A Continental Shift

By Richard Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times, August 13, 1989.

In a preface to a book of critical essays, the poet W. H. Auden defines his vision of paradise (by way of divulging how his critical faculties are colored) as "Roman Catholic in an easygoing Mediterranean sort of way, lots of local saints, religious processions, brass bands, opera."

At this point I should do likewise. My own version of paradise would be Roman Catholic in an easygoing Latin American sort of way. But Roman Catholic for all that.

After four Catholic centuries, a new brand of Christianity is catching fire in Latin America. Latin America, the Catholic hemisphere of the Americas, the last best wine the Catholic Church had counted on to see itself through the 21st Century, is turning Protestant. And not just Protestant, but evangelical.

Evangelico: One who evangelizes, the Christian who preaches the gospel. I use the term loosely, as the U.S. press now uses the term, to convey a movement, a spirit abroad, rather than a religion or a specific group of churches. There are evangelical elements within all Christian denominations. But those I call evangelical would wish to distinguish themselves from mainline Protestant churches and most certainly from the Catholic Church. Evangelicals are the most Protestant of Protestants. Evangelical conversion hinges upon the direct experience of Christaccepting Jesus Christ as one's personal savior. Evangelicals are fundamentalists. They read Scripture literally: they say yes when they mean yes and no when they mean no.

Throughout Latin America most evangelical Christians tend also to be "Pentecostals." (Pentecost is the Christian feast commemorating the manifestation of the Holy Ghost as tongues of flame upon the heads of the apostles.) Pentecostal Christianity is emotional Christianity, trusting most a condition of enrapturement by the Holy Spirit. Pentecostalism is rife with prophesy, healings and the babble of sacred tongues.

At the beginning of the century there were fewer than 200,000 Protestants in all of Latin America. Today, one in eight Latin Americans is Protestant; there are more than 50 million Protestants in Latin America. The rate of conversion (by one estimate, 400 per hour) leads demographers to predict Latin America will be evangelical before the end of the 21st Century.

A Catholic priest I know refuses the urgency with which I describe the phenomenon. "In Latin America you are Catholic just by breathing the air," he says. "The Catholic faith has so permeated the life of the peoplethe courtroom, the kitchen, the plaza, the architect's eyethat it would take centuries for Latin America to sweat it out."

This is the Catholic way of looking at things. It is my way. I am a Catholic because of Mexico and it is as difficult for me to imagine a Protestant Latin America as it would be to imagine the Pacific Ocean emptied of salt.

Protestantism began in Europe in the 16th Century when people found themselves alone, apart from their villages, apart from communal identities in cities. Protestantism taught Europe to imagine the self according to the new world of citiesthe world of strangers. Protestantism taught that the central experience of faith was of an individual standing alone before God. Protestantism provided much of Europe with the conviction to defy authority.

In our century, Latin American peasants are making the journey into modern cities.

Protestantism in Latin America increased fivefold in the 1940s. Consider what may be a related statistic from Mexico during the 1940s: At the start of the decade, 70% of Mexicans lived in villages of fewer than 2,500 people. Since the 1940s, the population of Mexico has tripled. The dry land will no longer sustain Mexicans. The poor have left villages for cities, massive cities, for Mexico City, for Los Angeles. Today, 80% of Mexicans are urbanized.

When U.S. journalists travel to Latin America they report on the Contras or some latest brigade of jungle Marxists, trying their damnedest to keep track of khaki-colored commandantes appearing or disappearing from palace windows. So they miss the point. Generals are not the point of Latin America. Drugs are not the point of Latin America. Catholicism is the point of Latin America. Ask any Protestant. Ask Gloria Steinem. Ask Planned Parenthood. Latin America suffers because it is Catholic. Babies. Guilt. Fatalism.

Conversion is the new point. Catholicism assumes that men and women are powerless. Catholicism may always have been administered by celibate men, but its intuition is entirely feminine. The Church is our mother, the Church is Christ's bride. (Catholics are children.) Catholics need the intercession of Santos and the Virgin Mary. Catholics depend upon church guidancecenturies of tradition, centuries of example. Catholics live in communion with all generations of the faithful, living and dead.

I remember an old nun saying when I was a boy: "If you are ever in church and for one reason or another you cannot pray, then ask God to unite your lazy prayers to the good prayers of people kneeling around you." Catholics do not pray alone. The prayerful life of the church is a communal achievement. The prayer goes on like the tide of the sea, regardless.

The problem of Catholicism, the huge pillow-breasted consolation of Catholicism, is that it is all-embracing, so all-embracing that it defines an entire nation, a whole hemisphere. But when religion becomes so all-embracing it is easily taken for granted. What does it mean that Brazil claims to be the largest Catholic country in the world if nobody goes to Mass in Brazil?

Bohemians and poets from Protestant climes have always tended toward the romance of Catholic cities or Catholic parts of cities. Everyone knows Catholics run better restaurants and cafes than Protestants. Catholics have better architecture and sunnier plazas and an easier virtue and are warmer to the touch. And Catholic culture welcomes everyone, Bohemian and sinner. Catholicism is at best tolerant. Catholicism is cynical. Protestants run cleaner police departments and courts than Catholics. Protestant trains are cleaner than Catholic trains and they run on time.

The Catholic Church assumes that it is the nature of men and women to fail. You can be a sinner and remain a Catholic. Catholicism expects that faith will ebb and swell in the course of a lifetime. Catholic liturgy is compatible with the seasons of human life, moving from sorrow to joy across deserts of Ordinary Time. "Catholicism is religion for the longhaul," says my priest in triumph.

We Catholics are suspicious of sudden change and of people who confess sudden change. Diets and New Year's resolutions are Protestant notions.

Catholic missionaries proselytize as fervently as evangelicals. But the act of conversion does not define Catholicism. Catholicism is a way of life that need never come to a head; it never stands or falls on one decision.

According to evangelical faith, suddenness is holy. Change is a religious imperative. You can, you must be born again. Conversion defines faith.

Latin American bishops criticize evangelical missionaries for tearing families apart, casting brothers against sisters. Bishops see the evangelical church as introducing a pernicious idea of self reform. But therein lies the undeniable appeal of evangelical Protestantism. For the young who have no time to waste, the theatrical glamour of evangelical Protestantism akin to barbells and eye shadow is the promise of quick change.

Three teenagers in Central America tell me they became evangelicos because the gringo preacher always wore a suit and a tie. In this case, the visible sign of faith and grace is at once a sign of success.

For four centuries in Latin America, the Catholic Church has preached the opposite, the tragic sense of life. In every Catholic Church in Latin America you will see the tragic effigy of the ecce homo, the humiliated Christ. "Christ was a loser," my priest regularly reminds me. "The evangelicals preach about victory and success and making it. Don't they realize Christ didn't make it in this world?"

I have sat in the back rows of evangelical churches, astonished by what I have seen: kids with tattoos, tough kids, kids who testify to having been on the streets as recently as last week, kids who spent their childhoods on drugs, in gangs, in trouble; kids now in suits and ties, singing hymns to Christ. They are not converted to holy milksops. They are aggressive men who have discovered spiritual empowerment.

If Catholicism is feminine, then the genius of Protestantism seems to me to be masculine. Become your own man. Take responsibility for your own life.

The Catholic part of me, ancient, cynical, feminine, is appalled by the tawdriness, the humorlessness, the lack of sophistication, even the sweetness of evangelical conversion narratives. Can a life be overturned overnight? How can such conversion last? But another part of me will not deny that these men and women have understood their own need. And I admit they have not been nourished by a cultural Catholicism that must seem to them as intangible as the air they breathe.

"They'll be back," the priest says. "In 20 years Hispanic evangelicals will be dying, literally dying to get back to the church." A Catholic is inclined to ignore the probability that it takes only a generation to overturn influences of history.

The import of evangelical Christianity is that 400 years of authoritarian Catholicism can indeed be overturned in a single generation. Latin America will not be the same again.

Who cares? Most people who read this may not give a fig one way or the other. Yet what the secular American should realize is that evangelical Christianity is spreading precisely in relation to an international secularism within cities. Worldwide secularism is giving rise to its own antidote, a form of fundamentalism, whether in Iran or Bolivia. Implicit in evangelical Christianity is a criticism of the modern, of Los Angeles, of Lima.

Deepdish evangelical Christianity beamed into Latin America from South Carolina is uniting hemispheres, uniting what remains of Protestant America with an emergent Hispanic Protestantism. But the secularist would be wrong to dismiss the Protestant reformation of the Americas as a reaction to four centuries of Catholic oppression and decadence. The Latin American conversion is a response to the spiritual vacancy of the city.

In the modern city, the evangelical Protestant yearns to recreate a lost Catholic world. People hold hands. People call first names. The hymn become feeble and paltry in Catholic churches is shouted in evangelical churches, in triumph and defiance against the evil of the city.

They'll be back, the priest says. But what will they find if they come back? In San Francisco, where I live, Catholic churches are locked up during the day. There are practical considerations: possible lawsuits and insurance policy prohibitions. An old woman praying alone in church is going to get mugged. The candlesticks are gold.

My beloved Catholic Church has become an activist in the city, doing social work in plain clothes. Meanwhile Catholicism has deferred its rich prayer life, the rosaries, devotions and novenas, to another age.

The Filipino Evangelical Church up the block from me has services every night and is overflowing every night. They even have a chapel that is open at all hours (albeit with a rentacop on duty).

"I'll bet they have Santos in their so-called chapel," my priest friend sneers.

I'll bet they do.