Why Many Colombian Protestants Opposed Peace with FARC Fighters
Image: Guillermo Legaria / AFP / Getty Images
Colombians celebrate the peace agreement at Bogotá's main square.

The longest-running conflict in the Western Hemisphere finally came to an end yesterday, after Colombia’s congress approved a peace deal with its largest guerrilla group.

However, in order to do so, lawmakers skipped over Colombian voters, who last month narrowly rejected a similar peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The government has been battling the FARC since 1964, when a group of poor farmers and workers took up arms to resist inequality.

Half a century later, voters in October rejected the measure by the smallest of margins: 49.78 percent voted Yes to peace, while 50.21 percent voted No.

Faced with the choice of peace or justice, many Colombians objected to the government’s willingness to let most FARC soldiers walk free or reduce their sentences. And some evangelical leaders, sensitive to the recent legalization of same-sex marriage, spoke out against the deal’s “gender theory” language among other concerns.

While not all evangelicals voted against the measure, they were widely credited with turning the vote.

The strength of the evangelical vote was surprising in the Latin American country, where 80 percent of the population is still Catholic. It suggests Colombia is joining the rest of the region in the growing numbers—and growing influence—of Protestants.

More evidence of that: The first phone call President Juan Manuel Santos made after the failed referendum was to evangelical pastors, noted Rebecca C. Bartel in a thorough analysis for The Immanent Frame. Santos then met with 14 of them.

“The message was clear: Evangelical Christianity is no longer a fringe movement of Pentecostal garage churches,” wrote Bartel, a religious studies professor at San Diego State University who studies Colombian Christians. “Evangelical Christianity has become a political force to be reckoned with.”

Yesterday, Santos—who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize despite the first deal’s rejection—asked the voters whom he skipped over on the second deal “to give peace a chance,” The New York Times reported.

CT asked three Colombian evangelical leaders what the contentious vote for peace revealed about the rise of evangelical political power—and whether it’s a good thing.

Q: Were Colombian evangelicals really a main force behind the No vote?

Elizabeth Sendek, president of the Biblical Seminary of Colombia: News articles in Colombia and abroad affirm that the vote of evangelicals in Colombia was definitive for the victory of the No option in the [referendum] on the [first] peace agreement reached between the government and the FARC. Yet there is no way to objectively prove that assertion. No one really knows how many evangelicals voted. And it is erroneous to assume that all those who did voted in one accord against the agreement.

The media has interviewed pastors that mostly represent large urban churches. And it is true that in urban cities, the No vote won. But this does not mean that evangelicals in rural areas voted in the same way. From conversations with students and pastors from those areas, I have the impression that the church reflects the same geographical division as the rest of the country: municipalities most affected by violence expressed themselves in an overwhelming Yes vote. Meanwhile, the center of the country—except Bogotá—rejected the agreement.

Daniel Salinas, international partnership coordinator of the Theological Education Initiative: According to an interview with the former Attorney General, the vote of evangelicals was a decisive factor for the victory of No in the referendum. However, as she says, there was also a sector of evangelicals who voted for Yes. In Colombia, it is difficult to know the exact percentage since there are no exact numbers published after the election about demographics.

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Why Many Colombian Protestants Opposed Peace with FARC Fighters