Is religion being politicized in Latin America? The question is commonly asked today, but rests only in part on concern with Latin American events themselves. To be sure, religious issues, groups, and people have lately been salient in the politics of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Brazil, or Chile—to name only some of the more familiar cases. But the question has deeper roots in a general North American concern with the potential of politicized religion to spur social protest and political change in cases otherwise as distinct as Iran, Poland, Southern Africa, Lebanon, the Philippines, or Latin America itself. Much of this concern is also clearly a refraction of puzzlement here at home with the resurgence of religious issues into national political discourse. These considerations suggest that finding answers to questions about the politicization of religion requires as much attention to the meaning of the questions themselves and to the assumptions built into their posing, as to the search for specific instances of politicized religion in Latin America today.
Questions about the politicization of religion arise from longstanding intellectual traditions which make religion secondary to supposedly more immediate, real, or rational social, economic, or political forces. When religion as an issue or religiously inspired groups do appear in political arenas, they are seen as interlopers, aberrant and likely short-lived phenomena. From this vantage point, religion appears mostly as a survivor from the past, doomed to privatization and ultimate disappearance.