Interview
"The high-profile pastors and far-right evangelicals present God as a merchant"
In dialogue with LPO, the evangelical Marcelo Figueroa explains how neo-Pentecostals move millions in the United States. The Latino vote, Trump, Bannon and DeSantis.

Marcelo Figueroa is an evangelical priest who studies the intersection of religion with politics in the United States and Latin America. A columnist for "L'Obsservatore romano" and a biblical scholar who identifies with and works for years with Pope Francis, Figueroa clarifies by way of presentation that not all evangelicals or Protestants are the same. In a dialogue with LPO, he makes a detailed description of the transformation of the ultra-conservatives into a relevant actor for the Republicans in North American politics, he talks about the change represented by Donald Trump and the influence of Steve Bannon.

The United States has already released the presidential campaign. Are evangelicals going to influence the elections again?

When we talk about evangelicals in general, we must focus on the most conservative line that is regularly a leading actor in partisan political issues, in the United States politics and with a rebound in Latin America, in Latinos and Latin America. There is a whole sector of evangelical Protestants who have their task, they have their way of thinking, their way of living their faith, but somehow far from the actors who greatly influenced what had to do with the Republican policy of Trump. There are also Protestant evangelicals among the Democrats, some of them are more liberal or very liberal, but the more conservative groups, mainly in the South of the country, are the actors who have the attention.

What is the axis of their message?

I understand that they are groupedaround concepts that are non-negotiable. That has to do with what they call value voters, people who vote based on their values, or who move according to candidates who share their values. Those values are related to the abortion, the LGTBIQ+ movement, which is currently very strong in everything that has to do with the 2030 agenda, there is a discourse against that. And in the background, there is a conception that, somehow, the United States became economically, politically, ethically great around evangelical values. That will not change and they will always think that way.

Who are the leaders of this movement?

There are actors involved who move around the Tea Party or the breakfasts that are held once a year in Washington, the great evangelistic associations at the American and Latin American level, the great leaders, the megachurch, the powerful influencers with their convening capacity, everything that has to do with people who work in a media way and are multimillionaires. ¬ŅWho are they going to support? Those who associate or undestand or capture that kind of voter. It can be Trump, he was at the time. It could be someone else, I don't know.

The most conservative evangelicals prioritize value voters, people who move behind candidates who share their values. Basically, their conception is that the United States became economically, politically and y ethically greataround evangelical values.

In the southern United States there is a tradition that dates back a long time. How has that power of conservative evangelicals transformed in recent years? How did they adapt to technological and political changes?

It is an interesting question, because these traditional conservative groups, Baptists, of more conservative lines mainly from the South of the United States, regularly did not have a good relationship with those groups that identify with the Theology of Prosperity, with the movements that use the mass media in an aggressive way, with a preaching of a very media gospel, with an enormous use of all multimedia resources, media pastors who convene millions of people in their networks and with their sermons. Pentecostalism has existed for more than 100 years, but these groups make up what is called a neo-Pentecostal wave.

"The high-profile pastors and far-right evangelicals present God as a merchant"

What do you mean?

Some of these ultra-conservative sectors, very attached to theological concepts that have to do with the fundamentalism of the biblical text, move in other directions regarding what has to do with their preaching. They have always criticized each other, but what happens? These new waves that move a lot of money leave aside those theological or formal differences. Political values are superior to any difference and everyone is subsumed to them.

"Los latinos van a votar por Trump porque lo que DeSantis propone es demasiado anti-inmigrante"

How are these sectors financed?

In itself, they have their very high own financing. One of the keys in what has to do with the Theology of Prosperity is that somehow all those who are wanting to obtain an economic blessing from God must invest in accordance with the benefits they expect to receive. So, in this kind of spiritual negotiation, what at the time was called the Seed Plan has a lot to do with it. There was a very famous preacher who said "you sow a thousand dollars, you will reap a hundred thousand, if you sow a hundred thousand, you will reap a million." These kinds of extreme right-wing discourses are part of that theology, I would say false theology, anti-theology, for me it is almost a heresy because it puts God as a merchant. They are financed in a very strong way with very powerful organizations, movements, donors that make all of this possible.

Are we talking about what you call evangelical fundamentalism?

We are.

The traditional conservatives of the southern United States did not have a good relationship with those who identify with the Theology of Prosperity and the great media pastors who summon millions of people. The neo-Pentecostal wave prevailed.

How is it that they put aside their criticism of politics and come out to play strong and merge morality with religion and politics. How did this transformation come about?

It was a process. Many years ago, these same sectors clearly considered that an evangelical Christian could not get involved in politics. Everything related to 9-11, Islamic fundamentalist movements got some strong players to do a binary reading on religion, evil and good, the Devil and God. If the Devil was on the other side, God had to act accordingly. There are actors who became involved and integrated not only into politics but also into Justice. It is very important that in the Supreme Court there are representatives of evangelical or Catholic fundamentalist groups because Catholic fundamentalism plays along the same lines. It is not fair to speak only of evangelicals. All these agendas that we were talking about before are enemies of their way of seeing life, of their lifestyle and their American way of life. They consider them an attack on the family. They are supporters of an exclusively co-belligerent ecumenism.

"The high-profile pastors and far-right evangelicals present God as a merchant"

You call that an ecumenism of hate.

It is disturbing term, but it is based on working against an enemy. Sectors that would never come together in an ecumenism as many of us live it, as it is lived in Europe with Francisco, or in some sectors of Latin America, but they did unite behind those ideas. These sectors that operate in politics and justice are the guarantee that all these agendas that violate their values will not be installed as public policies.

What do these sectors find in Trump? Why does him seduce them, summon them and have the support of these very conservative sectors?

Because he had it? We could say that.

Trump was recently the star in an act of Faith and Freedom in Washington, there are sectors that continue to support him.

Yes, it is very interesting because I think there is a mutual use. There was a break, the Trump campaign against Hillary Clinton. There is a very emblematic photo of Trump raising a bible in an act, which is like a turning point in which he understands that this entire sector of voters, Latinos from places like Florida defined elections in the United States with Bush, for example, so they were going to support him. He understood and they understood that they could be good partners, regardless of Trump's moral issues that perhaps they should care about. But Trump put Hillary on the side of the feminist movements and that construction has been maintained. A new path was created, I think it was irreversible.

"Detrás del fallo de la Corte está el poder conservador blanco evangélico y cristiano"

Who do you see as the visible head of this evangelical Latino power that accompanies Trump?

I think the cores of power are in Dallas, Texas, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, ultra-conservative groups like Billy Graham's son, Franklin Graham, when you listen to him, he even had very strong interventions against the Koran.

What role do evangelical Latinos play?

They have a role. In general, Latinos are more associated with neo-Pentecostal movements than with traditional Baptists. In their congresses and meetings they invite the leaders of Latin American countries to discuss the urgency of intervening in politics. That can be anything from putting in a deputy to reaching the extreme of the coup d'état in Bolivia, Catholic and evangelical fundamentalists who entered the Government House with a Bible. There is no more symbology than that. There is a connection, there is a training and there is a common agenda. They say they can influence the votes of the Latino population that comes from countries that they call communists. This sector is very large and can define an election.

The cores of power are in Dallas, Texas, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, ultra-conservative groups like Billy Graham's son, Franklin Graham.

You mention Bannon's influence in the discussion.

He was very important, a very relevant actor who understood perfectly well. He was Trump's main adviser on what we are talking about, and obviously he has a very clear position against Francisco. When the Trump government ended, the first thing he did was set up an office in Italy with his political movement of values contrary to the ecumenical agenda of peace and justice. He has a very strong antagonism against Francisco and all of us who have somehow built an ecumenism around other values such as peace and democratic dialogues.

"The high-profile pastors and far-right evangelicals present God as a merchant"

How does Prosperity Theology relate to the American dream? Why does it work?

There is an antagonism with what they interpret from some sectors of the Catholic Church in Latin America, which they consider the exaltation of poverty. All the movements of magical spirituality had their reflection within the neo-Pentecostal movements. God becomes a merchant, he gives according to what he receives. Somehow, the one who is not born in equal conditions ends up being guilty of his poverty. If I don't have the necessary faith and I don't achieve what I need, it will be my fault. If I see the great pastors in limousines and private planes - supposedly because God blesses them, although in reality they have the money of their devotes - if there is something that does not work, it is my own faith. That is a double blame because they are mired in a profiteering situation. They do not have to do with money, but also with a prosperity linked to health and healing campaign. According to my faith, God will save me or not from a disease and vice versa: any disease that I have is the result of my little faith or my sin.

Bannon was a fundamental actor who fully understood that the Latino evangelical vote could define an election. He has a very clear position against Francisco. When the Trump government ended, the first thing he did was set up an office in Italy.

There is a long history of theorists like Lyman Stewart being picked up by Reagan, by Bush, and later by Trump. Does Trump have people who study these topics?

Yes, he clearly have people who work on these issues and he has people from those sectors who report to him. There is a permanent dialogue. There is something that is key to understand. In general, ultra-conservative groups do not have ancestry with the poor classes. What happens here? The great attraction of this groups that receive training and go to Miami is that the neo-Pentecostal leaders and the evangelical conservative groups are of a right-wing conception, but they have something that the right does not have, which is that the entire population they reach is lower middle class. That's enormous value for far-right groups. If they manage to convince their faithful that they have to vote for an option that respects traditional evangelical values, it is like a key that they will never find. Megachurches have worked that way in Latin America and it is what the big millionaire megapastors have sold to their supporters. But there is no such thing as the general evangelical vote. It is a repeated fallacy to say that a candidate is going to obtain the evangelical votes because he gets a mega-pastor.

"The high-profile pastors and far-right evangelicals present God as a merchant"

There are some major evangelicals who supported Trump and are now beginning to distance themselves or making gestures to DeSantis. Why does that happen if he represented those interests well?

These are sectors that have their own agenda. It is easier for the political actor to adapt to them - who have unalterable foundations - than for them to move based on a politician who seduces them. And I think that Trump lost to many of them because many expressed their displeasure when he lost the election and took the Capitol. You must add some moral issues.

There are those who think that because of Biden's Catholicism, it would be easy for conservative evangelicals who support Trump.

I don't know because the voting system has its particularities and that is why clearly evangelical and conservative states such as Texas, Florida or Massachusetts or South Carolina are very important. Those sectors are not going to change and Biden has given signals contrary to their values. Biden confesses being a Catholic, but did not use that to get votes. It is not his logic of capturing votes. Not that all Catholics are going to support him. No. Trump has the votes of Catholic fundamentalists and evangelical fundamentalists. Biden has the votes of people who think like the Democrats. That is the big difference.

Translator: Bibiana Ruiz

Temas de la nota:
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