A Discussion with Virginia Garrard-Burnett, Professor, University of Texas

With: Virginia Garrard-Burnett Berkley Center Profile

September 29, 2015

Background: Historian Virginia Garrard-Burnett is a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, where she has been a faculty member since 1990. Her previous works include Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit: Guatemala Under General Efraín Ríos Montt, 1982-1983 (2010) and Protestantism in Guatemala: Living in the New Jerusalem (1998). Her research has focused on the shifting landscape of religion in Guatemala, including the massive growth of evangelical mega-churches in recent years. In this conversation, she discusses the lingering effects of the violent civil war in Guatemala, during which 27 priests were murdered by armed forces. She also maps out the interrelated histories of the evangelical and Catholic churches in Guatemala and highlights the decreasing social costs of conversion as more and more Guatemalans switch religions. However, as televangelists continue to preach prosperity theology in the midst of a growing national corruption scandal, she sees a turning point approaching in which the Catholic Church may assert itself as the dominant religion once again. The context for this conversation on September 29, 2015 with Melody Fox Ahmed was the consultation for the Guatemala mapping project at the Berkley Center/WFDD in Washington, DC. 
Can you tell us about your background and how you became so interested in Guatemala?

I’m from Texas and I did my Master’s program at Tulane University. When I went into Latin American studies, I didn’t know all that much about Latin America. I was interested in Mexico, and I became increasingly interested in Central America during my first year of graduate studies, particularly because of the civil wars taking place in the region. I went to Guatemala and immediately fell in love with it even though it was 1980 and a truly terrible time in Guatemala. But somebody had told me, “You don’t choose Guatemala, it chooses you,” and it chose me. It was a very harrowing time in the country. I stayed for maybe four months, at a time when the period of violence was really stepping up. It was terrifying, but at the same time it was exciting and invigorating and I felt like I had found a home.  

What were you doing in Guatemala at that time?

I was taking classes and working on a master’s thesis, focused on community education. The classes I took offered a summer program, and the people within the program were incredibly knowledgeable and took us on field trips to areas that I would never have had access to. It was at a moment when the country was breaking wide open. I remember that we were supposed to go to visit a sugar finca (plantation) on the coast, supposed to meet with labor organizers (the program was actually a little subversive). We were driving with a group of students, and we saw that the organizers had been left dead on the road. And you couldn’t help but think it was because they were going to talk to us. That’s the way it was then. It was horrible but it put meaning in my life. It felt like it was something really worth thinking about.

I started working on a Ph.D. at Tulane and by that time I knew I wanted to work on Guatemala. I went back to Guatemala in the summer of 1983. Ríos Montt was the President. There were these little evangelical churches everywhere. Two years earlier they hadn’t been there. My dad was an Episcopal priest, so I didn’t read anything sinister into any of that, but I noticed it, because I had had that upbringing. Religion was a natural topic for me. I think a lot of people are almost freaked out by religion, or certainly freaked out talking to clergy. Not me. My father was one, my uncle is one, my grandfather was one, so it’s a world I’m comfortable with. I can’t say that Pentecostals and evangelicals are quite my people, but even so I was open to the idea that religion can be very transformative.  

Since I’m a historian, I knew that there had been missionaries there for a long time, in fact for a hundred years, but I also knew that they hadn’t made much impact until the last couple of years. So the question I went in with was: “What happened between then and now?” And that was the topic of my dissertation.  

I remember one time I was driving with my boyfriend, now husband, through a dangerous area where we shouldn’t have been at all. We were driving up a mountain and it was pouring tropical rain. We saw people walking along the highway with musical instruments, and they had radiant faces at a time when no one’s face was radiant - in the middle of a war, when everyone was in a perpetual fear. So we said to ourselves, “They must be evangelicals, on the way to a tent meeting.” And sure enough when we got up there, there was a tent. And it really struck me that if you could just tell from afar that something transformative had happened to them, it must be something worth paying attention to. So that’s what got me started.  

Can you share some more examples of the shifting religious landscape in the recent past? What does this mean for the lives of Guatemalans?  

It’s changed so dramatically. Guatemala was historically Catholic, but there are varieties within Catholicism. There are, for example, Mayan Catholics. Most Maya that practice religion are Catholic and would be very upset if you said otherwise. In the Peace Accords of 1996, when the free practice of Mayan religions was included in the agreements, few Maya were interested, because that’s just not how they see themselves. It’s important to many of them to be Catholic.  

In the ‘80s and ‘90s there were not that many big churches or mega-churches; there were little churches, but they ended up having a centrifugal effect. It was very easy to start a church and a lot of people did. All you had to have was a revelation and a place to meet and people would show up. And so these little churches grew and proliferated. There is an organization called SEPAL (Comisión Servicio Económica Evangelica para América Latina) that measured the growth of evangelical churches. They called it “igle-crecimiento” (short for iglesia-crecimiento, or “church growth”). Someone at SEPAL told me that Guatemala would be half Protestant by the year 2000, which didn’t happen. This prediction was made in the early ‘90s, because the growth was just exploding, but then it began to taper off. That was partly because once you reach a critical mass, the percentages of conversions slow down because the baseline is bigger. But in a candid moment, one of the guys said, “In a country like this, only a certain number of people will be Protestants.” I think he meant that there’s a core of people that will always be Catholic. You’re not going to have a place that completely converts to another religion. I think that’s true; conversions have stalled out in the high 40 percent. The same thing has happened in the other Central American countries except for Costa Rica. They’re all one-third or more Protestant, and that wasn’t even true in the ‘80s. It’s all very new. There are villages or towns where you will see almost a complete Protestant majority; Almalonga outside of Quetzaltenango is one of those towns.

Another aspect is the rise of charismatic Catholicism, which is not popular with all Catholics. The last two popes did not like it much. I think that is because it tends to be a little grassroots: you don’t really need priests for it, and for those reasons it’s very appealing to a lot of ordinary parishioners. In Guatemala, the diocese of El Quiché was shut down for two years because so many catechists and priests had been killed, and Charismatic parishes sprung up all over the place, because they could practice Catholicism without needing a priest.  

The other thing that I’ve observed is the growth of the mega-churches. There are enormous Pentecostal churches in Guatemala that are incredibly influential, such as the Casa de Dios of Cash Luna. When I first heard of Cash Luna, I thought he had a Maya name; I didn’t realize that he had taken the nickname of “Cash.” He’s the original prosperity theology guy in Guatemala. Fraternidad Cristiana, which is actually the largest single church in the country, started out in an old movie theater. There is a pervasive presence of religious media in Guatemala. Catholics were really slow to pick up on that. There is a Pentecostal television station, but radio is really the main medium. And one of the things that the Pentecostals, and Protestants in general, started doing early on was broadcasting in Maya languages, and that has been especially influential.  

Dennis Smith, who’s written about the region a lot and lived in Guatemala as a missionary for decades, talks about how all religion in Guatemala has been Pentecostalized. I think that’s true. You can see that in Charismatic Catholics and you can see it in absolutely otherwise non-Pentecostal denominations. People hold up their hands and there’ll be testimonies; even in the rigid liturgical churches they’ll have healing services. And I don’t even think it’s about market share; I think they’ve found something that’s mesmerizing. A Pew Center study in 2006 about Renewalist religion, which combines all of these elements, had some specific markers for how they identified people as Renewalist and they found that well over 60% of Guatemalans were Renewalist. Not just Christians but everybody.  

And what do you see as the appeal for people to join these groups? Why do people join?

I think it’s changed over time. One time when the war was raging, I was walking around this town that had been very badly hit and I heard a wailing sound. I ended up next to a Pentecostal church that was empty, except for a woman weeping. She was on the floor and she was washing the floor with her hair. And I thought, “Something awful happened to this woman, and this is where she is able to let it out. This is a safe place for her.” I certainly felt at the time that this was part of the answer. The Catholic Church wasn’t a safe place, not because it didn’t provide spiritual solace, but because it was the repressed by the Guatemalan army. It was a dangerous place to be in a lot of areas. The other piece at that time was “liberation theology,” although they didn’t use the phrase; they had the idea, they just didn’t use the phrase, because it would get them in a lot of trouble. A lot of people said to me, “I left the Catholic Church because the soldiers came in and they killed my baby and they killed my husband and my father. I want to know if I’ll see them in heaven; I don’t want to hear about the hermeneutical circle. I don’t want to be called into the church.frontlines. The Catholic Church talks about here and now; I want to hear about heaven, because I’ll be there soon.”

That’s not the case anymore. It’s still a hard place to live, but all religions talk about life and death; it’s certainly not unique to Pentecostalism. I think certain contexts make certain religions more appropriate than others at different times. And I think the mega-churches, in addition to offering the charisma and sanctification, also offer new technologies of self, a new way of living in the world that converts didn’t have before; new ways of thinking about who they are, particularly for women. And the big churches have small groups that always meet. If you’re in a church with 75,000 members, you’re not going to get a lot of pastoral guidance, so the small groups become very important and you learn a lot of things there. You’ll start with bible study, but then maybe they’ll have a class about how to use a bank, how to support your child who is in high school and you have a second-grade education, how to live with domestic abuse, especially if your husband is not in the church. They have all kinds of capacity building and leadership training. You develop new social networks when you’re in the church that can be really helpful to you.  

One of the other changes is that the social cost of being a convert has pretty much gone away. There were a lot of social costs from extracting yourself from the dominant religion. You can still see it during Holy Week. It’s an enormous festival and Protestants just don’t do it. They’ll have a service on Easter, but they’re not going to have processions in the street. They try to compensate by having large national campouts during Holy Week, when everything is closed, to get you out of feeling sorry for yourself, since you’re not atoning for your sins in a procession anymore. This makes it easier than it used to be.  

Now people come in and out of religions. It may take them a long time to give up being Catholic, but once they do that, they may switch around. According to James T. Richardson, Henri Gooren who has written a book called Conversion Careers, people change Christian religions five times after they’ve been Catholic, and sometimes the sixth time will be to go back to the Catholic Church. One of the reasons people go back to the Catholic Church is, overwhelmingly, because they miss the Virgin Mary. They look for her everywhere and they see her in the Christmas story, they feel a real affinity for her, and she brings them back to the Catholic Church.

In North America we see Mormons as being very different and see converting as a pretty permanent change. If you leave the Mormon Church, you’ve left forever. I think Guatemalans tend to see the Mormon Church as just another church and they’ll come and go out of that just like anything else. They don’t see it as an end of the destination; it’s just one more  stop on the religious journey. religion.

The Catholic Church has gone through an evolution in Guatemala, from the war to the peace accords to the present. Do you see more turning points ahead?

Everybody, including me, talks about how Guatemala is so Protestant, but if it’s 40% Protestant, that means it’s 60% Catholic. Guatemala has always been majority Catholic and probably always will be. In my opinion, the Catholic Church in Guatemala is about to undergo some type of revival. It’s starting. There are several things behind it. Number one: they were really devastated by the war in a variety of different ways. They were repressed during the war and they lost more priests than everywhere else in Latin America combined. They lost 27 priests in two years, and that’s not including Delegates of the Word and lay people. A lot of people left the church back then; many became Pentecostals, partly for religious reasons and partly for security reasons, although that didn’t guarantee safety either. People have tried to create this trope of conservative Pentecostals versus radical Catholics, but there were Protestants involved in the guerillas as well, and plenty of them were killed in the war by the security forces, so it doesn’t really break down into that nice easy binary.  

I think it’s going to be interesting to see - as Guatemalans are gaining a voice that they didn’t have before and are now protesting against the corruption of their public officials - if they’re also going to look a little closer at their televangelists. I think that is something that’s very promising for the Catholic Church. It will also be interesting to see if Pope Francis decides to go to Guatemala. The clergy that preached liberation theology and taught it in seminaries are dying out. The seminaries are full and the older clergy are being replaced by priests with different theological orientations.  

How do you differentiate the “Protestant” vs. “Pentecostal” vs. “Evangelical” categories in Guatemala?

In Guatemala it’s all the same word: evangélico. They don’t differentiate at all. So you can have a liberal Episcopalian, a fundamentalist Evangelical, and a prosperity gospel Pentecostal, and they’re all evangélicos. The other term that is used is cristiano vs. católico, as if the Catholics were not Christians.

What about young people? Are the Protestant denominations appealing to them, or maybe the charismatic Catholics? Are they becoming irreligious?

They are not becoming the “nones” as they are in other places - that is much more prevalent in other places, like Brazil or Uruguay. Young people are going to both types of churches but the evangelicals have very specific ministries for youth that do appeal to them. A lot of young people move into the cities to work in the maquilas (sweatshops) and churches have maquila ministries that are timed in such a way so that people can work a full day and then go and meet other people their age. They are not slipping away like they are in other parts of the world.

You mentioned a new “Christian citizenship”in our meeting today. Have you seen a shift in Pentecostal attitudes towards social justice, perhaps among young people?

Pentecostals encourage education, among other things. It is fascinating for me to see people who attend college now in Guatemala. There are technical schools at the high school level where they can learn computer skills and web design, and those attract up-and-comers like in any other place. I have seen people whose parents were campesinos (peasants) and maybe the war drove them into the capital city and maybe they live in some wretched slum, but their kids are going to college and they are evangélicos. They get that reinforcement from the church that this is something they ought to do and it is part of their duty as a Christian to make the best of themselves. You want to show God’s blessing in your life, you want to look nice, you want to be well educated, and you want to speak correctly.  Maybe that is the more benign piece of prosperity theology. Guatemala is a poor country, so prosperity gospel proponents are not saying that people are going to have a 2500 square foot house, but they are saying they should go get educated.

And then there is the question for anywhere with a significant Protestant population: people ask when they are going to become politically mobilized. That is not what they are about. They saw what happened to the Catholic Church when they became politically mobilized. They remember. They have relatives that were killed because they became politically mobilized through their faith; they are not all that eager. Look how it has worked out: there have been two Pentecostal presidents and both have been a disaster, Ríos Montt more of a disaster than Jorge Serrano Elías. The experience was not all that positive and there was a blowback for them. One of the things that they have accomplished is the perception within Guatemala that evangélicos are trustworthy people, that they are not corrupt. They will not rob, steal, or abuse - the old Ríos Montt slogan. But there is plenty of contradictory evidence to indicate that this is not necessarily true.

There are a couple of evangelical political parties that change names periodically. There is the founder and pastor of El Shaddai Church, Harold Caballeros, which is a big upper class church, who actually coined the phrase “Christian citizenship.” They started out praying for the tipping point: that you pray up through the individual out to society and then it goes out to the whole world. He ran for President twice and did not even bother to try to run this time. Caballeros was brought in as Minister of Culture under Otto Perez Molina who I think wanted to bring in an evangelical face, but he did not last very long because he did not like the corruption he saw. But instead of gaining any political credibility or capital, he just sort of dropped out of the picture.  

I know that they had prayer meetings before people would go to the recent Renuncia Ya protests, but for some reason they wanted to maintain a distance, and I think that’s because of the history. Pentecostals in Central America divide the world strictly between the world and the Church - and they really want to stay out of the world.

You mentioned that you feel “prosperity theology” is a heresy. Can you explain?

That is a faith statement to me - Jesus never talks about getting rich as anything he has to offer; to the contrary. One of the key phrases of prosperity theology – “I am here to bring you life abundant” - is also a phrase that liberation theology used very extensively: that you should not have to lead an awful life and that God did not bring you into this world to live under all these repressive forces. Prosperity theology means exactly what it implied: that God will bless you with material wealth and success.  It is a literal but very selective reading of the Bible. In many ways it’s the mirror inverse of liberation theology. 

Have you come across religious and development actors working together in your research?

Ríos Montt saw religious groups as natural partners and he had every reason to think that. Pat Robertson had promised him a billion dollars from US evangelicals channels. The United States was not giving any military aid to Guatemala at the time, and the Christian world pledged to make up the deficit. Rios Montt created a public development foundation , FUNDAPI, and this brought in World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, Behrhorst medical services, and a variety of religious groups. They were providing immediate relief for victims of the violence. The irony was that they had to be in cahoots with the military to get to the affected villages. Who had just burned down the village? The guys who just brought them in on the helicopter. It was a hard call. A lot of faith-based organizations were put into that bind: “you can either be in this or you are not in it at all.” And at the time there was no other way to get there, so if they were going to deliver that kind of emergency aid, then that was the pact with the devil they had to make. People really wrestled with it; Dr. Behrhorst, for example, struggled with this the rest of his life. In his public health project, he had lost nearly 60 health promoters to government assassinations because health promoters were just the type of people that were going to get killed.in the early 1980s, and yet his organization became part of FUNDAPI, which was an agency of the very government that had killed their own workers. 

The whole history of Protestantism in Guatemala has everything to do with development. Protestant agencies went in after the 1976 earthquake and people began to convert in large numbers. That is when people noticed that there were Protestant churches everywhere. In one church called El Calvario, somebody had prophesied the earthquake, so they began to stockpile supplies; and there was the earthquake, and it made an impression on people.

You talked about church groups helping the child migrants in south Texas. Have you been involved? What did you see?  

Last year, the Austin, San Antonio, and Houston school districts had a month over the summer to come up with class space for something like 50,000 children. The churches totally rose to the occasion. They collected food, clothes, and baby supplies. A lot of the unaccompanied minors were actually accompanied minors- there were mothers and kids. The churches were the first responders. They were concerned about the really young kids and would make sure that someone back home knew they had made it to the United States. The churches had a program where if you had a family member who could come get you in the US but it might take a while for them to get there, people would take you in and let you stay with a family until your relatives came. And since the kids were just bored out of their mind at the detention centers, we collected and donated books, films, and games in Spanish. Also, kids were freezing because they would over-air condition the detention centers, so one church in particular had a giant blanket drive. It reminded me of Hurricane Katrina, when people would just show up with nothing at all. But they are not coming in the huge numbers as before.

What drove the huge numbers?

There was a rumor, which was true at one point, that if you came in as an unaccompanied minor and you had family here, they’d let you stay. But some of the unaccompanied minors were not little kids, they were 17 year old boys. And I think they fell on the hardest times because that wasn’t necessarily who people wanted to take in but they were also the most likely to get a job, which was probably the whole point anyway.  
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