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Are civil rights at risk in Argentina?

September 30, 2022
topic:Women's rights
tags:#Argentina, #Evangelical, #civil rights, #aboriton, #LGBTQ Rights
by:Cecilia Fernández Castañón
Evangelical churches are multiplying in Argentina. And although the movement does not yet have the strength seen elsewhere in Latin American, its influence is growing, as do fears of possible reversal of newly-acquired rights.

Over the last 12 years, Argentina has passed laws enabling same-sex marriage, recognising gender identity and permitting abortion. Some of this legislation was unprecedented in Latin America, and positioned Argentina as  a regional trailblazer when it comes to respect for diversity and gender equality. 

But accessing these rights has not been easy, and involved years of consensus-building between opposing socio-political elements. Among the prominent actors who took part in these debates were groups linked to evangelicalism -a branch of Christianity that is registering an enormous growth globally and is exerting increasing influence in social and political spheres.  

While its presence in Argentina is still small compared to other countries in the region, such as Brazil, its territorial expansion is palpable. This has sparked questions and concerns throughout the country among people fearing the possible impacts of Evangelicalism's rise.

The recent overturning of the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling in the United States has further alarmed many in Argentina about the possible link between reversal of established rights and the influence of religious entities over government.

A growing religion

According to a 2019 Second National Survey on Religious Beliefs and Attitudes in Argentina, 15 percent of the country's population recognises itself as evangelical. This is a notable spike compared to the previous decade, when only 9 percent subscribed to this faith.

In Patagonia and the Northeast region, the percentage of evangelicals exceeds that of the rest of the country, while the Northwest is the most Catholic region.

The survey, which was carried out by a team of social scientists from the Centre for Labour Studies and Research, found that the majority of people who identified as evangelicals had no access to higher education.

The study also indicates that the percentage of Catholics in Argentina had dropped from 75 to 62 percent; 18 percent of those surveyed said they had no religion. 

right-wing ties

The expansion of evangelicalism began in the 1960s and 70s; since, its members have grown increasingly dominant in politics across the world.

This is explained by Ariel Goldstein, a sociologist and researcher at the University of Buenos Aires who studies the radical right in Latin America in his book Poder Evangélico.

"Although evangelicals are generally pragmatic and align themselves with both left- and right-wing governments, the ideas linked to the prosperity theology professed by Pentecostal groups in particular, go hand in hand with free market policies," Goldstein told FairPlanet in an interview.

"At this point, an affinity with the new radical right appears," he added. "The clearest case is Brazil, where there is a union between the evangelical movement, the military right and the free market, but the phenomenon is registered throughout Latin America."

In Argentina, evangelical churches have registered territorial growth, but their influence in politics has yet to be felt.

"So far, there have only been isolated cases of lawmakers who have come close to the ideas of these groups, mainly in relation to the debate on the decriminalisation of abortion," Goldstein said. "This is related to the defense of the family that these sectors promote, with very traditional ideas in which gender issues come into dispute."

He added that the situation in Argentina is still far from the one in Brazil, where evangelical churches have direct ties to 200 parliamentary deputies and own an entire media apparatus. But he nonetheless cautions that the presence of such groups in Argentina's political system could significantly rise in the coming years, and that such an advance may very well lead to the erosion of acquired rights.  

"It seems a long way off, if we take into account that feminism currently seems to be a strong political sector in our country," he said. "However, we also know that advances in rights can be reversed, as we saw recently in the United States with the overturning of a 40-year old ruling that made abortion rights possible."

The sociologist believes that consensus-building will be a crucial factor in limiting the alliance between the right and evangelicals. "Within these groups, there are representatives who may have visions akin to the defense of a plural, diverse and more tolerant society, which differs from the fanatical sectors," he said. "It will be essential to establish agreements to build a broader dialogue."

Women's role in consensus building

In order to try and bring about change from within religious institutions, the Network of Women Theologians, Pastors, Leaders and Christian Activists of Latin America and the Caribbean (Red Tepali) was relaunched in 2018.

The group brings together Evangelical, Protestant, Catholic and other women of faith who are trying to incorporate a gender perspective into their religious practices. 

Claudia Florentín Mayer, who belongs to the evangelical community, is one of the Argentinean theologians leading this network.

"Our main contribution is pedagogical," she told FairPlanet. "We use the tools that feminist methodology allows us to put together new biblical and theological re-readings."

"It is not an easy task," she added, "because many churches see women in the gender field as a problem because they consider that as feminists we do not comply with what is considered the norm, which has to do with the supremacy of the male, as some biblical texts say."

The leaders of Red Tepali have teamed up with women from other churches and joined the feminist movement which advocated for the decriminalisation of abortion in Argentina. The movement's advocacy finally came to fruition in 2020 with the approval of a law enabling the termination of pregnancies within the first 14 weeks.

"Others are on the edges of institutions, while some have left," explained the theologian. "This does not mean they have lost their faith, but rather they have rebuilt it and redefined the religious field in their lives."

Commenting on the close links between right-wing political parties and some religious groups, Florentín Mayer said she believes that Argentinians' longstanding tradition of advocating for civil and human rights would help halt the advance of radical sectors.

"Unlike other Latin American countries, there is still an important social mobilisation here," she said. "I believe this could be a protection against the strong advance of the right, but we should not be confident because they attack laws that have been conceived by progressive political leaders but which, in many cases, have not been adopted by society as a whole.

"There is a high percentage of Argentinean society that still does not look favourably on many of these rights."

For Florentín Mayer, education is one of the most crucial protections against the risk of a possible revocation of rights.

"It is essential to understand the timing of religious communities, because not all of them can learn and approach gender issues at the same time," she said. "This does not mean accepting opposition to rights, but knowing that for many people it is strongly rooted in education from childhood. So what has entered at that stage of life in the religious field occupies a predominant place in our psyche, in our decisions and in our emotions.

"Nor should we see those who question these rights as an enemy, but try to find ways for dialogue and to show that rights have to do with Christianity," she added. "They have to do with the field of those of us who defend dignified [...] and full lives."

Picture by Rosie Sun.

Article written by:
Cecilia Fernández Castañón
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Argentina has passed laws enabling same-sex marriage, recognising gender identity and permitting abortion.
Embed from Getty Images
"At this point, an affinity with the new radical right appears."
Embed from Getty Images
"It is essential to understand the timing of religious communities, because not all of them can learn and approach gender issues at the same time."
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