Tongues of Fire

As the 1990’s begin, about 10 percent of Latin America’s more than four hundred million people are Protestants. That may not seem particularly impressive, but it marks a dramatic change in a region that was once overwhelmingly Catholic. At current rates of growth, Latin America will be one-third Protestant early in the twenty-first century. Moreover, in some areas of Latin America active Protestants already outnumber active Catholics (as opposed to nominal believers).

What is at stake in this shift (what makes this a story for the front page, and not for the religion section only) is a clash between rival civilizations. “Some wars,” David Martin writes, “are of very long duration, with the actual fighting quite intermittent. ... One of the longest running of all wars is the four hundred year clash between the Hispanic imperium and the Anglo-Saxon imperium.” Ranging widely throughout Latin America (including the Caribbean), Martin shows how the growth of Protestantism--primarily of the American-based, Pentecostal variety--has brought changes to diverse societies which have in common their roots in the empires of Spain and Portugal.

At the same time, Martin puts his story in another context: the relationship between modernization and secularization. Does the former inevitably bring about the latter? In the 1960’s, many social critics confidently predicted the gradual disappearance of religion as a force in the modern world. In the 1990’s, the picture looks different. The “explosion” of Pentecostal Protestantism in Latin America, Martin observes, is “part of a world-wide phenomenon affecting parts of the rim of the western Pacific, especially South Korea, and several countries in Africa.”

Martin is a sociologist, but he does not write like one. This is a brilliant, richly suggestive book, accessible to any interested reader. The text is supplemented by notes and an extensive bibliography.