Once almost exclusively Roman Catholic, Chile’s religious landscape has become a complex mosaic. Orthodox Roman Catholicism was the religion of the invaders and is still the most widespread faith, though there are conservative and liberal, even radical, factions. Evangelical Protestantism has made tremendous inroads in recent decades. A small Jewish community practices in Santiago, while the Mapuche, Aymara, and other indigenous peoples practice their own, sometimes syncretic, rituals.
The Indigenous Heritage
The Spaniards effectively destroyed the institutional religion of the Andean civilizations, but they failed to eradicate the pantheistic beliefs that persist in the northern altiplano. Certain Aymara individuals, for instance, are yatiri (healer or diviner), and natural features such as mountain peaks may be wak’a (shrines or spirits). Even meteorological events such as lightning may have spiritual significance. Possessing and chewing coca leaves (technically illegal in Chile) and sacrificing llamas are common practices. An unselfconscious syncretism is routine: Phallic statuary, for instance, adorns the perimeter walls of the colonial church at the hamlet of Parinacota.
Mapuche religious practices differ from those of the Aymara, as they are more clearly oriented toward a supreme being, but the antiquity of this belief is unclear. Shamanism is also widespread, and the machi combine the roles of seer and healer. Since the 18th century, women have normally been machis, but male transvestites are not unheard of; the machis also participate in public rituals.
Ever since Pedro de Valdivia entered the Mapocho valley, Roman Catholicism has played an influential role in Chile. The church has also influenced the cultural landscape; despite the ravages of earthquakes, colonial churches have left a lasting imprint in Santiago and other cities and towns, along with chapels in the altiplano. Chiloé’s unique churches and chapels have made the archipelago a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Starting with the famous Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas in Mexico, factions within the church have wrestled with the contradictions between its official mission—recruiting and saving souls—and its duty to alleviate the misery caused by secular injustice and persecution. Chile is no exception—the contemporary priest Miguel Hasbun, for instance, is still a Pinochet apologist, but others, such as the church’s Vicaría de la Solidaridad, worked against the dictatorship. Some more militant clergy toiled in the slums under the influence of “liberation theology,” and some lost their lives in the coup’s aftermath.
While most observers laud the church’s human rights efforts, it is doctrinally one of Latin America’s most conservative. Though Catholicism ceased to be the official state religion in 1925, for instance, church lobbying prevented civil divorce until 2004. This exposed it to charges of hypocrisy, as it often tolerated “annulments” of longstanding marriages for technical reasons.
As elsewhere in Latin America, the church has had problems in staffing its widespread dominion, and many sizable towns lack resident priests. This is one of many factors contributing to the rise of evangelical Protestantism.
In both geographical and theological areas, folk beliefs overlap into the official. One of these is the pilgrimage site at La Tirana, east of the Norte Grande city of Iquique; here, according to legend, an Inka princess who had resisted the Spaniards but took a Spanish captive as her lover was executed by her followers for accepting his spiritual beliefs.
Chilean Protestantism dates from the 19th century, when European merchants established themselves in Valparaíso, Santiago, and other cities after independence. The first “nonconformist” cemetery was in the Norte Chico port of Caldera, and other cities soon had “cementerios de disidentes.” It would be fair to say, though, that most Chileans looked upon Anglicans, Lutherans, and other conventional Protestant denominations with distrust and even disdain for decades. Ricardo Lagos’s Protestant affiliation was no issue in the 1999–2000 presidential election.
Chilean evangelical Protestantism boomed in the late 20th century as the Catholic church neglected many isolated rural communities. It skyrocketed as desperate Chileans sought spiritual solace in the turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s. Evangelical Protestantism is especially strong among low-income communities and in rural areas, where the official Catholic presence is weak. A study by the Universidad Católica admits that about 14 percent of Chileans are evangelicals, but this rises to 21 percent among low-income populations. Among upper-income Chileans, about 82 percent are Catholic and only 6 percent evangelical.
The particularly aggressive Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a controversial presence, and Mormon churches were, until a few years ago, targets of repeated bombings.
The Chilean constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and adherents of non-Christian faiths are no longer rare, if not exactly widespread or numerous. Among those represented are Judaism, Islam, the Baha’i faith, Sikhism, and Buddhism. Even unconventional “New Age” faiths have found a niche in places such as Cochiguaz (Region IV) and Pucón (Region IX). President Michelle Bachelet is agnostic.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition