Evangelicals key to El Salvador elections

The group, which has begun to shift to the left, could determine the outcome of Sunday's presidential election.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    EL SALVADOR: Members of the Elim church prayed Tuesday.
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When Carlos Rivas became an evangelical pastor 10 years ago, he attempted to create a television show uncovering corruption within El Salvador's conservative ruling party. But he was quickly informed that his church prohibited open criticism of the government.

So he founded the Tabernáculo de Avivamiento Internacional (TAI), a church in the impoverished outskirts of San Salvador. And today, his blogs, editorials, and weekly television programs make an art of denouncing injustice and inequality. He has, in other words, adopted the lexicon of the left.

"Pastors once taught us that poverty was natural," Pastor Rivas says. "But it's because of bad distribution of resources."

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Evangelicals in El Salvador, who are mostly Pentecostals, have long been a coveted group among politicians: they make up one-third of the population. But most have been apolitical, and those who did engage politically tended to align with the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) party.

Now that is starting to change. In Sunday's presidential election, according to a University of Central America (UCA) poll, 42 percent of Evangelicals say they favor the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the leftist party that grew out of a guerilla movement that battled the military in a 12-year civil war, while 31 percent favor Arena. It is a significant shift from 2004, when 44 percent of Evangelicals voted for Arena and only 28.6 percent for the FMLN.

If Mauricio Funes, the FMLN candidate, beats Arena candidate Rodrigo Avila, he will be the first leftist president in the nation's history – ending Arena's 20-year grip on El Salvador and making it the newest addition to the leftist fold in Latin America. Evangelicals will be a determining factor in the outcome. "There is a battle to win over the Evangelicals; it is a big, important vote," says Dean Brackley, a Jesuit who teaches theology at UCA in San Salvador. "But it is a more dicey, complicated thing than in the past.... It is not a given they will vote [for the right]."

According to the polling firm CID-Gallup, Mr. Funes leads by more than 5 points, though there are still many undecided voters. And in many ways, Evangelicals' voting tendencies reflect the national mood: more than 80 percent of those surveyed by UCA say the country needs a change. Main concerns cited by voters are unemployment, rampant violence, and gangs.

Evangelicals say their confidence in the FMLN is driven by the same concerns. "We need a change to the left," says Dora Alicia Fernandez, a food stall vendor outside the TAI, where she is a member. "This is changing among Evangelicals ... and it is because of the economic blow. We can't make ends meet."

Such sentiments represent a departure from the past. Pentecostal membership surged during the civil war, from 3 percent of the population to 15 percent by the end of the war in 1992. Throughout much of that period, Evangelicals remained on the political sidelines. But as their growth continued in the '90s, political parties set their eyes on the churches. In 2004, Evangelicals played a key role in Arena's victory.

"Evangelicals have traditionally been afraid of the left, because they believed the left were atheists," says Mario Vega, the head pastor for Misión Cristiana Elim Internacional, one of the country's largest churches.

The associations some Evangelicals make between the left and godlessness still exist. Nelson Valdez, president of the National Network of Pastors, fears the FMLN will bring communism and religious repression to the country. "We have seen what happened in the Soviet Union and Cuba," he says.

But evolving views among some pastors are overturning those sentiments. It is a shift that is incipient, says Timothy Wadkins, the director of the Institute for the Global Study of Religion at Canisius College in New York. "The intelligentsia on the left has normally looked at Evangelicals as so heavenly-minded that they have no real concern about social justice here and now," Mr. Wadkins says. "But [some pastors] are as leftist as any liberation theologians."

Last month, the Foundation for the Union of Salvadoran Evangelical Churches, led by Edwin Guzman, held a meeting with 600 pastors to listen to Funes's platform. By doing so, says Pastor Guzman, "we broke a taboo, and the paradigm that Evangelicals have to fear the left."

In many cases pastors are more radical than their membership. But Pastor Vega attributes the leftward tilt in evangelical voting patterns to candidate Funes, who was not a militant in the war and represents a more moderate left. Vega says he hopes the shift translates into more social justice on the part of Evangelicals: "We could become the country's social conscience."

The pastors who criticize the right say they do not adopt political positions within church walls. Still, their views have been controversial. Rivas says he receives hundreds of e-mails a week, many labeling him a leftist and atheist. He says he dismisses such invective.

Yet if the FMLN does win Sunday, Rivas concedes it will be a test for pastors. They have been a voice of opposition, a role he feels comfortable in. But if Funes wins, he and his colleagues will be forced to maintain a strict line. He says all churches run the risk of becoming political instruments, on both sides of the spectrum. "We will have to redefine what our role is," he says.

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