Nicaragua's Religious History: The Catholics and the Newcomers, the Evangelical Christians

Ellen Lubensky
War & Peace: The Americas in Transition

Background History

Before the Medellfn Conference of 1968 in Colombia, the Catholic Church in Nicaragua was conservative, and it supported the Somoza Dynasty. In 1950, the bishop even went as far as to make the statement that all authority is from God and that all Christians must therefore obey the established government (Lowy, 1996). Despite such pronouncements, one of the most important accomplishments of the Somoza government was the granting of freedom of religion to Evangelical Churches similar to that guaranteed the Catholic Church. (Daudelin, 1992). Between 1937 and 1979, the fall of the Somoza government, the two churches basically existed in harmony.

In the 1960s and 70s, a grass-roots Catholic effort began to grow in ways that went beyond the control of the Church hierarchy. Many of the people involved in this movement called themselves the Delegates of the World. They felt victimized by Somoza and became supporters of the opposition Sandinistas. A similar split, but somewhat less radical, also occurred within the Protestant denominations.

The 1978 Catholic Bishop's conference stated that it could no longer stay silent while wealth was so unjustly distributed and while such suffering and death occurred and democracy had become a sham. However, at this point the bishops could not yet support the Frente Sandinista de Liberaci6n Naci6nal (FSLN) (the opposition to Somoza's party) because they feared that this could lead only to a bloody war and they believed in a nonviolent end to the crisis. Individually, however, the majority of the bishops sided with the FSLN, especially those from the Jesuit and the Maryknoll orders. The FSLN was greatly influenced by Clrristian ethics in its work. Its speeches in particular reflected this philosophy, as did its political decisions when in the group was in power, such as support for the complete abolition of capital punishment.

In 1979 a statement by the bishops of Nicaragua offered qualified support for revolution. However, after 1980 when liberal members of the FSLN broke with the FSLN, the bishops were again increasingly against the FSLN. Open confrontation was to follow between the liberal and traditional members of the FSLN in the next years. Catholics, however, celebrated Somoza's departure at this point (Lynch, 1991).

During one era in the Sandinista regime in the 80s, the Catholic Church received positive feedback and assistance from the government. Sunday mass was broadcast free over state TV, and the government contributed $150,000 to the building of the national cathedral. In addition, the government was against contraceptive education in the schools, a stance supported by the Catholics, and in favor of religious education. (The Evangelical Church criticized the stance against contraceptive education because of women's low rate of preference for Church-sanctioned birth control methods.)

The positive relationship between the Sandinistas and the Catholics was changing, though. The Sandinistas carried out several acts which served to promote friction with the Catholic church. For example, they began to censor church publications and broadcasts. To the Church, the goal of the state's literacy campaign also seemed to be to indoctrinate, rather than to educate. The Church spoke out against the draft since it was controlled by the party in power and as such was not neutral.

Despite these mixed indicators during these years, studies have been done showing that in 1989 the Evangelicals were more supportive of the Sandinistas than was the Catholic church (Smith, Haas, 1997)

The Pope's visit in 1983 to Nicaragua lent support to a flagging Catholic church. The Pope denounced the "People's Church" and supported the bishops (Lo~wy, 1996). To combat the Sandinistas, the Catholics returned to more traditional Catholic thought, which did not mirror that of the Sandinistas (Lynch, 1991).

The support of the Progressive Christians helped the Sandinistas to win in 1984 over the opposition candidate, who was supported by the Catholic majority, but was not able to lead them to victory once again in 1990 when Ortega was defeated. Also during this period of the 1980s, President Reagan voiced opposition to the Nicaraguan government of the Sandinistas because of its Marxist stance and favored instead the Contras, who were fighting for control of the country (Smith, Haas, 1997).



Evangelicals in Nicaragua


The Protestants came to Nicaragua and Latin America in general in three waves (Coleman, 1991). The first wave consisted primarily of British and German immigrants who focused on upward mobility. Its small scope made its range limited. The second wave emerged after World War II with North American evangelical4undamentalist groups making the journey to Latin America. Their lack of willingness to put power in local hands was one of the main factors that led to their eventual failure to grow.

The current and final wave of Evangelical Christians were the Pentecostals who came during the 1960s. They were more self-reliant, and their doctrine was more lenient and more easily adapted to native needs than that of earlier Evangelicals (Coleman, 1991).

The stereotype of Evangelicals as eschewing all political activism in favor of working towards conversions and acting mainly in reaction against the secular world is not universally correct (Smith, Haas, 1997). Evangelicals explain that they reject tyrannical authorities in order to focus on personal salvation. In general, however, Nicaraguan Evangelicals have not been terribly vocal on the issue of authoritarian regimes. Evangelicals have even been accused of supporting governments that marginalize the working class and that do not treat workers with sufficient humanity. Evangelicals prefer instead to focus their missionary efforts at the salvation of the individual. In fact, though, Evangelicals have even been khow to vote for revolutionary politics. If an Evangelical were to enter into politics, Smith and Haus predict he or she would be most likely be on the liberal side of the continuum.

There exists liffle effective communications among the various groups of Evangelicals within Nicaragua (Smith, Haas, 1997). Firstly, the autonomy of each individual church does not promote genuine cooperation among them. The community-service work of Evangelicals in the barrios also disconnects them from others in the church and makes it difficult for them to function as a political entity, as the Catholic Church does. Many Latin American Evangelicals view their belief in Christianity as antithetical to politics and consequendy they will not participate in politics in any form.

The Protestant denominations in Nicaragua are now growing at a noticeably strong rate. (Bautz, Gonzalez, Orozco, 1994). These numbers become even more significant, when you realize that those who label themselves Protestants attend church in much greater numbers than do Catholics (Coleman, 1991). Also indicative of the great growth of Protestantism in Nicaragua, is the fact that the number of seminarians has increased in Nicaragua from 53 in 1984 to 70 in 1989 (Hoyos, 1992). There are currently 120 different Protestant denominations in the country. (Bautz, Gonzalez, Orozco, 1994). Of these, approximately 50 organizations are run from abroad. The doctrines of these many churches, however, are quite divergent, although the majority of them center on the performance of communal works.

The growth of the Evangelical movement during the Somoza Dynasty made its members more visible. There were four attempts at the formation of an Evangelical political party, but the Evangelicals proved too different from one another to make this a successful strategy. Their lack of political action also made the formation of political parties difficult. Twenty-five percent of Evangelicals do not participate in elections. There is a marked difference in the voting percentages between those with and those without a high-school education. Another factor thought to contribute to the lack of political organization is that the activities in which Protestants engage also appears to be limited, especially compared to their Catholic counterparts. Less television is watched and fewer lottery tickets are played (Smith, Haas, 1997), although more time is spent reading the Bible. However, the study carried out by Smith and Haas (1997) also shows that Evangelicals respond more favorably than do Catholics to political leaders of all kinds, regardless of their orientation.

The Evangelical Churches can be roughiy divided into the Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal denominations. The Pentecostal Christians believe that the Holy Spirit accompanies children throughout life. Non-Pentecostals define themselves by the actions of the Holy Spirit and its manifestations. They also have a strong ethic of participation in social projects. The majority of Evangelical Christians, 70%, are Pentecostal. However, non-Pentecostal Evangelicals are more likely to be better educated and to have a higher standard of living. The Pentecostals' lack of education makes forward-movement more difficult. Until the 1970s, the Pentecostals did not have enough power to carry out any acts of importance (Daudelin, 1992), but by thel98Os, Pentacostals were able to help to maintain the regime already in power.

Church Organization

The Protestant denominations were slow to organize collectively (Daudelin, 1992). However, the great earthquake of 1972 helped to bring the organizations together. The CEPAD was then formed which stands for "Comit~ Evangelico Pro-Ayuda a los Damnicados" ("Evangelical Committee for Aid to the Earthquake Victims."). However, the CEPAD's good relationship with the government lasted only up until the end of the Somoza dynasty in 1979.

The Moravian Church

The Moravian Church of "United Bretheren" became the largest Protestant denomination in the 1970s in Nicaragua (Daudelin, 1992). The Church, however, was concentrated along the Atlantic Coast, which minimized the role it could play on the national scene. However, this disadvantage on the national scale allowed the Church to dominate on a smaller scale in the eastern region of the country.

The Catholic Church Today

As a mediator in Nicaragua said, "The church is a moral example universally accepted," (p.225, Hoyos, 1992). This quote illustrates the continued importance of the Catholic Church to Nicaragua today, even though under the 1987 Constitution, the government is not allowed to profess a religion and in fact "the state has no official religion." (p.7, Mesoamerica, 1990). However, individual officials are free to support a religion.

The most recent papal visit is seen by Catholics as having brought renewal, as more and more people became members of CEBs, or Christian Based Communities (Hoyos, 1992). With the large masses of people joining CEBs has come a lack of qualified people to minister to these communities. To be more effective, the CEBs need to be formed along the participatory democratic model and divided into small groups to promote local religious and socioeconomic development. However, this has largely been impossible because of the disorganization which prevails (Canin, 1997). The lay coordinator has also been seen as someone who should guide rather than direct the communities. In practice, the priests consult very little with the members of the CEBs, and the views of the participants are subservient to those of the religious hierarchy. The CEBs see the advance of the Protestant sects as a danger to their continued existence (Hoyos, 1992). Another roadblock to their success is an increased politicization within the CEBs (Canin, 1997).

Certain groups within the CEBs have begun to view themselves as activists and as revolutionary Christians (Canin, 1997). They also see in their institution the church of the poor, and they envision authority as coming from the bottom up, rather than the more traditionally conceptualizaed top down. However, commitment to such groups requires a strong investment of time. This time commitment seems to be responsible for the fact that 78% of CEB members in Managua are women and 63% of these are over the age of 45. Despite these percentages, 50% of CEB coordinators are male.

Among the activities engaged in by CEBs are socioeconomic development activities such as food preparation, health care provision, literacy improvement, and nutrition education (Canin, 1997). These programs receive the support of international organizations. The people in the individual communities, however, get to determine what projects are of most importance to them and which will therefore be carried out.

In practice, it is doubtful whether the CEBs will continue to function, and if so, in what way (Canin, 1997). Their influence has been declining since their triumphs in 1979, with an especially noticeable decline since the 1990 elections. The values the CEBs stand for are often in conflict with those of the established Church. For example, the building of a massive Cathedral is seen as more important by the Church than by the charitable organizations which the CEBs champion.

There is fear of violence among some segments of the missionary bodies of various sects of the Church (Economist, 1991). There has been violence against missionaries in both Peru and Argentina recently. The Church is also aware of the violence against Mormon missionaries in Bolivia, Haiti, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Chile, although this may be related to the fact that Mormons share their belief that the United States is the promised land. The higher rate of violence against Mormons may also be due to the greater amount of time that they spend on the streets seeking converts, compared to members of other religions.


The Textbook Debate

In Nicaragua, the role of religion in education has been a major topic in recent years. 83% of Nicaraguans believe that religion has a place in public school with 76% of Sandinistas believing so (Central America Report, 1994). It is an especially potent topic since the Nicaraguan constitution specifically states that education will be independent of religion (Christianity Today, 1994).

The Roman Catholics are currently engaged in a campaign to see that religious textbooks are used in public schools, which has angered Protestants (Christian Century Foundation, 1997). The Protestant contingent sees the textbooks as anti-Protestant, and therefore holds that they should not be used in the schools. It is not difficult to see where such complaints originate as one of the proposed textbooks has a picture of Pope John Paul II on the cover and includes a warning to Protestants not to criticize Catholic devotion to the Virgin Mary. Many view the books as a concrete illustration of long-held beliefs that the government favors Catholics.

On the other side of the issue, the Catholics maintain that the religion classes in the public schools are purely voluntarily (Christian Century Foundation, 1997). The Minister of Education, Humberto Belli, asserts that the books promote Christian teachings and not those beliefs to which solely Catholics adhere. However, it is hard to see a completely neutral policy emanating from a Nicaragua which is 80% Catholic.


The Catholic majority hopes to use the classes to interfere with the strides which Protestant groups have made recently in converting the Nicaraguan masses (Christian Century Foundation, 1997). The percentage of adherents to the Protestant faith has doubled in the years since the end of the Somoza dictatorship in 1979, from 10% to 20% of the population. There have been assurances that there will be separate classes for Evangelical children, but such promises are seen as empty given that the vast majority of children are Catholic (Christian Century Foundation, 1977).

Other Prominent Religious Issues in Present Day Nicaragua

The Nicaraguan Congress wrote the Constitution in 1939 to include laws to protect any established religion (Constitution, 1950). This established a mandate, at least on paper, to prevent the infringement of freedom of religion.

The Church has led a campaign against contraception and against abortion with a special focus on condom usage (Central America Report, 1994). "Natural" family planning methods such as the rhythm method or withdrawal are favored instead. Abortion has been illegal in the country since 1974. Despite their religious persuasions, only 7.5% of Nicaraguan women between 15 and 49 still prefer the rhythm method or withdrawal for birth control purposes and of these, only 1% do not use other birth control for religious reasons.

The Church and government are also against MDS education (Central America Report, 1994). However, 94% of Nicaraguans believe such education should be offered and that the government should offer family-planning services.


As in many countries of Latin America, there is far from an accord between the Catholic Church and the Evangelical persuasions. Differences continue to remain on such issues as birth control and education. It is clear that agreement among the diverse churches is far from assured. The most recent numerical tides, however, have been flowing towards the Evangelical converts, who continue to grow in number. It seems apparent that without some changes in how the CEBs are organized and run, they will be unable to keep pace with Protestant efforts in the Nicaraguan communities It is imperative, regardless of the course of individual issues, that Nicaragua continue to uphold religious freedom in the way the framers of their constitution outlined



Alford, D. M. (1994). Nicaragua: will government sponsor Catholic teaching?. Christianitv Todav. 38.86.

Bautz, W., Gonzalez, N., Orozco, J. (1994). Polftico v Reli~6n. Estudio de caso: los Evangelicos en Nicara~ua. Managua, Nicaragua: Fundacion Friedrich Ebert.

Canin, E. (1997). Work, a roof, and bread for the poor: Managua's Christian base communities in the Nicaraguan 'revolution from below.' Latin American Perspectives, 24, 80-102.

Coleman, J. A. (1991). Will Latin America become Protestant? Commonwealth, 60, 59-62.

Constitucion Politica de la Repliblica de Nicaragua. Art 6, 74 (1950).

Daudelin, J. (1992) Political dependence and religious policy - Protestants and the state in pre-revolutionary Nicaraguay. Journal of Church and State (Spring) 199234:2 pp.229-258.

Hoyos, D. C. (1992). Situacion Actual de America Latina. La Iglesia en America: Siglos XVI XX. Sevilla: Editorial DEIMOS.

Latter-day saints and martyrs. Economist, v321, n7733 (Nov 16 1991):50.

Lowy, M. (1996). The War of Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America. London: Verso.

Lynch, E. A. (1991). Religion and Politics in Latin America: Uberation Theologv and Christian Democracv. New York: Praeger.

Nicaragua. (1990). Mesoamerica. p.7 (S~p 1990).

Nicaragua: Catholic Church Offensive. Central America Report v21, n24 p4 (July 1 1994), Inforpress Centroamericana: Guatemala City.

Nicaragua's churches at odds over textbooks. (controversy over campaign to use Roman Catholic textbooks at public schools). (1997). Christian Century

Foundation vi114, n19 (June 18, 1997):585.

Smith, C, Haas, L A (1997). Revolutionary Evangelicals in Nicaragua: Political Opportunity, Interests, and Religious Identity. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 36, 440-454

Top Back Home