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Kevin O'Neill
Department of Religious Studies

Hal Kibbey
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Monday, October 8, 2007

Christian evangelists fill a power vacuum in Guatemala

Oct. 8, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. --- Guatemala's recent general elections were accompanied by unanticipated levels of violence. At least 50 people were killed during the months leading up to the voting. This is the most election-related violence seen since the signing of Guatemala's 1996 peace accords, which formally ended Latin America's longest and bloodiest civil war.

In the midst of urban violence and political turmoil, Guatemala also is experiencing a continued shift in religious affiliation. Once overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, the country is now more than half non-denominational Christian. The idea of "Christian citizenship" has taken on a new meaning.

Kevin O'Neill, assistant professor of religious studies and American studies at Indiana University Bloomington, recently returned from almost two years of living, teaching and researching in post-war Guatemala City. There he studied the growing influence of evangelical Christianity on Guatemala's efforts at democratization. These two processes have become entangled, he explained, generating a sense of "Christian citizenship" for those faithful who participate in Guatemala's fledgling democracy.

"We need to rethink how we understand citizenship participation amidst efforts at democratization. Citizenship participation can look very different than what we first expect," O'Neill said.

He describes himself as "an anthropologist of transnational Christianity," with regional expertise in the Americas, especially Central America. He is working on a book about the growing influence of evangelical Christianity on Guatemala's efforts at democratization after a 36-year civil war.

Evangelical Christians have become influential by filling a power vacuum in Guatemala, he said. To many citizens, they represent the only escape from chaos. Transnational street gangs, especially in drug trafficking, are the major alternative to the evangelical Christians.

"The faithful are struggling to understand what it means to be a 'Christian citizen' in an ethnically diverse, class-divided and desperately violent capital city," he said. "Evangelical Christianity provides not just a new language but also new practices for national belonging and responsibility."

The realities of Guatemala make the question of citizenship especially palpable. In a country roughly the size of Tennessee, Guatemala has 23 ethno-linguistic groups. Over half the population is indigenous, and the gap between rich and poor in Guatemala is one of the most severe in all of Latin America.

"Only one-third of the Guatemalan work force works in the formal economy," O'Neill added. "There is massive unemployment, including many veterans of the Guatemalan civil war. Two million guns 'vanished' when that war ended, and there are now many guns in private hands."

One result has been the privatization of security, he noted. The people who can pay for security are the people who get it -- by hiring their own security forces.

O'Neill found that Guatemalans have responded to these conditions in unexpected ways.

"They participate in Guatemala's new democracy through a range of monastic practices such as prayers, fasts and examinations of conscience. They do not necessarily prize voting or participate in political demonstrations. From their perspective, prayer is much more effective," he said.

"The common response is to say that these believers are not really doing anything -- they are praying instead of voting. I would disagree, given that voting does not really mean all that much in a place like Guatemala," he said. "Rather, this kind of Christian citizenship contributes to the formation of a Guatemalan national identity, which is no small feat given the country's history and astounding level of diversity."

O'Neill noted that his research addresses an issue critically important not just to Guatemala but also to countries throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia, not to mention the United States of America.

"These are all places where the continued entanglement of evangelical Christianity and democracy is unmistakable," he said.

Kevin O'Neill can be reached at 812-855-6904 and For assistance contact Hal Kibbey at 812-855-0074 and