For over twenty years, the central goal of liberation theology has been to make religion and the churches into active agents of change in Latin America. By empowering ordinary people and promoting new social movements, liberation theology has tried to change the assumptions that govern power and change power itself in ways that make a better life possible for the mass of the population. Results have been at best mixed, and by the mid-1990s, the accumulating weight of defeats and reverses have raised sharp questions about the whole liberationist project. Under attack by conservatives in the Catholic Church and facing growing competition from evangelical Protestants, can liberation theology continue to claim that it constitutes a viable program for change? With the defeat of socialism, the decline and division of the left, and the return to pluralist politics and neo-liberal economic policies, do liberationist movements have any allies left, any viable role to play?

    On November 8, 1994, an international panel of scholars and activists explored the future of liberation theology and liberation movements in Latin America during an afternoon workshop held in Haven Hall and an evening forum in St Mary's Student Chapel. Sponsored by the Program on Latin American and Caribbean Studies, with support from a wide range of university and community groups[1], Catalina Romero, Phillip Berryman, and Daniel Levine engaged numerous students, faculty, and members of the community associated with churches and social action organizations in wide-ranging discussions of the challenges and opportunities liberation theology and liberationists are likely to confront in the coming years.

    Catalina Romero is an Associate and former Director of the Instituto Bartolomé de las Casas in Lima, Peru, a major center of liberation theology in Latin America. Her scholarship and work in popular education is enriched by long experience with activism in the promotion of grass roots movements.[2] Phillip Berryman is a former priest whose long involvement in Central and Latin America has laid the basis for books that are essential reading for anyone trying to understand what religion and politics have meant in this part of the world.[3] Daniel Levine is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Program on Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University. He has written extensively on these issues and teaches courses on religion and politics. [4]

    Liberation theology emerged as part of a broad effort to rethink the meaning of religious experience and the role the Catholic church ought to play in society and politics. The poor are central to these efforts, but not in the traditional sense of objects of charity or of hope for a better life after death. The idea that the poor shall inherit the earth takes on more immediate and activist tones, with concrete efforts to enhance the role of poor people as legitimate participants in religion, society and politics. Institutions, the Church included, were urged not only to help, speak for, and defend poor people, but also to trust and empower them, providing tools of organization and a moral vocabulary that made activism and equality both legitimate and possible. Berryman himself has argued that the poor are central to both the theory and practice of liberation theology, which involves (1) an interpretation of Christian faith out of the suffering and hope of the poor, (2) a critique of society and of the ideologies sustaining it, and (3) a critique of the activity of the church and of Christians from the angle of the poor. [5]

    By cutting religion's ties to power, and turning the Catholic Church from an unquestioned ally into a consistent critic of the established order, these efforts altered the cultural and political landscape of Latin America in fundamental ways. Churches became centers for the defense of human rights, preserving ideals of democracy in the teeth of repression and authoritarian rule. Theologians and activists attacked structures of inequality and injustice, and promoted new kinds of social movements to articulate the interests of the poor and dispossessed. Many expected these efforts to lay the bases of a new style of politics that would ultimately replace the old order of things. Beginning in the 1970s, their alliance with others (including revolutionaries) active in the promotion of change in Brazil, Peru, and, above all, Central America seemed to support these hopes.

    But events in the last decade have undermined this scenario, replacing optimism about a new kind of future with doubts about whether liberation theology and liberation movements have any future at all. Great expectations have been replaced by a host of obituaries for liberation theology, and for the movements it promoted and legitimized. Reading the signs of contemporary events, scholars and journalists have joined religious and political activists in writing obituaries for liberation theology as a vision of faith and action able to inspire and sustain change. Sustained Vatican opposition, the fall of socialism in Europe, the defeat of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, and the growth of evangelical Protestantism among groups that liberationists had seen as their core constituency have reinforced a sense that the promise of liberation theology is at best played out, at worst an illusion that never was. Each of the panelists took a different tack in addressing the issues. Levine stressed how transitions to democracy in Latin America have cut the ground from under much of liberation theology's political agenda. It is easier to stand united against repression and authoritarian rule than to choose among electoral rivals. Old allies on the left have been weakened, and an unfamiliar strategy of negotiation and electoral competition have created problems for many groups. At the same time sharp increases in poverty and a wave of neo-liberal economic policies have undercut the viability of collective organization in general, leaving the poor isolated and more vulnerable than ever. In any case, attacks by conservatives in the Catholic church, combined with effective competition from evangelical Protestants have made it impossible for any one group to speak in the name of religion. Pluralism is a fact of life in religion as well as politics now.

    Berryman underscored how much the reality of Latin America has come to vary from the image many libera- tionists had of it when they set out to change the world. Central America is no longer a microcosm of the region as a whole. The typical Latin American is no longer a peasant, the typical regime is no longer military, and socialism is no longer viewed as a realistic or available option in politics or in economics. He argued that reverses and harsh repression have combined in many cases to rob liberation theology of a whole generation, weakening the ability of current groups to move and change with the times. Liberation theology has been slow to respond to the changes of the 1990s, slower for example than evangelical Protestants, whose use of mass media and promotion of local talent has drawn them close to the rhythms and concerns of popular culture.

    Romero focused on the efforts of popular groups in Peru to create a new kind of democracy in the face of unreliable allies, growing poverty, and escalating violence. The hyperinflation, economic decline, political decay, and devastating insurgency (the Shining Path movement) of the 1980s combined to undermine popular groups and force a change in how they understood politics. Survival became a central goal, not only in political terms, but more importantly, as a matter of the sheer ability of communities to provide food and defend life on a day to day basis. Shining Path is now in decline, and the political scene has changed dramatically with the decay of old movements and the phenomenal popularity of President Alberto Fujimori. Having survived through the 1980s, popular groups now face the challenge of creating organizational vehicles that can appeal to grass roots groups and advance their interests in effective ways in an environment that is difficult, but in many respects more open than at any point in recent history. To a question about who would dream the dreams of the future, given the weaknesses of liberation theology, the disarray of socialism, and the dominance of neo-liberal ideas in politics and economics, Romero responded ``We are dreaming dreams. We have survived a war, we are working.''

    Although no definitive conclusions were drawn, the presentations and subsequent discussions made it clear that it is a mistake to confuse liberation theology with liberation itself. This distorts the real meaning of religious and political change in Latin America, and makes it difficult to grasp the legacy they are likely to leave. Although it is now evident that hope for a new social and political order were clearly exaggerated, the solution is not to abandon hope, but rather to marry it to a clear-eyed view of reality. Any society needs utopian visions, if only to remind its members that what exists is not the limit of what can be. Liberation theology arose with a utopian vision and from the beginning has advanced a critical and activist stance, identifying injustice and promoting concrete actions in the pursuit of a better order of things. Much obviously remains for critics to criticize in Latin America, and although the future will surely bring new challenges, it is unlikely to bring back the idea that religion and politics are best kept apart. The agenda and the need for liberation remain.

    Daniel H. Levine is Professor of Political Science and the Director of the Program of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of Michigan.

      1. These events were co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science, the Program on Studies in Religion, the Center for Research on Social Organization, the Department of History, the International Institute, Canterbury House, the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, Guild House, and St. Mary's Student Parish. return to text

      2. Romero has published extensively in Spanish and has contributed to various works on religion and politics in Latin America published in English. return to text

      3. His books include Religious Roots of Rebellion. Christians in the Central American Revolutions (Orbis, 1984), Liberation Theology (Pantheon, 1987) and Stubborn Hope. return to text

      4. His most recent books are Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism (Princeton, 1992) and Constructing Culture and Power in Latin America (Michigan, 1993). return to text

      5. Liberation Theology, 6, 205. return to text