11/26/2014 03:44 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

The Competitive Spirits of Latin America

How are we to interpret the new Pew survey, the most comprehensive ever of Latin American religion? While there are some real surprises in the treasure-trove of data, the massive study largely confirms and details the larger trends that have been shaping the Latin American religious landscape over the past half-century. As one of the academic advisers to the Pew research team, I had intended to contextualize these trends within the theoretical framework of religious economy both as part of my remarks at the inaugural event held by Pew to launch the survey and during my published interview with them. Constraints on time allowed me only to allude to the theoretical paradigm that formed the basis of my second book, Competitive Spirits: Latin America's New Religious Economy, and explains the nature and direction of the region's rapidly shifting religious landscape.

The new Pew study confirms and gives contour to four huge interrelated trends. First and foremost is sharp Catholic decline over the past five decades. Up until 1970 Latin Americans were over 90% Catholic. The figure has plummeted to a regional average of 69% in which a couple countries, Uruguay and Honduras, are no longer Catholic-majority. The second trend is the contemporaneous proliferation of Protestantism in which their ranks have nearly quintupled from just 4% in 1970 to 19% of Latin Americans at present. A number of Central American countries now have populations that are almost evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics, and if we consider only those who go to church on a regular basis, Protestants are significantly more observant. The third trend is inextricably related to the second. Some 70% of the region's Protestants are specifically Pentecostal, a type of charismatic Protestantism that gives center stage to the role of the Holy Spirit in believers' lives. Pentecostalism has proved so wildly attractive in Latin America since the 1960s that it's led the Pentecostalization of Christianity in the region. 40% of Catholics describe themselves as Charismatic (the equivalent term to Pentecostal in the Catholic world), a figure that is certainly much higher among observant Latin American Catholics.

An ever larger trend than Pentecostalization is the fourth - the pluralization of the Latin American religious landscape. Beyond Charismatic Christianity, the Pew survey confirms the increasingly large array of religious choices for Latin American consumers of supernatural goods and services. Within pluralization the most significant trend is the growing ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. Most of them still believe in the Christian God but don't have any particular denominational affiliation. The unaffiliated have grown to constitute 8% of the Latin American population. In addition to the unaffiliated, there are growing numbers of Mormons, New Agers, practitioners of Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Caribbean faiths and other groups that contribute to a robust pluralization of the regional religious landscape.

Now that the major trends have been identified, let's see how precepts of religious economy can help explain them. One of the most important precepts undergirding Catholic decline is that of the lazy monopolist. As is the case in the commercial economy, religions that enjoy a state-supported monopoly, as Catholicism did for an average of 4 centuries in Latin America, are inherently indolent. With potential competitors eliminated or suppressed, the religious monopolist feels no pressure to produce quality goods and services that respond to consumer tastes and preferences. And in the particular Latin American context Catholic monopoly played out in the context of a perennial priest shortage, which led the clergy to adopt a preferential option for the privileged who could pay their salaries on haciendas and plantations and then make generous bequests to the Church in their wills. After some 400 years of monopoly the Catholic Church in Latin America is struggling to remake itself as a type of Christianity that can successfully compete for souls in the new free market of faith.

Two additional precepts are key to understanding the Pentecostalization of Latin American Christianity. First is member maximization or the idea that faith-based organizations, especially those predicated on proselytism - Christianity and Islam - prefer more followers than less. The second precept posits that religious pluralism in which no one religion enjoys a state-supported monopoly, is by definition a free market economy of faith in which all faith-based organizations are compelled to compete for adherents. And it's in this new competitive religious economy, which only became fully operational in the 1950s, that Pentecostalism has prospered.

Having been born into the most competitive religious economy on earth, the American, Pentecostalism arrived in Latin America fully equipped to compete with Catholicism, which was in the final phases of losing its legal monopoly in the first decades of the 20th century. Offering faith healing, Spirited worship and direct contact with the Holy Spirit, Pentecostalism resonated with consumer tastes and preferences, especially of the working classes, which the institutional Catholic church had largely ignored. Over the years Pentecostal churches have developed other innovative goods and services in response to the tastes and preferences of consumers. If, for example, both exorcism of evil spirits and prosperity theology have become hegemonic in Pentecostalism over the past few decades it's because Latin American religious consumers demand them.

In response to surging Pentecostal competition, the former monopolist has attempted to offer more appealing goods and services. By the early 1970s, the Catholic Church in Latin America had developed a two-pronged strategy for dealing with the Pentecostal "invasion." Liberation theology with its allied Base Christian Communities sought to adopt a preferential option for the poor in which after more than four centuries of ecclesial neglect, poor parishioners were to be the target of pastoral outreach and evangelization. Liberation theology found its most fertile soil in Brazil, Chile, and Central America but fell far short of becoming the mass movement that it aspired to be. At the same time, the American Jesuits and Franciscans exported the Catholic Charismatic Renewal to the region in the early 1970s. Born at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh in 1967, the Renewal is a kind of Pentecostalism lite with the same focus on the role of the Holy Spirit but typically with less intensity. During its first five years members actually called themselves Pentecostal Catholics, which didn't sit too well with the bishops. Four decades later the Charismatic Renewal has been so successful that 40% of Catholics in Latin America identify as Charismatic and virtually all Catholic mass media presence and evangelization campaigns are due to Charismatic efforts. In stark contrast, Base Christian Communities affiliated with Liberation Theology barely exist anymore.

In short, religious economy with its focus on the dynamics of competition gives insight into the larger Latin American trends confirmed by the new Pew survey. In fact, it was analysis based on religious economy that led me to successfully predict last year's election of the first Latin American pope, even if I mistakenly bet on a Brazilian instead of an Argentine cardinal.