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Why Many Colombian Protestants Opposed Peace with FARC Fighters

Three seminary leaders explain how believers balanced justice vs. grace.
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.

Milton Acosta, Old Testament editor for the Comentario Bíblico Contemporáneo: Yes, it is true and accurate. Most political analysts concur on this. And there is an important context for it. Over 60 percent of the people that could have voted did not vote. The difference between the Yes and the No vote was only 0.4 percent. Evangelicals in Colombia represent between 10 to 15 percent of the population; but since lots of them did vote, it could be said that they decided on the No vote.

We don’t have exact numbers on the evangelical vote, so these are conclusions drawn from the visibility that pastors of large independent churches have in the media and the invitations from the government to participate in discussions where reasons for the No vote were heard. 

Q: What does this vote—and the government’s reaching out to evangelical leaders afterward—say about the rising political power of evangelicals in majority Catholic Colombia?

Sendek: Protestants have become a significant minority in Colombia. Some non-church sources say they make up 15 percent of the population. As such, they are a minority to be courted by politicians. But this is not the beginning of political participation of Protestants. In the past three decades, several confessional political parties have been created. Only one of those has maintained stability, mainly because it is so tightly related to a prosperity gospel megachurch with strict control over its members. The rest have eventually disappeared, and their members joined one of the two traditional parties.

Salinas: This is not the first instance where the evangelical vote has been instrumental for the outcome of an election. Former President Álvaro Uribe received blanket support from most churches—twice. Evangelicals have numbers, but not necessarily political savvy. They are easily manipulated by shrewd politicians. Though lately there are some churches reaching the wealthy classes, most evangelicals are from the lower sectors of society with no culture of political participation.

Acosta: It says that conservative evangelicals are able to join forces around issues related to family. But to be fair, conservative Catholics also voted No for the same reasons. Evangelicals have attended rallies organized by conservative Catholics, and have consistently quoted them.

Q: What are the benefits to the rise of evangelical political power?

Sendek: It would be a mistake to identify the benefit of the new political power of evangelicals with the benefit of their religious communities. This is a common tendency.

In 1991, Colombian Protestants elected an evangelical, Jaime Ortiz, to represent them in the drafting of a new constitution for the country [the result of a peace agreement with another guerrilla movement, the M-19]. The new constitution changed the definition of the country from a confessional state (Roman Catholic) to a lay, pluralistic nation—something Protestants saw as their great victory. Today, Colombian evangelicals have a hard time understanding that a lay state means no church has preeminence, and religious values do not shape the laws of the land.

In that pluralistic scenario, the greatest benefit of the rise of evangelicals to power would have to be seen in light of the greatest good for the country in general. When people participate in local administrative units with transparency and seek the peace and good of their communities, the participation of evangelicals is of great benefit. Protestants in Congress have promoted reforms in the legislative and executive branches of government to guarantee greater transparency; they have obtained approval for legislation that promotes stiffer sentences for violence against women; they have objected to adoption by gay couples; another [Protestant] woman leads the human rights office of Congress. To have evangelicals in key positions within government agencies where they can promote transparency, efficacy, and justice is of great benefit.

Salinas: So far there have been no benefits for evangelicals different than for the rest of the population. The Catholic Church has maintained much of its influence in the government and has been able to keep things as they have been since the beginning of the republic. Evangelicals were not invited to the conversation for the peace treaty, and it was only because of their support for the No vote that they became important in the process afterwards. The religious and social balance in Colombia is still dominated by the Catholic hierarchy and status.

Acosta: The benefits could be numerous, as well as the dangers. It has been demonstrated that in a country where most people do not vote, a minority can make a difference on issues important to Christians. This is good. Issues related to abortion, same-sex marriage, and adoption by married gay couples have been decided in courts, not by vote. So this referendum may feel like a victory on these issues, but it really is not because there is huge international pressure by the United Nations, European Union, and other world powers that are forcing all of our countries to approve all that. These things have been delayed, not stopped.

Q: What are the downsides to the rise of evangelical political power?

Sendek: Reflecting faithfully, the same polarizations and questionable methods of society and politicians. In less than two months, the Evangelical Confederation of Colombia (CEDECOL) has ceased to be considered by the media, and probably the government, as representing the views of evangelicals. A new group, El Pacto Cristiano por la Paz (The Christian Covenant for Peace), led by pastors from independent megachurches, most of them not even members of CEDECOL, are now being portrayed as the voice of evangelicals.

Salinas: Evangelicals have never been united in Colombia. Division has been endemic since the very inception of evangelical churches in the country. Lack of unity has resulted in a church without much influence in the predicament of the country. Historically, evangelicals have remained at the margins of politics. Only recently have a few entered the political arena with mostly ambivalent results. The main influence for prosperity preachers is the satellite television network Enlace with prominent US preachers. On the other side, secular media has always ignored evangelicals until recently. Secular media does not understand, nor does it want to understand, evangelicals. They are still considered sectarian and irrelevant.

Acosta: There is no real unity among evangelicals in Colombia. Now there is a new peace agreement, and evangelical leaders and churches in general are divided because some accept the new agreement and some don’t.

Some able politicians know how to move evangelicals to vote for their agendas. They use issues such as family, gay marriage, and abortion, which are very important, but not really decided on by elections because it is the Supreme Court  and the Constitutional Court that make those decisions. Same-sex marriage is legal in Colombia, but we never cast a ballot to decide on that.

Q: The peace deal touches on the theological concepts of justice vs. grace. How did evangelical Christians balance those two concerns when they went to the polls? How would you theologically advise them to balance the two?

Sendek: Following the debates among evangelicals on social media about the Yes or No vote, one saw two tendencies. And in both cases, the focus was on the offender and his punishment: Those who voted Yes were strongly appealing to the concept and experience of grace to shape their attitude to the FARC. Those who voted No appealed to a punitive idea of justice as the only theological dimension of the concept.

For both sides, there are things to remember: Grace does not exempt us from being exposed to the truth of our sin and our sinfulness. The one who experiences the freeing gift of grace has to come to terms with the truth about himself. Healing after decades of war requires the unveiling of truth from all sides involved in the violence experienced.

On the other hand, the claim that the only justice possible is to punish the offenders forgets that theologically, justice was enacted by God the offended when he took upon himself our punishment. The cross of Christ, God´s supreme act of grace and justice, is at the core of our faith.

As an individual, I can choose to forgive because I have been forgiven. Yet, forgiveness is not something accomplished in a society through legislation. But communities where reconciliation is lived out can foster and nurture reconciliation and healing; this is the calling of the church as peacemaker.

Salinas: As far as I know, those concepts were not even present during the discussion before the referendum. The issues were about the legalities and language of the treaty. Catholics emphasized the idea of forgiveness, but that was not the issue with evangelicals.

Acosta: Conservative evangelicals tend to be institutionalists, who will defend the rule of law at all costs. That is all fine, but there is a history and a context that is often ignored. The history of violence, neglect of campesinos (peasant farmers), corruption, and the distribution of land in Colombia are the context in which violent guerrilla groups have emerged. This does not justify their crimes; but it does acknowledge that there have been other actors, including politicians, armed forces, organized crime, business people, and individuals.

So it is not a matter of forgiveness alone, but understanding the country and its history. Even those evangelicals who voted No are willing to forgive those who have committed heinous crimes. But that does not mean that they will accept a peace deal unless those who have broken the law spend some time in prison. If we all knew our history a little better and understood the enormity of official corruption, we would vote in favor of social justice, [the absence of which] is the cause of our violence. This is one of the main issues that the peace agreement tried to address. 

CT’s previous coverage of Colombia includes missionary Russ Stendal’s efforts among the FARC.

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