Evangélicos and the Shift in Manifest Destiny

Evangélico in the context of the Americas1 is a wide-reaching description that has subsumed and transcended the Anglo-American understanding of being an evangelical. Identifying oneself as an evangélico conveys an array of meanings. For one, it is “the most common term used in Spanish to refer to all Protestants.”2 At the same time, being an evangélico generally implies being Christian but not Catholic or mainline Protestant.3 In the same breath, most Latino/a Pentecostals see themselves as evangélicos and not necessarily as Protestants. Let us nuance this understanding even further. The renowned theologian José Míguez Bonino stated that during his career he was labeled as “conservative, revolutionary, Barthian, liberal, Catholic-proselytizer, moderate, liberationist”—but he would call himself an evangélico at the core.4 In short, although the folk-religious dimension of evangelicalism is noticed in the historical developments of Anglo-American evangelicalism, this nevertheless pales when compared to the case of the Americas.

How has Anglo-American evangelicalism influenced evangelicalism in the Americas? Let us begin by acknowledging the fact that the Euro-American ethos of evangelicalism—which relates to the revivalist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and whose trends include conversionism, activism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and transdenominationalism5—has significantly influenced not only the religious tissue but also the civic, economic, and political life of the Americas. The incipient-revivalist spirit of Western evangelicalism hoping to “convert the nation” expanded way beyond the southern borders of the United States to include the Latin American territories. A brief historical review should suffice to illustrate this claim.

The arrival of Protestantism in Latin America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries occurred during a crucial overlapping of imperial powers in the continent: the Spanish and Portuguese crowns together with the British, North American, and French empires. In this historical juncture, 
Anglo-American Protestant missions were used to promote and idealize the culture, history, and progress of the United States (Westernization). This appealed to the Latin American elite in power who sought to free themselves from Catholic hegemony in order to pursue political independence. It also favored the US monopolies that had begun to acquire land and impose foreign economies in many Latin American countries. The problem lay in the generation of Protestant-evangelical missionaries who most heavily influenced the bases of Latin American evangelicalism. They brought with them a series of political, theological, and cultural upheavals, that included a sense of manifest destiny, a fundamentalist versus liberal divide, and dispensationalist biblical hermeneutics. This led to a separatist vision in Latin America’s evangelical imagination regarding church and culture and church and politics. From that point on, the bulk of evangelical Christianity in Latin America manifested a Christian culture that was apolitical, pseudo-monastic, escapist, and apocalyptic.6

Having said all the above, we now face a new form of Latin American/Latino evangelicalism rapidly growing and going global. The new evangélicos, mostly from neo-Pentecostal churches, have subsumed and transcended the Anglo-American evangelical legacy by promoting their own agenda: revivalist worship, contemporary hymnody, prosperity gospel, transnational/multinational churches, mission-branding, and so forth. Interestingly, the missiological shift that took place in global Christianity, which moved the center of Christianity from the North Atlantic to the Global South, has facilitated a Latin American’s sense of manifest destiny. The notable words of Josiah Strong that illustrated the manifest destiny ideology of the missionary enterprise have been subsumed and redirected:

Does it not look as if God were not only preparing in our Anglo-Saxon civilization the die with which to stamp the peoples of the earth, but as if he were also massing behind that die the mighty power with which to press it? 7

At the current time, the Latin American evangelical church, mostly in the hands of megachurch/multinational neo-Pentecostal leaders, spells out the mission enterprise in similar tones: God has chosen the evangélicos of the Americas to establish the kingdom of God to the ends of the earth. To prove this point one only need count how many Latino/a churches in the United States, Canada, and Southern Europe have been planted and led by immigrants coming from Latin American evangelical churches, and how many Latino/a pastors construct their ministries after Latin American mega-church/multinational models.

A question remains crucial for evangelicalism in general: to what degree does the emerging Latino/a evangelicalism continue to build on the colonialist-imperial legacy that informs many of the most important theological propositions and mission practices of Anglo-American evangelicalism? This question is open to debate—a debate we must cope with as evangelicals in both the Global South and North.

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1. “The Americas” refers here to Latin America, the Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries, and the Latino/a diaspora in the United States and Canada.
2. Juan Francisco Martínez, Protestantes: An Introduction to Latino Protestantism in the United States (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011), 5.
3. See Lee M. Penyak and Walter J. Petry, Religion in Latin America: A Documentary History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2006), 203.
4. See José Míguez Bonino, Faces of Latin American Protestantism: 1993 Carnahan Lectures (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), chap. 1.
5. See David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989); George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991). See in addition, Larry Eskridge, “Defining Evangelicalism,” Wheaton College: Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, http://www.wheaton.edu/ISAE/Defining-Evangelicalism/Defining-the-Term (accessed 12/11/14).
6. Apolitical refers here to a religious attitude of non-
involvement with politics on the side of the subjects of the Anglo-American missions. It was expected that the new disciples would keep away from national dirty politics. It goes without saying that the US was portrayed as the exceptional nation with the political vocation of doing “benevolent imperial” maneuverings (Martin Marty, Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America, 1970).
7. Josiah Strong, Our Country: Its Possible Future and its Present Crisis (New York: Baker & Taylor, 1885), 161–65.