All Religions Are Good in Tzintzuntzan

[ Latin American Studies ]

All Religions Are Good in Tzintzuntzan

Evangelicals in Catholic Mexico

By Peter S. Cahn

In this paradigm-challenging study, Peter Cahn investigates why the coming of evangelical churches to Tzintzuntzan has produced neither the interfaith clashes nor the economic prosperity that evangelical conversion has brought to other communities in Mexico and Latin America.



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6 x 9 | 213 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-70175-5

Since the 1960s, evangelical Christian denominations have made converts throughout much of Roman Catholic Latin America, causing clashes of faith that sometimes escalate to violence. Yet in one Mexican town, Tzintzuntzan, the appearance of new churches has provoked only harmony. Catholics and evangelicals alike profess that "all religions are good," a sentiment not far removed from "here we are all equal," which was commonly spoken in the community before evangelicals arrived.

In this paradigm-challenging study, Peter Cahn investigates why the coming of evangelical churches to Tzintzuntzan has produced neither the interfaith clashes nor the economic prosperity that evangelical conversion has brought to other communities in Mexico and Latin America. Drawing on extensive ethnographic fieldwork, he demonstrates that the evangelicals' energetic brand of faith has not erupted into violence because converts continue to participate in communal life, while Catholics, in turn, participate in evangelical practices. He also underscores how Tzintzuntzan's integration into global economic networks strongly motivates the preservation of community identity and encourages this mutual borrowing. At the same time, however, Cahn concludes that the suppression of religious difference undermines the revolutionary potential of religion.

  • Preface. Confronting Interreligious Violence
  • 1. Sharing the Burden of Fiestas across Borders
  • 2. Drinking and the Divine in Chiapas and Tzintzuntzan
  • 3. Accounting for Missionaries and Money
  • 4. Responding to the Minority: Catholic Self-Improvement
  • 5. Responding to the Majority: Doctrinal Disobedience
  • 6. Considering the Consequences of Conversion
  • Conclusion: Mobilizing Religion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Threats of interreligious conflict have replaced cold war tensions as the major source of global instability in the twenty-first century. From Northern Ireland to Kashmir to the West Bank, the irreconcilable coexistence of two faith traditions has the potential to spark bloody confrontations. Motivated by doctrinal exclusivity, religious partisans see the destruction of nonbelievers as the only way to ensure the purity and survival of their way of life. On news broadcasts, journalists track the latest arrests of religious extremists plotting to do the United States harm. On college campuses, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian factions hurl punches along with invective. The regular reports of religious violence from around the world moved my eighty-seven-year-old grandmother to ask, "Wouldn't we all be better off without religion?"

In this book, I answer her and others who blame religion for fomenting violence and promoting intolerance. I argue that conflict is not a necessary outcome when adherents of different religious backgrounds live together, and, when disagreements do arise, religion is only a proximate cause. Taking the example of a region where new evangelical Protestant congregations have emerged to challenge the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church, I show how members of both groups adopt beliefs and practices of the other so as to minimize denominational discord. This mutual borrowing does not diminish the fervency of a person's chosen faith but rather strengthens it by connecting the spiritual realm with the conditions of daily life. Seen in this light, religious affiliation is not a fixed category but a vibrant, lived experience that responds to specific social, economic, and political contexts over the course of a believer's lifetime.

Between 1998 and 2001 I conducted fieldwork in Tzintzuntzan and its neighboring communities on the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro in the central-western Mexican state of Michoacán. Previous studies of conversion from Roman Catholicism to evangelical Protestant denominations in Latin America have taken place in countries with a high proportion of converts, such as Guatemala or Brazil. When scholars have conducted such research in Mexico, they have tended to focus on the southern states, which have the largest number of evangelicals. This approach allows the field-worker to participate in a full range of churches, but it also can produce overly deterministic conclusions about why Catholics have left their natal church. Talking to the many evangelical converts in Chiapas, for instance, one would get the impression that the only explanation for remaining in the Catholic Church is ignorance.

This skewed perspective ignores the continued vitality of the Catholic Church in most of Mexico. Moreover, it does not take into account the interactions between Catholics and their converted relatives and friends. During my fieldwork around Lake Pátzcuaro, the phenomenon of evangelical churches was still recent and relatively limited. Because this area remained a predominantly Catholic community, I was able to document both why converts have left the Catholic Church and why most Catholics have not. The Tzintzuntzan area also afforded the additional advantage of more than half a century of ethnographic data. As a result of the ongoing presence of anthropologists in Tzintzuntzan, of which I am the third generation, nearly everyone in the community is a willing collaborator with inquisitive outsiders. Their familiarity with anthropological methods enhanced my access to expressions of personal spirituality.

For most of the fifty-five years that anthropologists have studied in Tzintzuntzan, the Catholic Church has been the sole organized religion. Despite the arrival of missionaries from mainline Protestant denominations during the nineteenth century, serious challenges to the dominance of the Catholic Church in Mexico have appeared only in the last few decades. The non-Catholic Christian faiths that began to register since the 1960s in government census figures were not mainline churches like Presbyterians and Methodists but evangelical ones like Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses. These more successful churches proselytize enthusiastically and rail against the perceived sins of the secular world. Their proportion of the Mexican population consistently remained under 2 percent until 1980, when it reached 3.3 percent. Then, by the 1990 census, evangelicals totaled nearly 5 percent (Giménez 1996:230-242). By 2000, the number had reached 7.4 percent. With an overall population of nearly 100 million, this meant more than 7 million adults self-identified as evangelicals in Mexico. In Tzintzuntzan, a county seat with three thousand residents, eleven extended families have left the Catholic Church to join an evangelical church.

The pattern of community harmony that I observed cannot be attributed to the relatively small number of evangelical converts. Most of the evangelicals and Catholics whom I introduce live or pray in Tzintzuntzan, but I draw on examples from the surrounding lake communities to show how they represent larger regional trends. Given the very public nature of Catholic worship and the efficiency of small-town gossip in Tzintzuntzan, conversion cannot be disguised. Even in larger cities nearby like Pátzcuaro and Quiroga, people know which of their neighbors attend Catholic Mass and which do not. Some Protestant churches around the lake have amassed sufficient resources to build highly visible places of worship. Since evangelical doctrine enjoins its members to bring salvation to the unsaved, converts tend to be open about their beliefs. Not all knock on doors to encourage Catholics to convert, but they do proselytize in some manner. Every member of the community belongs to a religion, and everyone else knows what it is.

Although there is diversity within both groups, I will treat Tzintzuntzeños as belonging to two basic religious affiliations: Catholics and evangelicals. This categorization reflects the perceptions of Tzintzuntzeños themselves. Since atheism is unheard of, even the most alienated believers claim membership in some church and recognize the distinctions between their religious group and the other. Catholics call converts “evangelicals,” “brothers” (in reference to their habit for calling fellow members “hermanos”), or “hallelujahs” (a reference to their ecstatic forms of worship) without respect for denominational differences. In turn, most converts call all Catholics “católicos,” and a few use the term “romanistas” to refer to their foreign origin. The converts are not that rigorous about applying distinctions between their own denominations either, calling all fellow non-Catholics “Christians,” which is a generic term in Spanish for “human beings.” For the purposes of simplicity, I will use “convert” interchangeably with “evangelical.” The churches use the term “Protestant” less frequently because it does not adequately convey their diverse spiritual lineages. “Evangelical,” with its emphasis on spreading the gospel, best describes the non-Catholic religious groups I visited.

Catholicism in the Lake Pátzcuaro area resembles the blend of rural European belief and pre-Hispanic elements that characterizes the majority church in other parts of central Mexico (see Ingham 1986). For most Catholics in this part of Mexico, the figure of the parish priest embodies the institution of the Catholic Church. He oversees daily Mass, though few Catholics attend more than the Sunday service. His role in administering the sacrament of communion and officiating at events such as baptisms and weddings places him in an intermediary position between the lay believer and the divine. Catholics rarely pray independently to God; they convey their thoughts to God through a layer of saints, powerful statues, and the merciful Virgin Mary. Instead of reading the Bible, they rely on the priest to interpret Scripture. The priest also presides at the liturgical celebrations that punctuate the religious calendar and affirm the sanctity of the church through a combination of solemn processions and raucous merriment.

Converts from Catholicism to evangelical churches typically frame their autobiographies in terms of a total transformation in which the misery of life “before” (sin, chaos) gives way to a peaceful “after” (harmonious, reordered). Evangelical pastors signal this life change by asking new members to make a personal decision to accept Jesus into their hearts. For evangelicals, salvation comes through faith, in which they deliver themselves sincerely and repentantly to the Lord. This direct relationship with God contrasts with the mediation by priests in the Catholic faith and requires the adoption of a rigid code of behavior. Accepting Jesus means following all of his directives, as interpreted by each church. The variety of new activities and beliefs, from reading the Bible to rejecting the Virgin Mary, often bewilders recent converts. Staying in the church demands an even greater commitment to the prescribed rules, which govern converts' lives down to their wardrobe. Consequently, many women and men who start to attend evangelical services drop out.

Those who remain active in evangelical churches consider themselves to be born again. Only adults can take part in the ceremony of baptism, which confirms their rebirth as “creatures in Christ.” Rebirth is so central that even the relatively few adults who have been born into an evangelical church usually go through a period of rebelliousness, only to return to the faith with renewed vigor.

In their new lives, converts accept certain tenets of faith that distance them from the Catholic religion. First, they consider the Bible the holy and inerrant word of God and interpret it literally. Evangelicals reject the cult of the saints and the institution of the papacy, pillars of Catholic belief that lack explicit grounding in the Bible. Second, they come to believe that they are living in the final days before Judgment Day. Predictions from the Bible have come true; warning signs have manifested themselves, making the Apocalypse imminent. Third, because of the impending Judgment Day, it becomes imperative to spread the “good news” of Jesus to as many souls as possible, converting them to the true faith before they receive final judgment.

Conversion also entails an overhaul of everyday behavior. Whereas Catholic priests tend to tolerate many practices as human foibles or expressions of untutored faith, evangelical pastors direct their followers to eliminate drinking, smoking, dancing, fiestas, rodeos, profanity, and other “worldly sins” from their lives. Evangelical churches also place a much stronger emphasis on reading Scripture than the Catholic Church does. Every member brings a Bible to evangelical services, flipping to the suggested passages and reciting verses aloud. In other respects, converts also participate more vigorously in church worship. Evangelical services (with the conspicuous exception of the Jehovah's Witnesses) merge ecstatic prayer with frenzied music. Often the electrified ambience induces wailing, flailing, and speaking in tongues. Since the pastor claims no special access to the divine, any member may lead any part of the service. A charismatic leader cannot contradict a member's visceral connection to the divine, whether manifested in tongues, prophecy, or faith healing.

In the traditionally Catholic community of Tzintzuntzan, where evangelical churches have become part of the religious landscape only during the past two decades, I sought to look behind the static, self-identifying labels of Catholic and evangelical to examine the process of mutual accommodation that characterizes religious life. I show how evangelical conversion arises from familial crises like alcoholism, not coercion from zealous missionaries. Whereas evangelical leaders portray their congregations as embattled minorities seeking to transform what they perceive as a sinful secular world, converts are more concerned with individual healing. Their energetic brand of faith has not erupted into violence because they continue to participate in communal life. Converts contribute financially to traditional Catholic celebrations and retain the structures of Catholic worship. Catholics, in turn, temper their disapproval of converts by attending evangelical ceremonies and importing Protestant principles into parish activities. Even if it means contradicting the universalizing doctrines espoused by the priest, Catholics value community harmony over blind allegiance.

Throughout Latin America, a flowering of religious diversity has replaced the centuries-old spiritual monopoly of the Catholic Church. There is debate among scholars about what the impact of these new churches will be. In places like Chiapas, where religious differences overlay struggles for political control, the result of evangelical conversion has been forced expulsion and unchecked violence. Around Lake Pátzcuaro, social and economic changes set in motion by increased out-migration to the United States have made peaceful coexistence possible. Alone, the presence of competing religious traditions in a single place is not responsible for creating conflict. As my experiences from Tzintzuntzan demonstrate, followers of different faiths can incorporate elements of the other into their religious beliefs and practices. When people told me that "all religions are good," they affirmed that it was less important to belong to a specific group than to share a common belief in God. Far from provoking conflict, evangelicals in Tzintzuntzan have fostered community solidarity.

Peter S. Cahn is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oklahoma.

"In summary, the book is an important contribution to the field of religious conversion and the study of Protestantism in Mexico and Latin America, in both as an ethnographic work and as a solid reflection on issues related to social, political, and economic consequences of religious diversity."

"[A] pleasure to read, as it shows that good ethnography should not be boring. This text will certainly find the wide audience it deserves among readers from many backgrounds."
The Journal of Latin American Anthropology

"This book offers important insights into how people are taking religion into their own hands in a Mexican town. . . . Cahn's representations of Tzintzuntzeños allow readers to see them as folks much like ourselves, trying to use religion
to find meaning in life and to negotiate life's transitions and crises. . . . The book is beautifully written."—Christine Eber, author of Women and Alcohol in a Highland Maya Town