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Dimensions of social stratification and anomie as factors of religious affiliation in El

Dimensions of social stratification and anomie as factors of religious affiliation in El SalvadorAmong Latin American countries, El Salvador is, along with Guatemala, Chile, and Brazil, one of the countries with the highest percentage of Protestants -- between 15 and 20 percent of the country's population (Green 1997; Williams 1997). Protestant affiliation increased very significantly during the 1970s and 1980s, a time during which El Salvador experienced a bloody civil war (Williams 1997).

Scholars of religion in Latin America have perceived Protestant affiliation as the product of the social disorganization resulting from the civil war and the increase of capitalist modes of living. Related to social disorganization, a second factor acting in favor of Protestant proselytism has been the failure of the economy in Latin America to empower most of its population to leave the ranks of poverty and underemployment (Green 1997). In the case of El Salvador, Williams (1997) attributes the growth of Protestantism to the deep economic and political crisis, the cycle of violence, and the massive displacement of the population after the mid-1970s. In addition to these explanations, other scholars have pointed to the failure of Catholicism to address the spiritual needs of the poor (Shaull and Cesar 2000) and their deeper quest for salvation, liberation, and eternal life (Vazquez 1998).

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Although a number of studies on religious affiliation cite the former three factors -- social disorganization, poverty, and spiritual needs of the poor -- as the main reasons for Protestant affiliation, the qualitative nature of most studies on this topic does not allow testing of the comparative relevance of each factor (Berryman 1986; Chesnut 1997; Garrard-Burnett 1998; Martin 1990; Shaull and Cesar 2000; Stoll 1990). Thus, this research intends, first, to test the significance of several dimensions of social stratification on the likelihood that individuals may join Protestant, Catholic, and other churches. Second, the study also aims to test the importance of anomic elements, such as migration, social isolation, political affiliation, and repression, on the likelihood of religious affiliation in El Salvador. Third, the study tests the implications of the poor's spiritual needs hypothesis on the likelihood of affiliation across different individuals. In order to develop these tasks, the first section of th is paper presents the theoretical arguments corresponding to anomie (social disorganization), economic strain (poverty), and the poor's spiritual needs of religious affiliation in Latin America, in order to obtain a group of testable hypotheses. The second section presents the data and methods used to test the former hypotheses. Several logistic regression models are utilized in the third section to test the relevance of the poor's spiritual needs, as well as anomic and economic strain factors on religious affiliation. The last section presents the conclusions of this study.


Either independently from each other or combined, three major explanations are cited in the literature on religious affiliation in Latin America. The first account is based on poverty or economic strain; the second is an explanation built on anomie or social disorganization; and the third explanation considers the spiritual needs of believers. In the first case, poverty leads individuals into the ranks of Protestantism for several reasons. One example involves individuals, especially women, who may want to restrain their husbands, or other relatives, from expending their meager resources on vices such as alcohol and prostitution, and to redirect these resources to satisfy household needs (Chesnut 1997; Williams 1997). Affiliation with a Protestant church may enable or assist this redirection. As well, Protestant churches may offer network support, directly subsidizing some households with food or money, or offering their followers employment connections (Chesnut 1997; Garrard-Burnett 1998). Additionally, some employers may consider affiliation with a Protestant church as an indicator of labor discipline and punctuality (Wilson 1997:154; Williams 1997:184). For those living in poverty, resources and opportunities such as these may have become particularly important during the harsh economic recessions that Latin American countries have faced during the last three decades (Cardoso and Helwege 1992; Green 1996; Thorp 1998). Furthermore, poverty may increase the risk of becoming ill and not having access to health care, resulting in a reduced life expectancy for the poor. The poor often look for health in the realm of the divine, they convert to Protestantism believing that their faith will become the key to a miraculous cure (Chesnut 1997).

The social disorganization or anomie explanation focuses on the changes brought within the country, especially in rural areas but not limited to them, brought about by the progress of capitalism and the advent of civil war in the 1970s in the case of El Salvador, or earlier in other countries, such as Guatemala (Garrard-Burnett 1998). Thousands of rural inhabitants who were uprooted from the combat zones migrated to the cities, where they built shanty towns in the peripheral areas (Americas Watch 1991). Furthermore, a large number of peasants and rural workers were left landless and with limited options due to increased land concentration (Wilson 1997; Williams 1997). Analyzing the Guatemalan case, Wilson (1997) asserts that Protestants' membership remained small until the political crisis following the overthrow of the Arbenz government, with the ensuing cold war climate, armed insurgency, death squads, and a major earthquake, all of which created a search for reassurance. Protestantism offered more safety f or its members, even those still living in rural areas, who would not have to risk their lives in social activism traditionally linked to the Liberation Theology of the Catholic church (Chesnut 1997; Gerrard-Burnett 1998; Williams 1997).

Once in the towns and cities, away from their social networks of kin, community and church, the migrants found new attachments in their communities. Due to the very limited number of priests to attend their religious and community needs, the networks available were most likely Protestant (Chesnut 1997; Williams 1997). Protestantism offered some alternatives to the Catholic Base Communities and their theological option for the poor. The Protestant churches were oriented toward a religious interpretation of the new social order, and focused on individual conversion (Garrard-Burnett 1998), limiting themselves to the spiritual needs of their members and the transformations felt inside them (Shaull and Cesar 2000). Vazquez (1998:86-87) claims that Pentecostal Protestantism, which includes most Protestant converts in Latin America (Cleary 1992; Williams 1997), responds to concrete material and psychocognitive needs of the poor. Essentially, "what the poor finds in Pentecostalism is a theology that blends moral asce ticism, Holiness, and escathological hope." in the Brazilian case, Vazquez (1998:199) argues that the lack of interest for collective action among the poor derives from "the context of an uncontrollable inflationary spiral and the ever-present threat of job loss."

The conclusion coming out of most studies of religious affiliation in Latin America, and particularly El Salvador, tends to indicate that individuals affected by several dimensions of economic strain, or by a variety of factors increasing their state of anomie, are more likely to join a Protestant church rather than the Catholic one. In order to clarify several of these influential economic and anomic dimensions, the following hypotheses are established. First, Hypotheses 1 to 3 are based on the economic strain explanation of religious affiliation. The second set of hypotheses, 4 to 9, focus on factors related to anomie. A discussion of how some of the former hypotheses relate to the theory focused on the spiritual needs of believers follows:

Hypothesis 1. Individuals without resources, such as the landless and the homeless, with limited educational attainment, low job experience -- usually the younger workers -- or workers in low status occupations, such as service, manufacturing, crafts, the informal sector, non-unionized workers, rural workers, seasonal workers, and the unemployed, are more likely to affiliate to Protestant churches than to the Catholic church.