King's Evangelical Divinity School

18 December 2009

Review of "Religion, Revival, and Religious Conflict"

Some time ago Dr Doug Petersen (Vanguard University)  reviewed my first book exploring Pentecostalism in revolutionary Nicaragua (Revolution, Revival, and Religious Conflict in Revolutionary Nicaragua, published by Brill, 2007) for the Evangelical Review of Society and Politics. I value his review because 1) Doug is an insider-participant academic, rather than an external-observer sceptic, 2) In 1996 he wrote a critically-acclaimed survey of Pentecostal social concern in Latin America (Not by Might, Nor by Power: A Pentecostal Theology of Social Concern, Paternoster, 1996), and 3) Doug spent considerable time in Nicaragua during those days, and as well as knowing first-hand the situation on the ground he actually knew several of the people referred to in my book. Anyway, I am grateful to him for this review. Here is what he wrote ...

The triumphant entry of El Comandante Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista insurgency forces into Managua, Nicaragua during the summer of 1979 marked the end of the Somoza tyrannical dynasty and the beginning of dramatic and far-reaching change where two grassroots religious movements, both appealing to the poor but radically different in approaches, would play central roles within a national social and political revolution.

Part history, part social and political science, and part theological, Revolution, Revival, and Religious Conflict in Sandinista Nicaragua provides a captivating account of lives lived during these impossible times. Drawing on numerous personal interviews and firsthand accounts, Calvin Smith examines the inner world of ordinary Nicaraguan Protestants as they struggled to make some sense of Sandinista political actions and policies amid a climate of suspicion, insecurity, and contradiction.

To their most admiring supporters, Ortega and the Sandinistas were liberating heroes determined to redress social inequality and oppression, problems long neglected by the Somoza regimes and the Catholic Church who seemed intent on acquiring wealth and power while systematically denying the masses their rightful share of either. Not only were the Sandinistas on the side of the people, but they also had the courage to stand up to the imperialistic United States.

To their detractors, the Sandinistas were godless power-grabbing communists who bullied any who dared to dissent, disrupted grassroots religious congregations, identified with the Marxist-Leninist governments of Cuba and Russia, and zealously spread a revolutionary message of rebellion to their Central American neighbors.

These opposing perceptions, for years, obscured the reality that a huge grassroots religious movement was emerging bringing with it the promise and power to change Latin America’s political landscape. Now that the tension and rhetoric that thwarted dialogue for so many years has receded, it is possible to engage in reasoned and balanced evaluation.

This first full-length analysis of the role of Protestant religion during the Nicaraguan Revolution from 1979-1990 is a fascinating case study of a revolution that appeared on the surface to mold together the Marxism of the Sandinistas with the radical socialism of liberation theology and the spiritual fervor of evangelical/Protestantism. Smith contends that a more adequate understanding of the nuances of these movements, however, could provide an interpretive lens that may shed light on the inherent nature of the revolution and the possible impact of evangelical religion upon the future of Latin American politics in general.

The revolutionary perspective of the Sandinistas and the political worldview of Nicaraguan Protestants are hard to comprehend, especially for the West. Smith opens the door a crack to give the reader some insight into the world as the Sandinistas and Protestants saw it; sometimes guided by ideology or theology, other times by cynicism, and often by pragmatism.

By interpreting most events through the grid of militant nationalism and a new Marxism, the Sandinistas determined their friends and their enemies by adopting a “for us or against us” attitude. Revolutionary political leaders expected and generated opposition. Using absolute power, they policed with a heavy hand, clamping down on opponents and closing up political spaces. The Sandinistas could be arrogant, repressive, and intolerant.

At the same time, the usual monolithic front of Roman Catholicism was splintering from within. Traditional Catholicism represented by Nicaragua’s Archbishop, Miguel Obando y Bravo, a vocal opponent of the Sandinista government, sided with Reagan’s Washington, claiming that the new revolutionary government was merely an expression of “godless communism.” In contrast, Jesuit priests working in Nicaragua, committed to a theological stance that was politically proactive, challenged Catholicism’s historical allegiance to the elites, contending that the Church, as it had done throughout Latin America, ignored the unjust social structures that perpetuated the marginalization of millions of Nicaraguans to a life of poverty and oppression. Rather than being held hostage by the ruling classes, the priests clamored for the Church to align with revolutionary elements willing to side with the poor and confront the injustices inherent in existing social systems. Since the Nicaraguan Archbishop and Rome viewed the activities of the Jesuit priests and the ‘popular church’ (Catholics who supported liberation theology) as a threat to church authority and church unity, internal conflict between traditional Catholicism and the radical socialism espoused by the Jesuit priests was inevitable.

Similar divisions quickly surfaced within Nicaraguan Protestant Christianity as well. Relationships had soured between a minority group of historic Protestants who seemed to support all things Sandinista, and the majority comprised mostly of grassroots Pentecostal groups often openly opposed to the Sandinistas. According to Smith, the minority coalition represented by a national non-governmental organization, El Consejo Evangélico Pro-Ayuda al Desarrollo (CEPAD), accepted, almost wholesale, the actions of the new regime. Because the Sandinistas had fallen out with traditional Catholicism, CEPAD leadership recognized the opportunity to be treated on par with their traditional rivals, and quickly stepped in the vacuum acquiring “a privileged political role and the ear of government.” In order to preserve its privileged position as a power broker with the Sandinistas, Smith argues, CEPAD endeavored to project an impression before the military junta that they spoke on behalf of all Protestants.

In contrast to what appeared to be the leftist leanings of CEPAD, the majority of Protestants, mainly Pentecostal, represented by a consortium of evangelical pastors, El Consejo Nacional de Pastores Evangélicos de Nicaragua (CNPEN), were either ‘uninterested [in] or hostile’ towards the Sandinistas, interpreting their rhetoric, foreign links, educational systems, and press censorship as “Marxists and communists.” For the average Nicaraguan evangelical struggling for survival and inclined to believe that politics was dirty business anyways, the political revolution of the Sandinistas did not seem much different to them from the oppressive hand of the Somoza regime.

Besides their mistrust and suspicion of almost any political entity, for the most part, grassroots evangelical/Pentecostals also were theologically and politically opposed to the rhetoric emanating from CEPAD. Further, the CNPEN leadership, representing a group many times larger than their more liberal Protestant cousins, resented that CEPAD, from a lofty perch as government favorites, had the brass to speak on behalf of all Protestants. An exploration of the nature and dynamics of relations between these two blocs of Protestantism, and in turn between the Protestant blocs and the Sandinistas, is really the story in Smith’s book.

Clearly, the differences in ideology between historic Protestants and grassroots Pentecostals were real and profound. It would also seem apparent that there emerged a power clash between the ‘old guard’ representing CEPAD and the emerging leaders of the grassroots. Young leaders, who represented huge masses of Pentecostals, were not content to have others, not even other Protestants, set the political agenda, define the rules, or speak out on their behalf. They were willing and capable to speak for themselves. Indeed, their adherents were no longer the baker’s dozen. Though marginalized by deeply entrenched social and political structures, by sheer dint of persistence, they insisted to their Protestant colleagues as well as to the Sandinista government that they had come of age. They demanded recognition as the legitimate leaders of multitudes, and insisted on being treated on their own terms with full voice at the political table.

Significantly, while the members of the military junta were doctrinaire, they were neither atheists nor godless. Especially in the early years of the revolution, the Sandinistas were suspicious that at least some of the Pentecostal groups were pawns of the gringos and therefore presented a security risk. However, there were also numerous occasions when Daniel Ortega, and even the hard-line Minister of the Interior, Tomás Borge, made unilateral decisions in favor of these humble churches. While CEPAD may have enjoyed superior access to official corridors of power, clearly the Sandinistas permitted Pentecostal grassroots groups enough social space for them to double and triple in size.

Calvin Smith cuts new ground describing the inner relationships between the evangelical blocs and the perceptions held by Protestants of the Sandinistas. The wealth of the primary sources, and the insightful post-revolution analysis of the 1979-1990 Sandinista government, makes this book an important addition to the burgeoning body of literature that is exploring the involvement and influence of Latin American evangelicals/Pentecostals in the political arena.

Doug Petersen is the Margaret S. Smith Professor of World Mission and Intercultural Studies and Director of the Judkins Institute for Leadership at Vanguard University of Southern California.

Originally published in the Evangelical Review of Society of Politics
2.1 (2008). Used with permission.

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