Protestantism is mostly a group of niche movements in predominantly Catholic Latin America. The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is an opportunity for Christianity's various sects to find new recognition.
In Latin America, Protestantism covers many churches with many missions. The region is also home to about half of the world's almost 1.3 billion Catholics. Given the Vatican's dominance in Latin America, the biggest challenge for Protestant groups is to ensure that people are aware of them at all. The new attention on Martin Luther during celebrations surrounding the 500th anniversary of the Reformation presents an opportunity for that.
The majority of Latin America's Lutheran churches belong to the Lutheran World Federation. "In Latin America we have around 850,000 members in 17 churches and 15 countries," the Lutheran vicar Patricia Cuyatti, who heads the LWF's Latin America and Caribbean division, told DW. Many member churches have a long tradition in the region. The oldest, in Guyana and Suriname, have been there for 275 years.
The biggest congregations are found where there was the most immigration from German-speaking countries: Argentina, for example, has the Evangelical Church of the River Plate, and across the border there's the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil. Cuyatti said Lutheranism was growing in other countries, too. "There is a strong evangelical presence in Central America, especially Nicaragua, El Salvador and Costa Rica, where it is very involved with the peace process and establishing social balance," she said. "Also notable are the ecumenical contribution to the anniversary year by the Evangelical churches in Columbia and Peru and the widely recognized commitment of the indigenous churches in Bolivia to parish welfare work."
Not all Evangelical churches are part of the World Federation. One such is the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Argentina, founded in the late 19th century by Russian-German immigrants from the Volga region. It affiliated itself with the US's Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which itself was founded by a Saxon immigrant. "Our church is moderately conservative," the minister Carlos Nagel said.
'Fragmentation of Protestantism'
The theologian and political scientist Daniel Lenski, whose PhD research focuses on the history of the Evangelical movement in Chile, said the churches founded by German immigrants were often either aligned with those from other European countries or the United States, such as the Missouri Synod, which has its own mission. "The two branches founded their own churches, and they weren't always in contact with each other," Lenski said. "This explains the fragmentation of Protestantism in Latin America."
In their early years, immigrant religious communities could be very closed off. "The immigrants sought to preserve their culture, their faith and their customs with great care," said Pastor Nagel, whose German father and Lithuanian mother arrived in Argentina in the 1920s. "They found it hard to open up to those who weren't of German extraction."
Lenski echoed this: "Like language, religion plays an important part in shaping identity. For many communities, this meant that preaching the Gospel and preserving German culture were one and the same." This became problematic when news from Nazi Germany reached Latin America in the 1930s and '40s. "In Argentina, Brazil and Chile, there were ministers who turned against National Socialism," Lenski said. "But they weren't the majority."
Later, dealings with Latin America's military dictatorships would also reveal a lack of unity among the region's Evangelical movements. Lenski said this dissent could have originated with the founder of Protestantism himself. "Luther had some very varied and contradictory opinions about the political circumstances of his age," he said. "The Evangelical churches then interpreted these comments in very different ways. Some espoused the view that it was the church's duty to help the victims of oppression. Others preferred to focus on the church services."
"One important reason for the division in the Evangelical Church in Chile in the '70s was the row about its attitude toward human rights activists," Lenski said, "but another was fundamental dissension about its understanding of itself as a church."
Under the leadership of the charismatic Bishop Medardo Gomez, the Evangelical Church in El Salvador chose a very different path. Resisting considerable pressure from the dictatorship, it emphatically stood up for human rights, becoming a model for other churches.
Although modest in size, Latin America's Evangelical movements offer an alternative to the the Catholic Church's universal hegemony on one side and the countless Pentecostal churches on the other.
In addition, the Evangelical churches of Latin America support a wide range of activities — from social projects to environmentalism, women's rights, fighting poverty, the prevention of violence and ecumenical platforms. That makes them attractive to people who favor a Christianity of participation.
The preparations for the anniversary of the Reformation started several years ago. "One of the key statements for the anniversary is 'Salvation is not for sale,'" Lenski said. This is a nod to movements that call upon the faithful to make generous donations to their churches. "The fundamental conviction of the Lutheran faith is the absolute opposite: 'God loves you, no matter who you are or what you own," Lenski said. "Against the backdrop of all the poverty in the world and some people's readiness to enrich themselves with the help of religion, this message is as relevant now as it was in the 16th century."