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El Salvador The Role of Religion
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
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    Church of the Virgin of Guadalupe, San Salvador

    As a Hispanic country, El Salvador has always had a strong Roman Catholic identity. The majority of Salvadorans in the late 1980s were at least nominal Roman Catholics, and church rituals permeated the nation's culture and society. Church attendance, especially for women, remained important, church sacraments and ceremonies such as baptism and confirmation were observed, and fiestas were held to celebrate patron saints of villages, towns, and cities. Nevertheless, El Salvador tended to be somewhat more secular than its Central American neighbors. Birth control programs introduced in the late 1960s met with less opposition than elsewhere in Latin America. Marriage--in a religious or civil ceremony--was not as prevalent in El Salvador as in many other Latin American countries (this situation also reflected the strain exerted on social institutions by persistent poverty); many Salvadoran couples, especially in rural areas, lived together in common-law or free unions, many families were headed by women, and many children were born out of wedlock. Lastly, the ritual kinship practice of compadrazgo (selecting godparents for children) was becoming less widespread and less important in El Salvador.

    Although the Roman Catholic Church, as typified by its hierarchy, was conservative in its approach to doctrine, a strain of reformist Catholicism called "social Christianity" emerged in El Salvador, as elsewhere in Latin America, in the 1930s in response to the hardships, uprisings, and repressions of that period. Social Christianity, which continued to have some appeal until the early 1960s, stressed the duty of lay persons to remedy social ills without waiting for the religious hierarchy, represented by its priests, to act. Although this movement did not advocate change in the basic social and political structure of the country, it called for improvements by working within the existing political order.

    At least one influential individual at the top of the social and religious pyramid recognized and encouraged the need for improvements in the lives of those in the lower sector--the archbishop of San Salvador, Luis Chavez y Gonzalez, who held this position from 1939 to 1977. Archbishop Chavez encouraged the priesthood as a vocation; built a seminary in San Salvador; established the Pius XII Institute, organized particularly to teach the Roman Catholic Church's social doctrine; and sent priests to study in Europe. It is also noteworthy that these Salvadoran priests came mainly from rural families, albeit fairly well-to-do ones, rather than from the urban middle class, and hence had closer ties to the peasantry. It is significant too that even in the early 1950s Chavez encouraged cooperatives as alternatives for peasants' losing land to agribusiness expansion and that he sent priests to Canada to study cooperatives. In this sense, he presaged the communitarianism later advocated by the Salvadoran Christian Democratic Party (Partido Democrata Cristiano--PDC).

    In the late 1960s, the social attitudes of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador, as elsewhere, were deeply influenced by Vatican Council II (in 1965) and the social encyclicals of Pope John XXIII, as well as by the Second Latin American Bishops' Conference held in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968, which addressed the issues of Vatican II from a distinctly Latin American perspective. These gatherings, particularly the Medellin conference, emphasized the need for a more worldly involvement by the Roman Catholic clergy with the lives and problems of parishioners and advocated activist programs to improve the living conditions of the lower class. This "preferential option for the poor" was the germ of what later came to be known as "liberation theology." The church increased and encouraged involvement in programs for change after the Medellin conference, even if this involvement entailed secular political advocacy.

    Toward this end, activist clergy and laity created grass- roots Christian Base Communities (Comunidades Eclesiasticas de Base--CEBs) to work toward their conception of social justice; these groups encouraged church members to take the initiative in seeking social and political change and to act more independently of the church hierarchy, if necessary, to achieve their goals. In short, in contrast to the earlier social Christianity, where change was to be effected within the existing social and political order, liberation theology called for changes in social and political structures and encouraged the laity to take an active role in bringing them about. In El Salvador, the social concerns of Archbishop Chavez helped pave the way for later advocates of liberation theology and, in a way, linked this broad Latin American movement of the 1970s with the social Christian movements of the prior decades.

    A number of rural communities were receptive to the teachings and methods of the base communities. Generally, the organization of the CEBs involved a priest or a trained religious worker who met with twenty to thirty local parishioners for a few weeks. As this group met to study and discuss selected passages from the Bible and plan community activities, lay leaders were encouraged to emerge, and the group was taught to appreciate and emphasize the role of laypersons like themselves in social change. They discussed the earthly social, economic, and political reasons for their plight as poor peasants and laborers and were taught by priests and lay workers that the poor were equal before God with the rich landowners. During the 1970s, some 15,000 local lay leaders, catechists or delegates, underwent further training at seven centers set up throughout the country, studying the Bible, liturgy, agriculture, cooperativism, leadership, and health, all in preparation for their roles as religious, social, and political leaders in community development efforts. The role of local lay preachers and leaders also reflected the high ratio of laity to priests in El Salvador, which at that time was approximately 10,000 to one.

    The CEBs soon encountered harassment and hostility, apparently emanating from the economic and political elite. By the late 1970s, violence by right-wing groups was directed against members of the priesthood and other church workers known to be sympathetic to the CEBs on the grounds that assisting the poor constituted subversive activity. As civil unrest in general increased in the late 1970s, the church as a whole became increasingly polarized. The majority of the bishops supported the traditional role of the church, the traditional authority of the hierarchy, and the overriding authority of the government. Allied against this view was a faction of parish priests who favored the development of the CEBs and advocated expanded aid for the poor.

    Once again, the position of the archbishop became crucial. In 1977 Archbishop Chavez resigned and was replaced by Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez. Like his predecessor, Archbishop Romero spoke out publicly in favor of social justice for the general populace. He increasingly assumed the role of the leading advocate on behalf of the poor; his primary vehicles for expressing these views were his weekly Sunday morning homilies, broadcast throughout the nation and eagerly listened to on portable radios or the ubiquitous village loudspeakers in the plazas. As political tensions rose, the influential position and strong impact of the outspoken archbishop became intolerable to the Salvadoran right, and Romero was assassinated one Monday in March 1980 while saying mass.

    Violence against grass-roots church activities continued during the early 1980s, with telling effect. The number of active priests declined, so that 40 percent of rural parishes lacked priests, and many CEBs were dismantled or forced underground. Of the 15,000 lay leaders active in CEBs, some joined the guerrillas, while others withdrew from church activities altogether. Monsignor Arturo Rivera y Damas, appointed archbishop after Romero's murder, found it appropriate to take a more distant or ambivalent position with respect to the question of the proper role of the church in Salvadoran national life, a position that also accorded more closely with the conservative attitude of the Vatican under Pope John Paul II. Meanwhile, although the church proper now lowered its public profile, a small, quasi-independent "people's church" emerged from the remnants of the CEB movement. Some priests, mainly Jesuits, continued to work in guerrilla-controlled areas, where the social and political importance of organized communities among the poor continued to be emphasized.

    Protestant missionaries were quite active in El Salvador, the majority representing the evangelical branch of North American Protestantism. Evangelical activity was a multinational, multimillion-dollar enterprise developed and packaged in the United States, translated into Spanish, and exported not only to El Salvador but also to the other countries of Central America. Missionaries working for scores of organizations used crusades, door-to-door proselytizing, radio programs, food aid, and health care to advance their fundamentalist message of personal salvation through belief in Jesus, a salvation not to be gained in this world but in the afterlife. To these theologically conservative evangelicals, Roman Catholics were not Christians; only the "born-again" were God's chosen people, and efforts to achieve social gains by working for change in this life were inappropriate. Although "mainline" Protestant denominations encouraged expressions of concern over social problems, the brand of evangelical Protestantism that swept Central America in the 1970s and 1980s sought to remove its adherents from social action, to place the onus on God rather than on humans to act, and to inculcate passive, apathetic, and submissive resignation while waiting for the second coming of Christ. Put more bluntly, the thought of future salvation would cushion the impact of current suffering.

    Protestantism was by no means new to Central America or to El Salvador. In the late nineteenth century, the majority of British and German immigrants, including coffee traders and financiers, were Protestants. In 1896 the aggressive Central American Mission (CAM), headquartered in North America and financed by North Americans, was established in El Salvador and Guatemala. The primary message of the CAM was that the sad state of the world was a necessary and predestined situation heralding the imminence of the second coming. In later years, the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Assemblies of God, and others joined the growing missionary movement in Central America.

    Protestantism continued to grow steadily in El Salvador, particularly during the economic depression and political repression of the 1930s. The annual growth rate of the Protestant community in the country stood at 9 percent between 1930 and 1945 but dropped to 7 percent between 1945 and 1960. A dramatic resurgence appeared in the 1970s with an average annual rate of Protestant conversion of 11 percent. Some observers have attributed this impressive growth to a rejection of politicized social activism as exemplified by liberation theology. Others have interpreted the high rate of Protestant conversion as a withdrawal from the violence and instability of Salvadoran life in the late 1970s and 1980s.

    Furthermore, the popularity of evangelical Protestantism seems to have correlated with the intensity and nature of population displacement. As the number of land-poor laborers grew and migrant labor increased, and as the bonds of community, extended family, and tradition were broken for many, traditional Catholicism was unable to fill the personal sense of emotional loss and lack of direction. This was particularly true because the number of priests and clerics was small. Protestantism, however, offered a personalistic message of Jesus' acceptance of the individual, emphasized each individual's direct relationship to God unmediated by a hierarchical clergy, and held out hope that sustained even desperately poor people with a sense of self- worth in the face of violence, displacement, and misery.

    The elite found an ideological ally in this brand of Protestantism, not only for its apolitical approach but also for its laissez-faire, entrepreneurial, work-oriented values and its willingness to minimize the responsibility of the existing system for the nation's ills. Elites thus gladly supported evangelizing efforts on their landed estates, and significant numbers of upper-class Salvadorans converted to Protestantism.

                                            * * *

    The political events of the late 1970s and 1980s have given rise to a considerable number of readily available books, articles, and newspaper accounts detailing the conditions of life in El Salvador. An excellent introduction to both historical and current economic, political, and especially social conditions in El Salvador can be found in Philip L. Russell's El Salvador in Crisis and in Alastair White's El Salvador. El Salvador: The Face of Revolution by Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk also provides an impassioned and readable account of the social and economic conditions underlying the civil war. Margin of Life by Cornell Capa and J. Mayone Stycos presents evocative photography and text illustrating the often harsh reality of everyday life for the impoverished majority living in both urban and rural settings in El Salvador and Honduras.

    On more specific issues, Phillip Berryman's The Religious Roots of Rebellion discusses the background to liberation theology in Latin America and the specific role of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador. Articles in NACLA Report on the Americas by the North American Congress on Latin America present an overview of the activities and theology of Protestant missions in Central America. Also recommended for general reading is Part I of Enrique A. Baloyra's El Salvador in Transition, which contains a helpful overview of the nature of the military government and the oligarchical elite within a socioeconomic context. A. Douglas Kincaid's, "Peasants into Rebels: Community and Class in Rural El Salvador" analyzes the significance of community solidarity as a factor in the history of social unrest in El Salvador. "Agrarian Reform in El Salvador" by David Browning provides an excellent overview of the social, political, and economic contexts of agrarian reform, and Robert G. Williams's Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America is highly recommended as a very readable account of the economic and social conditions underlying political instability in Central America in general. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

    Data as of November 1988

    NOTE: The information regarding El Salvador on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of El Salvador The Role of Religion information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about El Salvador The Role of Religion should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.

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Revised 10-Nov-04
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