; so your barns will be filled with plenty and your vats will overflow with new wine.”

Next to the books Lo que no digo cantando by singer Ricardo Montaner and El monstruo, in which Guatemalan writer Sakis González presents his sins, I discovered a real gem: Altos instintos, the 1997 film starring Mexican singer Yuri, who was born again after the miraculous disappearance of various tumors that temporarily affected her vocal cords and artistic career.

In Luna’s House of God

I found similar literature in Cash Luna’s House of God, where everything was much bigger and the entertainment more sophisticated. The anteroom to the children’s section, which is called House of God IgleKids [ChurchKids] and is located next to an enormous sign saying “I will learn to be a conquistador,” has a gallery of the church’s apostles, headed by preachers Cash and Sonia Luna, followed by the rest of the preachers and coordinators. At one end is a photo of the coordinator of “Wow Dios,” identified as Nanny Lu, dotted with stars, wearing loud scarlet clothes and a jet-set smile, an obvious allusion—in both name and clothes—to Colombian tropipop singer Fanny Lu.

This gallery leads in to an immense section of children’s games that would embarrass any of the region’s malls. It won’t be money that reins in the desire for fun in this Neo-Pentecostal incubator: to mitigate the sin of insolvency, there’s a kid-sized ATM for the diminutive users and future conquistadors.

I wanted to explore other areas, but found my attention blinkered when we slipped into the sanctum, the place of worship, which is a great auditorium full of padded seats and a load of audiovisual equipment, but devoid of religious paraphernalia. In this space, a model of confessional neutrality, one of the many security guards continuously doing the rounds came over to tell us we weren’t authorized to enter there.

The two friends accompanying me were living examples of good manners and diplomacy. One of them explained, with typical Guatemalan grace and tact, that we had entered to pray and immediately adopted an air of insurmountable devotion. But the unmoved guard radioed his colleagues: “Three sierras entered.” [“sierras”—translation saws—is the security company codeword for señores, or “gentlemen”] We beat a hasty retreat. Never mind. We got photos and took in the atmosphere. There’s an eternity of videos on YouTube to provide a closer look at Cash Luna’s ideological offerings.

The current poles of
religious competition

The emergence and vigor of the Neo-Pentecostals has changed the bearings of confessional rivalries. The antinomic axis has been displaced; the religious market is no longer the one disputed by Catholics and Protestants that French sociologist Yvon Le Bot observed. The new opposition is between the born-agains—charismatic Catholics, Neo-Pentecostals, Pentecostals and other such denominations that tout a dramatic conversion—and the traditionals, i.e. the Catholic and mainline Protestant Churches.

There’s obviously a rainbow of options within each conglomeration. There are also other axes of opposition, but none as marked by competitive vigor and by a class component as that which has the Neo-Pentecostalists at one pole, stealing Catholic faithful—both the half-hearted and the militants—and creating class cohesion based on consumption and an appetite for a certain cultural capital.

A postmodern, closed and neutral ecumenism

The polymorphous Neo-Pentecostals stand out among the religious offerings in neoliberal Central America, having managed to bring to the regional stage a postmodern, closed and neutral ecumenism.

It’s postmodern because it doesn’t wear itself out articulating a doctrinal convergence. That puts it in line with a world in which the big stories of modernity have fallen into discredit.

It’s closed because it doesn’t crystallize into dialoguing forms of worship, hybrid rituals and mixed celebrations due to its tense combination of opening and sectarianism characterized by “born again” and “rebirth” itself, given that rebirth implies a rupture that it prefers to deny rather than share the tradition from which it springs.

And it’s neutral because Neo-Pentecostals like those of Hosanna or El Shaddai have taken note of the benefits of being non-confessional to improve recruitment, sheltered beneath a standard that reads “We are not a religion, but rather an arena for living our faith.” Their strategy, how
ever, is producing the result pursued by plain ecumenism: bringing together Christians of all traditions.

There’s still plenty more to cover in the wide world of Neo-Pentecostalism. I have mentioned its features, which include some of the reasons for its attraction from the “supply side” in Central America. But there’s still a need to explain why other offers are in decline—why so many Catholics have migrated toward Neo-Pentecostalism—and to unravel the new factors conditioning the demand. The latter include violence, crime, labor instability and other situations that increase anxiety as well as questions that Neo-Pentecostal syncretism placates and responds to, amalgamating Christianity with positive thinking and a management culture. We’ll take a closer look at these issues in the next installment of this series.

To be continued in the August edition.
José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


Trembles, shudders, waivers and narcs


The Family Code bill, as it stands, is interventionist, conservative and neoliberal

Memories of a scholarship generation

El Salvador
Public-private partnerships: Another disguise for privatization

The third horseman of neoliberalism: The Neo-Pentecostals (part 2)

América Latina
The extractive capitalism of Latin America’s progressive camp
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development