Evangelicals flex growing clout in Nicaragua's election
When Nicaragua passed one of the strictest abortion laws in the hemisphere last week, critics charged the Catholic Church with flexing political muscle ahead of next week's presidential election.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet, to lobby for the bill, Catholics invited evangelical Protestants to join a massive protest last month – a rare act of collaboration and a window into evangelicals' growing political sway in this predominantly Catholic country.
Evangelicals in Nicaragua were once overlooked as outcasts. Now no political contender can afford to alienate them. All but one of the leading presidential candidates, including Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, supported their bid to ban all forms of abortion, even if a mother's life is in danger.
Their ascent has been among the most dramatic in Latin America. At the end of the 1970s, only five percent of Nicaraguans were evangelicals. Now they account for more than 20 percent – some say more than 30 percent – of the population. Their political clout is mounting as fast as the cavernous churches popping up along Managua's highways. They are running for office, partnering with Catholics, and forcing social change – which could augur a new exercise of power among evangelicals throughout the region.
"You can't talk about Nicaraguan society or politics now without talking about evangelicals," says Benjamin Cortes, rector of the Nicaraguan Evangelical University, a 12-year-old private university that sits in the shadow of Managua's Cathedral.
Evangelicals in Guatemala and Brazil also possess notable political influence. But Mr. Cortes says he believes that evangelicals in Nicaragua, one of the poorest nations in the Western hemisphere, have had success in politics because American missionaries overlooked this country throughout the 20th century.
That left Nicaraguans to hold leadership positions within churches big and small, he says, which naturally segued into politics.
The first major sign of evangelicals' ascent here came in 1996, when Guillermo Osorno, a Pentecostal pastor, formed the Christian Path Party and ran for president, finishing in a remarkable third place. His party also earned four seats in the legislature.
Today 21 members are running for the legislature and Mr. Osorno says his presidential hopes still flicker.
They are just a few of the nation's evangelicals seeking political office. "We've always had power in numbers, but we've not always used it," says Roberto Rojas, the vice president for the National Council of Evangelical Pastors of Nicaragua. Two years ago his wife, Elizabeth de Rojas, made a bid to become mayor of Managua. She dropped out before the race was over, but seeking office "gave us all hope" for the possibilities, Rev. Rojas says.
In the past year, Osorno has traveled to Peru and Ecuador to help evangelicals create political parties modeled after his own. He says he is planning a trip to Bolivia and hopes that evangelicals will increase their political clout across the region. "It's the only way Latin America is going to really change," he says.
That could mean a more conservative tide on social issues. Evangelicals across the region do not vote as a block, and many, such as Cortes, were against the ban on abortion under any circumstances. Some say their divisions have limited their political influence.
But Doug Petersen, who was area director for the Pentecostal Assemblies of God of Central America based in Costa Rica for 15 years starting in the mid-80s, says that on moral issues, such as abortion, they could come together. "I think the one area evangelicals do have huge impact [in Latin America] is where they feel threatened," he says.