Anglophone scholars have long struggled to find a terminology with which to study non-Catholic Christianity in Latin America. We are used to studying Christianity in terms of Catholics versus Protestants, with “Evangelicals” being a subcategory of the latter. But Latin Americans tend to divide Christians into Catholics versus Evangelicals. To make matters worse, when scholars go to Latin America and start talking to those who call themselves Evangelical, they quickly realize that these are what would be called Pentecostals, as spirit baptism, faith healing and speaking in tongues all play a central role in their religious practice.

But these terminological challenges are more than a conceptual nuisance to be overcome; they are keys to understanding the cultural field in which religious practice takes place, as well as its social and political engagement. My research in Venezuela shows how Evangelicals position themselves vis-à-vis Catholicism and how that positioning has taken on political relevance during the government of Hugo Chávez, who has embraced Evangelicals as part of his larger assault on Venezuela’s existing social institutions.

Almost nobody refers to themselves as “Protestante” in Latin America, as the root of the word is much clearer in Spanish than in English—not many Evangelicals want to refer to themselves as “protestors.” Indeed, Evangelicals consciously seek to demonstrate peace and tranquility in the midst of the worldly conflict and chaos of the ungodly. Above all else, being Evangelical in Latin America is associated with a disciplinization of the body. Evangelicals cannot drink alcohol, take drugs, smoke tobacco, engage in sexualized behavior (outside of marriage) or aggressive, violent interaction. Avoiding these “works of the flesh” allows for the cultivation of a “deep self”—a sense self based on self-examination and self-domination.

At least two thirds of Protestants in Latin America are what in North America would be called Pentecostal. Latin American Pentecostals themselves do not dislike the term Pentecostal but generally refer to themselves as Evangélicos, to denote their professed prioritization of the Bible and especially the gospels, the first four books of the New Testament that tell the story of Jesus. Indeed, in Spanish, “Gospel” is translated as “Evangelio,” so the Gospel according to Matthew becomes El Evangelio según Mateo.

Evangelicals often simply refer to themselves as “Christians.” But they do not do this in a broad ecumenical sense of being part of a universal church. Rather, they say this to denote their “Christo-centrism” and to imply that Catholics are not actually Christians, but worshippers of Mary and followers of men. For Evangelicals, Catholicism is a “religion” since it is made by humans, while Evangelicalism is “salvation” revealed by God through the Bible. Following a doctrine of men, like Catholics do, leads to a life of conflict and turmoil. While following the Word of God leads to salvation in this life (peace and well being) and the next (eternal life).

Unsurprisingly, Catholics conceptualize their differences with Evangelicals quite differently. In the dominant Catholic discourse, the Catholic Church is located on one pole of a continuum between civilization, morality, and virtue on the one side, and barbarism, disorder and immorality on the other. The Church is the bastion of dignity in the midst of chaos. In most of Latin America’s “dual societies,” the Church (with the important exception of liberationist Catholicism) maps onto the existing class structure of radical inequality. The upper middle and upper classes that enjoy the benefits of modern citizenship, political representation and economic viability, are also the same ones most likely to have access to, participate in and identify with Catholic institutions. As one descends the social ladder and moves further into the informal context of neighborhoods and economic activities not recognized by the state, and social and political needs with little representation, one also gets further from the authority of the Catholic Church. Here people identify as Catholic, and may know the outlines of Catholic doctrine, but do not see Catholic morality as realistic for people like themselves.

Contrary to common conflations of religious practice with morality, this does not mean that nominal Catholics are amoral. It simply means that their moral sense is not adequately described as a deep self guided by abstract principles or constrained by a moral order. Rather, average Venezuelans are better described as engaging in moral practice based on a sense of relational self. What matters for the relational self is not firm adherence to transcendent principles, but how your actions affect concrete, identifiable individuals and collectivities in your social network of family, friends and acquaintances. Thus, the majority of Venezuelans who are nominal Catholics understand the outlines of Catholic morality and the possibility of a deep moral self, but see it as only possible for religious virtuosos, and largely undesirable for average people embedded in family, work and neighborhood commitments in an unpredictable social environment.

This is the context Evangelicalism confronts and breaks with. It presents an option that says a deep moral self is possible for average people. It is especially attractive to people whose lives have somehow deviated from the equilibrium of the dominant culture because of problems with substance abuse, crime and violence, poverty or family conflict. As fieldwork consistently shows, Evangelical participation can help people suffering from these issues to develop projects of self reform to address them. In the last three decades in Venezuela, Evangelicalism has arguably been the single most important form of civil society in Venezuela, representing the lower classes’ alternative to the civil associations that largely developed among upper-middle classes in the neoliberal period.

It should not surprise, then, that populist President Hugo Chávez has, since the beginning of his ascent to power, sought and made alliances with Evangelical groups. In his 1998 campaign he made public calls for their participation. In his first years as president he made numerous policy moves expanding religious freedom. And since then he has continually sought to make Evangelical groups into interlocutors with the state on an even footing with the Catholic Church. This outreach is also, of course, part of his continued attack on the historically dominant institutions of Venezuelan society, of which the Catholic Church is one of the most important.

All of this is wildly popular with Evangelicals of the lower classes. But it has also become a rhetorically successful way for Venezuela’s (former) social and political elite to disparage Chávez as unstable, erratic and uncultivated by suggesting he has become an Evangélico. For example, when, in January 2002, Chávez told reporters he was “a proactive member of the Christian, Evangelical Church” as he was leaving for regional meetings in Bolivia, the press had a free-for-all for the next week regarding his “religious conversion.” Journalists interviewed Catholic officials to see if Chávez would be excommunicated and Evangelical pastors to ask whether Chávez had ever attended their services. Upon his return to Venezuela, Chávez declared that while he strongly sympathized with Evangelicals, he was in fact a practicing Catholic. Indeed he had not misspoken, as the concept of “Evangelical” is frequently used in Catholic discourse to refer to an orientation towards spreading the faith. But anti-Chávez sectors still confidently point to the incident as a demonstration that he is unfit to lead the country.

Chávez’s outreach to Evangelicals is one manifestation of a broader shift toward ideological forms of political mobilization in Venezuela and Latin America in general. Through the second half of the twentieth century in Venezuela, political discourse was dominated by the master narrative of state-led development that would produce a modern nation. This narrative was based simply on an expectation of modernity-to-come and had little ideological content. Even this narrative fell into disuse during the neoliberal period of the 1980s and 90s when political parties took an inward turn and relinquished what little ideological leadership they had in favor of self-preservation and expediency.

Chávez rose to power using a Manichean critique of the previous regime and its institutions, supported by elements from multiple ideological discourses. While Chávez’s discourse is centered on nationalist myths of heroic nineteenth-century figures such as Simon Bolívar, it also includes elements from pan-indigenous as well as Afro-Venezuelan ideologies, liberationist Catholicism, socialism, neo-fascist thought, as well as Evangelicalism.

This ideological bricolage has served Chávez well, but as the government has consolidated itself, the mutual incompatibilities of many of these discourses have surfaced. Already in the first couple of years, Evangelicalism came into conflict with the government’s nationalist attempt to bring together different religions into what it called the “Bolivarian Inter-religious Parliament.” The initiative sought to funnel some of the public money for social services that traditionally had only gone to the Catholic Church to other religious groups. However, the main Evangelical associations were not interested in becoming part of a “national project” and rejected the “religious” label that would have obliged them to sit at the same table and recognize as legitimate some religious groups that they consider aberrations, such as Afro-Venezuelan spiritualists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Moonies.

The contradictions between Evangelicalism and pan-indigenous ideology and liberationist Catholicism came to the fore over missions in the Amazon region. In October 2005, on the day formerly known as Columbus Day and now celebrated as the National Day of Indigenous Resistance, Chávez announced a decision to expel the “New Tribes” missionaries that have long worked with indigenous groups in Venezuela’s lightly populated Amazon region. These missionaries, he said, were spies and represented an “imperialist invasion.” Taken aback, the major Evangelical associations condemned the measure and sought allies. But Catholics of all stripes applauded the measure, including liberationist Catholics who often collaborate with Evangelicals. It came about because of the pressure of indigenous legislators in the National Assembly.

Finally, the contradiction between Evangelical and socialist discourses recently came to the fore in the run up to the constitutional referendum in December 2007, which would have brought about centralizing reforms deemed necessary to “Twenty First Century socialism.” A public document released by some Evangelical leaders in the weeks before the referendum opposed the reform as a threat to pluralism and freedom and thereby inimical to Evangelicalism. Chávez responded by condemning these leaders to Hell on national television.

But perhaps the central contradiction in Venezuela is still between a relational self oriented toward concrete others and a deep self that follows abstract moral principles. Most Venezuelans do not participate in or identify with any of the ideological systems just mentioned and regard them with a skeptical eye. Evangelicalism still only garners the sympathies of a small minority, as does Chávez’s new socialist party. These ideological systems succeed in mobilizing atomized, marginalized populations in a de-institutionalized context of rapid social change. But that does not mean they have become deeply held cultural templates, or even competing moral orders in a burgeoning culture war. Rather, most people are still guided by the moral practices of the relational self. They will tolerate accentuated ideological systems as long as they do less harm than good to the people in their immediate social network and imagined community. They will reject them if they seem to be undermining their social equilibrium without any corresponding gain.