The view of Latin America as a Christian continent could hardly have been disputed less than two decades ago. The countries south of the Rio Grande presented a fairly homogeneous picture—they were Roman Catholic. And in that context there was no place for an “official” recognition of Protestantism as having a genuine Christian “mission.”

The role of Roman Catholicism in the conquest and colonization of Latin America is well known. Contemporary historical research has shown that many of those who came to the New World in the sixteenth century were motivated by what they regarded as a great Christian ideal, namely, that of rebuilding in these lands the Holy Roman Empire. They looked with nostalgia back to the days when Rome had given cohesion to the life of the nations. And they longed to return to that epoch, not in the same old world but in the one that had recently been discovered. America was to be the milieu for the expansion of Christendom! Therefore the conqueror was accompanied by the priest and the sword by the cross.

That is how Christianity came to Latin America—placed at the service of a political system, identified with the Spanish empire, linked up with the conqueror’s cause. Is it any wonder that Christianity should have become synonymous with the culture that, having come from Spain four centuries ago, took root in these countries during the colonial period? It was only natural that as time went by almost no one would dare to suggest that the Roman Catholic Church did not have property rights over these countries. The dominion that the Constantine mentality had here from the sixteenth century until quite recently is a phenomenon that can easily be explained on the basis of history.

This is not the place for an analysis of the reasons why the concept of Latin America as a monolithic religious unity has lost ground in Roman Catholic circles. The fact is that my own generation has witnessed a dramatic change in the way the Roman Catholic Church views its role in society. To be sure, the process of “dechristianization of the masses”—a phenomenon that is not peculiar to this area of the world—began in the eighteenth century. But the “official” recognition that Latin America is not a Christian continent is so new that people of my own age can hardly remember it as existing in their youth, two decades ago. True, the national constitutions in most of these countries continue to give support to Roman Catholicism as the national religion. But today it is freely admitted that (as Juan Luis Segundo, a Roman Catholic theologian, has recently stated) “the gigantic machine for the making of Christians has stopped functioning”; the Roman Catholic Church must recognize that its basic task today is “a formally new one … the task of evangelizing.”

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From a Latin American Protestant point of view the need for evangelism is nothing new. If so many people have turned their back on the Christian faith, at least in part the reason is that from the beginning the official church devoted all its attention to the “Christianization” of the social order from on top, but on the whole neglected evangelism. The concrete result of the Constantine mentality was a group of “Christian nations” with a nominal Christianity, a popular religiosity that often borders on heresy, a faith without moral content, a social and political conservatism that is a denial of the Gospel. Christianity as known in Latin America was, generally speaking, a culture Christianity imposed by tradition but with no conversion to Christ.

It was because of this understanding of the situation that the Protestant churches in Latin America saw in evangelism the reason for their existence. During the first century of their presence here and until recently, their task had to be carried out in the midst of a situation in which they were denied citizenship, for it was held that Latin America was by no means a “mission field.” Rejected as intolerable proselytism (how else could it be interpreted in “Christian” countries?) by the official religion, the evangelization done by Protestant churches was also frowned upon by people representing European Protestantism, who saw in it an expression of anti-Roman Catholic fanaticism.

The degree to which the work done by Protestant churches was rejected in the first decade of this century can be seen in the fact that Latin America was actually excluded from the Oxford Conference in 1910. John A. Mackay remarks that on that occasion various leaders of the Church of England threatened to abstain from attending the conference if the Hispanic world was regarded as a “mission field” and if the Protestant missionaries and leaders were admitted as members. “In those years,” he adds,

Protestant missionary endeavor in Latin American lands, and in lands associated historically with the Roman Catholic Church, was regarded by most European churchmen as being merely anti-Catholic. Missionaries to those lands were dubbed bigots, members of an uncouth and unlettered proletariat, whose work should be repudiated.
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It was not until the Madras Conference, in 1928, almost two decades after the well-known Edinburgh missionary gathering, that the Protestant movement in Latin America was officially accepted as a part of the missionary oikoumene.

While Protestantism was regarded as a threat to the Roman Catholic religious monopoly in Latin America and, consequently, denied the right even to exist as a missionary movement in this part of the world, it was inevitable that much of its preaching should be characterized by a polemical note. Not always was its critique of “Romanism” accompanied by love. Even so, its main emphasis was not on polemics but on the positive preaching of the Gospel. As expressed in the “Conclusions” of the La Habana Congress in 1929, the basic conviction behind the Protestant work in Latin America was that “the need today in our countries is to present a living Christ who is able to regenerate the individual’s heart as well as to transform society.”

Now that at least a large segment of the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges the real situation of Christendom in Latin America, the question may be raised whether the time has come for cooperation between Catholics and Protestants in evangelism.

There is already considerable cooperation in the effort to put the Scriptures in the hands of the people, as shown by the wide distribution the Roman Catholic Church has given to Dios Llega al Hombre, the popular version of the New Testament produced by the United Bible Societies. The real question, however, is whether Rome will ever accept the “separated brethren” as full members of the Body of Christ who are therefore charged with a genuine Christian “mission.” Is it realistic to dream of greater cooperation in evangelism, unless that condition is fulfilled?

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