clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


Explosive growth, a middle-class image and the inability of Latin Americans to separate religion and politics combine to make The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a target for terrorist activity in Latin America, according to a professor at Brigham Young University.

David Knowlton, professor of anthropology at BYU, said the church can eliminate support for guerrilla actions by "de-Americanizing the church," developing greater respect and appreciation for diversity in Latin America and developing relationships with the countries' left-wing parties.Knowlton spoke Wednesday at an international forum at BYU sponsored by the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies.

Since 1983, the LDS Church has been the target of an increasing number of terrorist attacks in Latin America, he said. While most of the attacks involved property damage, in the past two years guerrillas have slain five missionaries.

"Generally the attacks on the church come under the guise of anti-imperialistic actions or anti-imperialistic activities," Knowlton said. "We don't see how imperialism could be connected with us. We, after all . . . are a religion." But to guerrilla groups in Latin America there are no distinctions drawn between anti-United States or anti-imperialism sentiment and the LDS Church, Knowlton said. The key to understanding this linkage is understanding the church in the context of Latin America, he said. After about two centuries of being dominated by the Catholic Church, the rapid growth of non-Catholic religions in Latin America is "threatening and frightening to many and suggests radical and deep changes in the nature of Latin American society," he said.

In Chile, Mormons now constitute 2 percent of the population; by comparison, church members make up only .02 percent of the population in the United States , Knowlton said.

During 1987-89, the church had a growth rate of 37.5 percent in Chile and Bolivia, and 27 percent in Peru.

In 1976, when Knowlton served as a missionary in Bolivia, the church had 11,000 members there; in 1989 it had 55,000.

"What you see is a pattern of LDS Church growth that gives the church a prominence in Latin America, that gives it an incredible rate of growth that makes it the largest single institutional religion outside of the Catholic Church in many Latin American countries," Knowlton said.

This growth is taking place in countries whose citizens have long felt ambivalent about the United States, he said.

"Latin Americans do not look at the United States that positively," Knowlton said. "There is a deep love-hate relationship with the United States that goes back to the early days of the colonies."

As the LDS Church moved into Latin America, it began to form alliances with various sectors of society that are involved in their own nationalist struggles for legitimacy, he said. As a result, the church is classified as "an enemy or acceptable by one social group or another," Knowlton said.

Understanding which social sectors the church is attracting in Latin America helps indicate how the church is perceived, he said.

"In Argentina I was told the church has a `facho' (middle-class) image," Knowlton said. "For something to be middle-class means that it has an image that puts it beyond (the reach) of the majority of Latin Americans."

This again creates ambivalence about the church, he said. It also unintentionally "gives the church a political image," Knowlton said. In Latin America, the relationship between politics and religion is inseparable.

"It is not a place where we can say we're not a political group, we don't support political parties, we don't have relationships with the government - be it the United States or other governments," Knowlton said. "There isn't strict separation of church and state - never has been.

"Politics and religion have been intertwined since the beginning," Knowlton said. So, whether intended or not, "we are a political organization, we have a political presence. We are involved politically and our silence on the issue speaks volumes."

To proclaim otherwise "doesn't cut the mustard." In fact, non-Catholic religions have received "quasi-official support" as part of an effort to stem the spread of "leftist Catholicism," he said.

"We are part of the phenomenon of the Protestant card, meaning the active encouragement by elites to foment other groups spreading within the continent as means of cutting away support for liberation theology," Knowlton said.

But above other non-Catholic religions, the LDS Church has "the physical presence, we have the symbolic presence. We're the ones who are associated with powerful groups - they aren't," Knowlton said. "So we receive the brunt of the fears and the angers and the contest that is involved with transformation of Latin American society as one group struggles with another for control over the public space, the governmental space."