I recently lamented the coverage of religious matters at scholarly conferences, the point being that academics tended to ignore faith-based dimensions even when they seem so essential to the story being told. I was specifically describing the proceedings of the recent conference of the Urban History Association, but I certainly don’t mean to pick on that group, or indeed on historians in general.
An even more telling example was apparent at this year’s meeting of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), a distinguished body that brings together scholars from across the Americas. This year’s event, held in San Francisco, organized a thousand panels on many aspects of Latin American history, culture and social science. Even here though, the religious element was shockingly meager, particularly given the enormous diversity of conditions across the continent.
Out of that thousand panels, the Religion and Spirituality section was allocated just fifteen, roughly 1.5 percent of all papers. And that miserly total is meant to include papers on the whole history of Latin America, as well as the complex contemporary reality.
I stress that the religion panels were well organized and uniformly interesting, with a strong representation of distinguished scholars. Yet the topics covered represented only a tiny sampling of the contemporary religious picture. Well-represented themes included Catholic liberation theology, and the crises and conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s. Several panels focused on the recent rise of Pentecostals/evangelicals, with a powerful emphasis on their political dimension, and the degree of civic participation. Other major themes included vernacular practices, with a special interest in African-derived and syncretistic borrowings.
Beyond question, all these subjects deserve and demand academic study – but so do plenty of others that were notable by their absence. Most egregious was the neglect of ordinary religious life, the everyday practice of those tens of millions of conventional people who believe and worship, without necessarily having the slightest interest in the political world. If all you knew about Latin American religion stemmed from a conference like this, you would never guess the power of that ordinary faith. Nor would you guess that the continent is increasingly the primary bastion of the Roman Catholic Church, surpassing Europe.
Partly, the slant reflects a geographical bias, in that LASA’s membership represents some nations much better than others, so that Mexican religious conditions are well studied, while Brazil’s are not. We therefore heard little of the country that is at once an economic and political power-house, and the cutting edge of the Pentecostal religious revolution
The scanty treatment of faith reflects the standard academic refusal to see religion as a critical topic in its own right. For many professors, religion matters, but only when it is an identifiable factor in other social and political areas that genuinely are seen as important. That explains why we know so much about Latin American religion during the radical years of liberation theology and the revolutionary movements in Central America – and why that long-gone era still represents such a focus for research and advocacy.
Once separated from the “real” world of political activism, then, modern-day religion is chiefly of interest in its novel and marginal manifestations.
Arguably, religion in Latin America should properly be among the most important topics of scholarly research, and not just for specialists in the region. If in fact, sharply falling fertility rates correspond with rapid secularization, then the continent may well be on the verge of a historic transformation that would in a few decades reduce the churches’ influence to levels that we would more commonly associate with Europe. Given our standard assumptions about Latino religiosity, that is an amazing prospect, with huge political implications. But we can only hope to understand such changes when scholars give religious matters the position they deserve.