Christian churches are increasingly divided about the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, but not necessarily along traditional Protestant and Catholic lines, according to sociologist David Smilde. Writing in the current Sociology of Religion Newsletter (Spring), a publication of the American Sociological Association, Smilde notes that Chavez has long sought to draw support and activism from churches as well as indigenous and other cultural groups for his revolutionary government.
But the kind of support has shifted with the times. In the mid to late 1990s, Chavez was especially friendly to the evangelical churches while the Catholic Church criticized his removing church subsidies, allowing abortion, and granting greater freedom to Protestants and other religious minorities.
By 2004, after an unsuccessful coup, several neoPentecostal churches were receiving funds from the government and throwing their support behind the Chavez government. But the country’s evangelical council criticized such partisanship, leading to new divisions within these churches. A move by Chavez to expel the evangelical New Tribes mission from Venezuela’s Amazon region in 2005 led to new alienation among evangelicals from the Chavez government. In the 2006 run-up elections, evangelical leaders received a nationally televised visit from the opposition presidential candidate.
The Catholic Church, meanwhile, has toned down its opposition to Chavez, “thanks, in no small part, to new, less confrontational church leaders,” writes Smilde. He concludes that, as in other Latin American countries, the “religious discourse and engagement with religious groups will continue to be a critical element” in Venezuelan politics.