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David Martin

Bear Market for Base Communities

Pentecostalism, power shifts, and competition in Latin American religion.

Every Western intellectual knows, or used to know, what to think about the Latin American base communities. But as soon as the peak of their influence in the seventies in confronting the "national security state" was over, a cloud of unknowing settled over them. Though clearly important as a channel for democratization, once that was partially achieved other popular movements emerged. Base community influence on these was slight, and members who had taken prudent shelter under religious aegis departed for more congenial venues. Naturally, where the Church still provided the principal means of protest, for example, in rural Brazil, base communities retained their role, as Madeleine Adriance's Promised Land (1995) convincingly demonstrates.

One problem has always been rhetorical inflation. Liberation theologians writing for a Western public found it anxious to believe in the miracle of a Roman Catholic conversion to the Left. As a result, when one harbinger of deflation, the Canadian William Hewitt, produced quite modest empirical findings, he did so almost sotto voce, as if not quite wanting to be heard. In his Base Christian Communities and Social Change in Brazil (1991), Hewitt reported on research into base communities undertaken from 1984 to 1988 in the progressive diocese of Sao Paulo. He showed that they had indeed encouraged a sense of empowerment, for women as well as for men, and had many achievements to their credit, at least in local politics with respect to issues such as education and sewerage. But he also stressed how many kinds of community there were along a spectrum from the devotional to the political and noted their dependence on pastoral agents and sympathetic bishops. Clearly they were vulnerable as the alliance of progressives and moderates weakened and the Church was no longer engaged with a clearly defined political antagonist. Moreover, the women who made up the majority of the 4 million or so members did not always find their special interests ...

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