You are here: Religion & Violence in Latin America

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Since the 1960s religion has been a remarkably dynamic force in Latin America, paralleling the shift from dictatorship to elected government. Catholic leaders and activists opposed authoritarian regimes, influenced democratic "transitions," and within substantially altered ecclesial institutions, have remained a significant presence in more open societies today. During this same span, burgeoning Evangelical and Pentecostal churches have become a major social phenomenon across the region, with a growing prominence in public life.

This period of religious dynamism has also been a notably violent one in the region, initially characterized predominantly by state repression and struggles to defend human rights and, more recently, by criminal violence and efforts to enhance citizen security.

This initiative sought to illuminate how religion has related to violence in different contexts. Research had three key objectives: 1) to assess the impact of churches and religion on political change in Latin America through the last half century, in both dictatorships and democracy; 2) to examine specifically their role in the defense of human rights and ministry toward victims of violence; and 3) to interpret how religious ideas and practice have been shaped by political context and different forms of violence.

The project encompassed structured dialogues as well as research and brought together academic specialists, religious "practitioners," investigative journalists and policy makers. It undertook thematic and comparative case study research of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru and circulated findings in white papers as well as scholarly publications.

This project was directed by Alexander Wilde as a Research Fellow at CLALS, together with the Center's Director, Eric Hershberg, and Joseph Eldridge, American University Chaplain and Director of the Kay Spiritual Life Center. It was supported by a two-year grant of $375,000 from the Henry Luce Foundation.

An initial planning meeting was held in Washington, DC in March 2012. The project sponsored a panel at the 2012 annual conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) held in Phoenix, AZ, which highlighted select pieces of cutting-edge research carried out by participants. At a workshop in January 2013, project participants commissioned to write papers presented and discussed findings. The 2013 LASA Congress in Washington, DC marked another occasion when scholars involved in the initiative delivered papers on a project-sponsored panel. 


January 2013 Workshop

As part of its multi-year initiative on Religion and Violence in Latin America, the Center held a project workshop January 14-15, 2013. The purpose was to discuss the fourteen pieces of original research commissioned since the initial planning meeting held in March 2012. It aimed as well to explore the validity and utility of the project concept paper in light of this new work. Workshop participants presented central themes and questions from their draft papers which were in various stages of elaboration. The pieces delivered focused on both the past and present, in the form of case studies as well as thematic, synthetic treatments of topics.

A moderated discussion, open to the public was held at the culmination of the workshop. Titled "Religion, Violence and Human Rights in Latin America: A new generation of scholarship," it featured Robert Brenneman of Saint Michael's College, Amelia Frank-Vitale of the Institute of Current World Affairs, Patrick Kelly, doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago and Winifred Tate of Colby College. Alexander Wilde, the project's co-director and CLALS Research Fellow, moderated the discussion.

Initial Planning Meeting

The initiative's first planning meeting was held on March 26-27, 2012 at American University. Participants included both leading and up-and-coming scholars in various disciplines from across the United States and Latin America, as well as religious practitioners. The meeting helped to clarify a variety of issues concerning case studies and cross-cutting themes that emerged from the project's comparative dimension, as well as the longitudinal relationship of past and present. Participants discussed how Christian churches and communities understood and confronted violence in the past, when it was exercised by dictatorial states (often in conditions of armed rebellion); their role in transitions to democratic rule; and their responses in present-day electoral democracies, when criminal violence presents serious challenges to citizen security. Participants recognized the importance of incorporating the theological and experiential perspectives of religious practitioners and considered different ways such practitioners might be integrated as the project develops.

Meeting participants urged attention to two less developed themes in the project concept paper: the transnational dynamics of religious responses to both past and contemporary violence and issues of gender, violence, and religion in both periods. The meeting culminated in a panel discussion open to an engaged public at American University's Kay Spiritual Life Center. Moderated by CLALS Research Scholar Alexander Wilde, it featured John Burdick, Syracuse University; Virginia Garrard-Burnett, University of Texas at Austin; Daniel Levine, University of Michigan; Kimberly Theidon, Harvard University; and AU Chaplain Joe Eldridge.