Evangelical leaders from the United States are looking to Latin America as the next battleground in the war against same-sex partnerships and abortion.
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, one of the nation’s most prominent Latino faith leaders, and Mat Staver, a disciple of the late Jerry Falwell, who co-founded the Moral Majority, are working with evangelical pastors in Latin America to help strengthen their conservative message and outreach.
This spring, they formed a new group that merged the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC, which Rodriguez is the president and Staver a board member of) with Conela, a Latin American network of evangelical churches. The goal is to help Latin America’s conservative faith leaders become more politically influential, particularly on issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
“This merger is a win-win for both NHCLC and Conela, and we are thrilled to join together to better serve Hispanic Evangelicals worldwide,” said Rodriguez on the NHCLC website in May. “Under the new NHCLC, we will continue to unify, serve and represent the Hispanic Evangelical community with the divine and human elements of the Christian message.”
NHCLC’s website said that Conela’s president, Ricardo Luna, sought the merger. The new combined network, the website said, “will result in a worldwide organization that represents over half a million churches and millions of individuals, making it the largest Evangelical association in the world.”
The joint effort is having an impact in at least one nation, Peru.
Julio Rosas, a conservative lawmaker affiliated with NHCLC/Conela, as the merged organization is called, is fighting legislation there that would allow same-sex civil unions.
Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico City have legalized gay marriage in recent years.
"Because of what was happening in Latin America and what we are fighting here in America there needed to be a combination to be able to create a firewall for our Judeo-Christian values," Staver said, according to Reuters, adding, "That is what ultimately brought about this merger."
Staver, a former pastor, has argued against abortion before the Supreme Court. His nonprofit law firm, Liberty Counsel, threatened to sue businesses and public agencies that do not allow employees to have Christmas-themed messages or objects. Staver, vice president of Liberty University, a Virginia college founded by Falwell, has asserted that some people have sought to "censor" Christmas because they don't know the laws.
Reuters reported that Staver alleges that the U.S. government provides financial aid to gay rights groups in other parts of the world, and that that was one motivating factor in joining efforts with Latin American conservatives.
"They were looking to us in America for help. Why? Because America through this current administration has been using a bully pulpit to try to tell them what to do on abortion and homosexuality and they don’t like that,” he told Reuters.
Rosas' aggressive campaigning is a key reason, supporters of the civil union legislation say, that the measure faces an uphill battle.
"I expected a strong reaction from the Catholic Church, but I didn't expect evangelicals to be so aggressive," the bill's author, Carlos Bruce, told Reuters.
"I think it's the first time the evangelical church has such a strong political presence," he added.
Some experts say Staver and Rodriguez seem to be seizing on the strong conservative social views that dominate much of Latin America.
"If I were to speculate, the religious right in the U.S. sees the writing on the wall regarding gay marriage, and are going to try to influence global movements in Latin American and Africa – two places that still have very strong anti-gay secular and religious sentiments," said Arlene Sanchez-Walsh, a Latino church expert at Azusa Pacific University in California, told Reuters.
For his part, Rodriguez is not downplaying his ambition for Latin America.
He hopes, he said, that the new merged group will "serve as the catalyst for the global revitalization of evangelicalism."