About two months ago, Colombians had to take what was arguably the most important decision in the country’s history: whether to accept or reject a peace accord that would end more than 50 years of armed conflict between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the oldest guerrilla group in the Western hemisphere.

The polls had been suggesting for months that the accord would be accepted by a wide margin in the referendum held on October 2, which is why the slim victory of the “No” vote, by less than 54,000 votes, shocked the whole world.

Among those who rejected the accord were more than 2 million Evangelicals, the BBC reported. Experts say this turn out was largely responsible for the results, especially considering that less than 13 million Colombians went to the polls—30 percent of eligible voters—and the “No” vote won by less than 0.4 percent.

The main reason why millions of Evangelicals condemned the accord was because it recognized LGBT Colombians as special victims of the conflict.

Gay and transgender Colombians have been disproportionately persecuted throughout the decades of conflict, public records show. But Evangelical leaders insisted that even the mention of LGBT people in the accord went against the “laws of God,” as explained in Trunfo del No: el poder de los cristianos (The victory of the No: the power of Christians).

Once they had established their clear dominance at the polls, Evangelicals put pressure on the government to make sure their concerns were taken into account in the renegotiated accord signed on November 24 and ratified by Congress on November 30.

The new document didn’t eliminate the protections for the LGBT community, but it did extend guarantees for victims persecuted on the basis of their religion, which is something that Evangelicals had been demanding for months, lawyer Mauricio Albarracín explained.

The referendum is yet one more display of strength by a religious community that was persecuted for heresy half a century ago, but today has become one of the most powerful political forces in the country. Now, Evangelicals are seeking to revoke Constitutional Court Rulings and change the Constitution, altering the very fabric of Colombia as a secular country in which no religion or creed can be imposed. 

 

Beginnings

The first Evangelical churches in the country were founded by Republican missionaries coming from the United States in the late XIX century, theologian Mario Arias said.

“Since its very beginning, the political ideology of Colombian Evangelical Christianity has been very similar to the republican movement in the U.S.,” he said. “That is why Evangelicals in Colombia tend to support strong, conservative leaders.”

But in spite of their conservative tendencies, it was thanks to the Liberal Party that their movement started to grow, Franklin Ibarra, expert in religious studies said.

Liberals, which controlled the government between 1930 and 1948, promoted the construction of Evangelical churches all around the country. Those building the churches were Evangelical missionaries with plenty of resources to go to even the most isolated areas of the country. So the government saw their presence as an opportunity to bring infrastructure and education to those remote regions.

But things drastically changed when the Conservative Party took control of the government in the 1950’s. A war between conservatives and liberals erupted during that decade and Evangelicals, seen as both heretics and allies of the Liberal Party, were persecuted by the government, according to “La Iglesia Evangelica en Colombia: Una Historia” (The Evangelical Church in Colombia: A History).

Evangelicals were forced to hide and couldn’t build churches. But they gained the devotion of ethnic and political minorities who were also persecuted and who did not feel represented by the Catholic Church, wrote Helwar Figueroa in his 2009 book about the origins of Evangelical movements in Colombia.

While the Catholic Church tends to be intellectual and restraint, Evangelical religiosity is based on collective healing, exorcisms, miracles and prophecies, Figueroa wrote. These practices gained a lot of power in the regions that were most affected by the war.

“Those rituals assumed a very deep meaning because it was the only way for the victims of repression and displacement to have some sort of hope,” Figueroa wrote. “This religion gave order and meaning in the middle of chaos to many people.”

Because of its emotional appeal, the emerging Evangelical Church grew from a few hundred followers at the beginning of the 1930’s to more than 100,000 adherents by 1975, according to “La Iglesia Evangelica en Colombia.” Today, close to 10 million Colombians practice this religion, Pastor Edgar Castellanos said. 

 

Adherence to Dominionism

Throughout the 1980’s, Evangelicals started to adhere to Dominionism, a fundamentalist movement that originated in the United States in the 1960’s. This doctrine claims that the role of the church is to reconstruct society according to Old Testament laws, as explained in the Dictionary of Christianity in America.

“It is like some sort of Christian jihad in which the church uses its public power to impose God’s will on earth,” Arias said. “Since 1991, s its public power th in Latin America.”uld do that, but it is a doctrine n which the church uses its public power tThis is not in the Bible and Jesus never said that we should do that, but it is a doctrine that has gained a lot of strength in Latin America.”

Ever since they started to adhere to Dominionism, Arias said, Evangelicals have tried to select politicians who can help them impose the “Kingdom of Heaven” through the law.

One of these politicians is Viviane Morales, who made part of the National Assembly that crafted a new Constitution in 1991, which replaced the 1886 one.

At the time, Catholicism was the only official religion in Colombia. So Morales and other Evangelical politicians who also participated in the assembly fought to be recognized in the new document.

The 1991 Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of religion, gave legitimacy to the Evangelical movement. But it also recognized the right to self-express, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity. So, by fighting against LGBT rights, Evangelicals are going against the same constitution that allowed them to gain political power.

Evangelicals are also trying to revoke Constitutional Court ruling. Even though the court ruled in favor of equal adoption last year, Morales, who is now a senator, recently proposed that the decision should be subjected to referendum, as reported by Semana, a widely read political magazine in the country.

Her argument is that gay adoption is unnatural, goes against the traditional idea of family—intended as composed by a man and a woman–, and is harmful to the healthy development of Colombian children, according to the national newspaper El Espectador. 

 

Presidential elections

Noticing their tremendous political power, presidential candidates have actively sought the support of the Evangelical community in the last two decades, William Mauricio Beltran explained in his book about the Evangelical movement in Colombia.

Alvaro Uribe Velez, who became president in 2002, knew how to win their hearts better than any other candidate. He earned their unconditional support by proposing a militaristic approach to ending the war with the FARC, Arias said.

Uribe was elected right after a failed peace process proposed by the previous president Andrés Pastrana, Arias said. So many Colombians had lost hope in a negotiated solution to the conflict.

“Everybody (in the Evangelical community) was praying for Uribe at the time,” he said. “Many people really believed that he was a messiah sent by God to save the nation.”

Throughout his two terms as president, Uribe governed in an authoritarian and patriarchal way that reminded Evangelicals of the preaching style of their pastors, Beltran writes in his book.

He was also publicly in favor of practices that adhere to Evangelical sexual morality. In several occasions, for instance, he manifested his disapproval of pre-marital sex, gay marriage and equal adoption, Beltran wrote.

Even though Evangelicals have become the deciding force in the country’s elections, they still don’t have enough power to propel an Evangelical candidate with real options to win the presidency. But it won’t be long before such a leader emerges, Arias said.

“I don’t think they are ready to place a candidate for the 2018 (presidential) elections, or even the ones after that,” Arias said. “But give them eight years and I am almost certain they will have a president.”

 

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