In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Religion and Politics in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • Case Studies of the Politics of Clergy and Religious Institutions
  • Religious Parties and Religious Politicians
  • Religion, Revolution, and Violence

Political Science Religion and Politics in Latin America
Lemuel Anderson, Rachel Ramírez, Amy Erica Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0254


Religion—in particular, the Roman Catholic Church—has been a driving force in Latin American politics, society, and economics from the earliest days of colonization. The Spanish Reconquest (Reconquista) of the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim conquerors in 1492, and subsequently the Spanish Inquisition, shaped the way imperial Spain treated indigenous Americans, European settlers, and African slaves. Following independence in most of the region in the early 1800s, the Church maintained its dominance; most countries in the region established Catholicism as their official religion in their first constitution. Liberal and anticlerical movements beginning in the mid-1800s and extending through the early 1900s, however, led many Latin American states to separate officially from the Roman Catholic Church, developing secular constitutions. In the early 21st century, by contrast, the religious landscape in Latin America is highly diverse. While the Roman Catholic Church remains the officially established church in about half the countries in Latin America, constitutional provisions favoring the Church have not protected it from religious competition. In Latin America’s pluralistic religious environment, new forms of religious engagement in politics are evolving. As most countries in the region transitioned from dictatorship to democracy during the “Third Wave of Democracy” in the 1970s through the 1990s, the Catholic Church, in particular, played a key role. In some countries, the Church became among the most important pro-democracy forces in civil society. For their part, Protestant and Pentecostal churches—historically known for their political quiescence and support of the status quo—have come to embrace democratic politics as they have grown in their demographic presence. An important and growing body of political science research seeks to explain this new political moment. Several broad questions orient new research. First, what state and societal factors have led to the region’s changing religious demographics? Second, what drives religious leaders and citizens within their religious communities to take part in varying forms of politics? Third, what are the consequences of religious politics for democracy and public policy?

Overview of the Religious Landscape in Latin America

Any study of religion and politics in Latin America needs to start with an understanding of what the religious groups are in Latin America, and how they are changing. The works in this section provide an overview of the religious groups in Latin America, as well as their major social characteristics and civic attitudes. The works also explore the social, economic, and political factors causing the dramatic demographic changes discussed in the introduction. In the early 21st century, Latin America is home to a tremendously diverse array of religious groups. Though Protestant missionaries had established small footholds in the region in the 19th century, Protestant and Pentecostal churches began to make substantial inroads into areas that were traditionally overwhelmingly Catholic beginning in the 1960s and 1970s. At present, Latin Americans in most localities across the region have access to diverse and competitive religious marketplaces featuring not only Catholic parishes, but a vibrant array of Protestant and Pentecostal churches, and often even varying minor indigenous and African-influenced folk religions. Non-affiliation with all religious traditions is also a growing option, particularly in some countries of the Southern Cone. The works in this section describe Latin America’s pluralistic religious marketplace, and then explore the nature and causes of religious change. Garrard-Burnett, et al. 2016 is an edited volume that provides a comprehensive overview of the history of religious groups of Latin America, while Pew Research Center 2014 provides an orientation to the religious landscape in the 2010s. Two review articles, Dixon 1995 and Drogus 1995, provide an overview of the process of religious change in Catholicism and evangelicalism. Rubin, et al. 2014 introduces the social roles of subaltern and folk religions, and serves as the introduction to an edited special volume of the Latin American Research Review. Several other volumes in this section seek to understand the forces leading to contemporary religious change; note especially Chesnut 2003, the Steigenga and Cleary 2007 edited volume, and Stoll 1991. Finally, Pew Research Center 2006 provides a data-driven overview of the characteristics of Latin America’s growing population of Pentecostals and Charismatics.

  • Chesnut, R. Andrew. Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    This important book argues that the “religious free market” in Latin America has led to the region’s growing vibrancy of religion. Not only do Pentecostal churches compete with each other and the Catholic Church, but Catholicism itself is innovating by developing new forms of worship, in the guise of Charismatic Catholicism.

  • Dixon, David E. “The New Protestantism in Latin America: Remembering What We Already Know, Testing What We Have Learned.” Comparative Politics 27.4 (1995): 479–492.

    DOI: 10.2307/422231

    This review article examines various studies (many discussed in this bibliography) on the rise of Protestantism in Latin America. The essay argues that this rise should be understood both from the perspective of global social and structural forces and from that of the agency of the individual poor.

  • Drogus, Carol Ann. “The Rise and Decline of Liberation Theology: Churches, Faith, and Political Change in Latin America.” Comparative Politics 27.4 (1995): 465–477.

    DOI: 10.2307/422230

    This review article examines important works (many discussed in this bibliography) explaining changes in the Catholic Church as an institution and in its theology over the course of several decades. Drogus sees the societal role of liberation theology as waning, and argues that the influence of the Church as an institution will decline in the future.

  • Garrard-Burnett, Virginia, Paul Freston, and Stephen C. Dove. The Cambridge History of Religions in Latin America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHO9781139032698

    This comprehensive volume covers Latin American religious history from pre-Conquest times until the present. It addresses such varied religious traditions as indigenous spiritual religions, non-Christian traditions, new religious movements, and religions of the African diaspora. Furthermore, it describes the process of religious change that Latin America is currently undergoing.

  • Pew Research Center. “Spirit and Power: A 10-Country Survey of Pentecostals.” Washington, DC: Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2006.

    The Pew Research Center is an important source of data on religion in Latin America (and around the world). This report describes the rise of global Pentecostalism and explains the religious, civic, and political attitudes of Pentecostals in three Latin American countries: Brazil, Chile, and Guatemala.

  • Pew Research Center. “Religion in Latin America: Widespread Change in a Historically Catholic Region.” Washington, DC: Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2014.

    This report, based on a comprehensive study of religion across the region, explains how religious demographics in Latin America are changing. It shows definitively that Catholicism is on the decline across the region, while adherence to Pentecostalism and Afro-Caribbean religions is growing. The report also chronicles how religious, social, and political attitudes differ between evangelicals and Catholics.

  • Rubin, Jeffrey W., David Smilde, and Benjamin Junge. “Introduction.” In Special Issue: Lived Religion and Lived Citizenship in Latin America’s Zones of Crisis. Edited by Jeffrey W. Rubin, David Smilde, and Benjamin Junge. Latin American Research Review 49.S (2014): 7–26.

    DOI: 10.1353/lar.2014.0063

    This article constitutes the introduction to an important collection of articles (some discussed individually throughout the bibliography) in the Latin American Research Review on “lived religion” among Latin American citizens, especially ones living in zones of crime and poverty. This collection of articles describes how religious beliefs and practices evolve in response to, and as attempts to address, the problems of daily life.

  • Steigenga, Timothy J., and Edward L. Cleary, eds. Conversion of a Continent: Contemporary Religious Change in Latin America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

    The twelve essays in this book chronicle conflicting explanations as to why so many in Latin America have converted to evangelicalism. This book pays attention to how people convert, under what conditions they convert, and the meaning of conversion to each individual convert.

  • Stoll, David. Is Latin America Turning Protestant? The Politics of Evangelical Growth. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

    This book describes the explosive growth of evangelicalism in Latin America, and discusses its political implications. Stoll seeks to understand whether evangelicalism is an “invasion” imported by North American conservatives, or instead a ground-up movement. Stoll interprets evangelical growth not as an invasion, but more as an “evangelical awakening” with indeterminate political implications. However, he argues that association with the religious right of the United States will hurt the movement.

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