In the early 1990s, the vast majority of Nicaraguans were nominally Roman Catholic. Many had little contact with their church, however, and the country's Protestant minority was expanding rapidly. Roman Catholicism came to Nicaragua in the sixteenth century with the Spanish conquest and remained, until 1939, the established faith. The Roman Catholic Church was accorded privileged legal status, and church authorities usually supported the political status quo. Not until the anticlerical General José Santos Zelaya (1893-1909) came to power was the position of the church seriously challenged.
Nicaraguan constitutions have provided for a secular state and guaranteed freedom of religion since 1939, but the Roman Catholic Church has retained a special status in Nicaraguan society. When Nicaraguans speak of "the church," they mean the Roman Catholic Church. The bishops are expected to lend their authority to important state occasions, and their pronouncements on national issues are closely followed. They can also be called upon to mediate between contending parties at moments of political crisis. A large part of the education system, in particular the private institutions that serve most upper- and middle-class students, is controlled by Roman Catholic bodies. Most localities, from the capital to small rural communities, honor patron saints, selected from the Roman Catholic calendar, with annual fiestas. Against this background, it is not surprising that the Sandinista government provided free public transportation so that 500,000 Nicaraguans, a substantial part of the national population, could see Pope John Paul II when he visited Managua in 1983.
Despite the leading position of the Roman Catholic Church, it touches the lives of most Nicaraguans only sporadically at best. The activities and resources of the church are concentrated in the cities. Although the church attempts to reach people in small towns and rural areas, its capacity to do so is limited. In the mid-1980s, there was approximately 1 priest for every 7,000 Roman Catholics, a ratio lower than the Latin American average and considerably lower than the 1 priest per 4,550 Nicaraguan Roman Catholics recorded in 1960.
Urbanites, women, and members of the upper and middle classes are the most likely to be practicing Roman Catholics, that is those who attend mass, receive the sacraments, and perform special devotions with some degree of regularity. Nicaraguans of the lower classes tend to be deeply religious but not especially observant. Many limit their practice of the sacraments to baptism and funeral rites. Yet they have a strong belief in divine power over human affairs, which is reflected in the use of phrases such as "God willing" or "if it is God's desire" in discussions of future events.
Religious beliefs and practices of the masses, although more or less independent of the institutional church, do not entail the syncretic merger of Roman Catholic and pre-Columbian elements common in some other parts of Latin America. Popular religion revolves around the saints, who are perceived as intermediaries between human beings and God. Prayers are directed to a relevant saint asking for some benefit, such as curing an illness, in exchange for ritual payment, such as carrying a cross in an annual procession. Pictures of saints, called cuadros, are commonly displayed in Nicaraguan homes. Set in a corner or on a table and surrounded with candles, flowers, or other decorations, a cuadro becomes the centerpiece of a small domestic shrine. In many communities, a rich lore has grown up around the celebrations of patron saints, such as Managua's Saint Dominic (Santo Domingo), honored in August with two colorful, often riotous, day-long processions through the city's lower-class neighborhoods. The high point of Nicaragua's religious calendar for the masses is neither Christmas nor Easter, but La Purísima, a week of festivities in early December dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, during which elaborate altars to the Virgin Mary are constructed in homes and workplaces.
Protestantism and other Christian sects came to Nicaragua during the nineteenth century, but only during the twentieth century have Protestant denominations gained large followings in the western half of the country. By 1990 more than 100 non-Roman Catholic faiths had adherents in Nicaragua, of which the largest were the Moravian Church, the Baptist Convention of Nicaragua, and the Assemblies of God. Other denominations included the Church of God, the Church of the Nazarene, the Episcopal Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Seventh Day Adventists. Most of these churches have been established through the efforts of missionaries from the United States and, although now institutionally independent and led by Nicaraguans, retain strong links with members of the same denomination in the United States.
The Moravian Church, established in eastern Nicaragua in the late nineteenth century, is the dominant faith among the non- Hispanic population of the region. Virtually all Miskito are Moravians, as are many Creoles, Sumu, and Rama. Moravian pastors play a prominent leadership role in Miskito communities. The Nicaraguan Baptists are related to the American Baptist Church, which began missionary work in 1917. The Nicaraguan Baptist Church's membership is concentrated in the Pacific region and is heavily middle class.
The Assemblies of God, dating from 1926, is the largest of the rapidly expanding Pentecostal denominations. Known for ecstatic forms of worship, energetic evangelization, and the strict personal morality demanded of members, the Pentecostal faiths are flourishing among the urban and rural poor. By helping recent arrivals from the countryside adjust to city life, they draw many migrants into their congregations. Pentecostalism reportedly has particular appeal to poor women because it elicits sobriety and more responsible family behavior from men. Largely because of the Pentecostals, the long-stagnant Protestant population has accelerated in numbers, going from 3 percent of the national population in 1965 to more than 20 percent in 1990. It could easily surpass 30 percent in the 1990s.
The 1970s and 1980s were years of religious ferment in Nicaragua, often coupled with political conflict. Encouraged by the spirit of liberal renovation then sweeping through Latin American Catholicism, a new generation of Nicaraguan Roman Catholic Church officials and lay activists tried to make the Roman Catholic Church more democratic, more worldly in its concerns, and more sensitive to the plight of the poor majority. Many were inspired by the radical doctrines of Liberation Theology and the related idea of consciousness- raising Christian base communities (small groups of people from an urban slum or rural district who met regularly to read the Bible together and reflect on social conditions). In the 1970s, priests, nuns, and lay workers committed to social change organized community development projects, education programs, and Roman Catholic base communities. Especially after 1972, Roman Catholic clergy and lay activists were increasingly drawn into the movement opposed to the regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Many developed links with the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional--FSLN), which was very receptive to radicalized Roman Catholics and led the insurrection that finally toppled the dictator.
No previous Latin American revolution has had such broad religious support as that of the Sandinistas. Even the Roman Catholic bishops openly backed the anti-Somoza movement in its final phases. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Roman Christian Base Communities (Comunidades Eclesiásticas de Base-- CEBs) provided the FSLN with vital political support among the urban poor. Roman Catholics, including several priests, accepted positions in the new government and became members of the Sandinista party. But the close ties between Sandinistas and Roman Catholics generated tensions within the Roman Catholic Church and between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the FSLN. The bishops, led by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, accused the Sandinistas and their Roman Catholic supporters of attempting to divide the church by creating a separate Popular Church out of the CEBs. They viewed the Marxist-oriented FSLN as a long-term threat to religion in Nicaragua, despite the professed tolerance of the Sandinistas. An explosive church-state conflict developed, during which the bishops more or less openly allied with the Sandinistas' political enemies and the FSLN struggled vainly to contain the influence of the institutional church. Throughout the 1980s, pro- and anti-Sandinista forces regularly manipulated religious symbols for political effect.
Protestant leaders were less inclined than the Roman Catholic episcopate to become embroiled in conflicts with the Sandinistas. Some, including prominent Baptist ministers and a minority of pastors from other faiths, were sympathetic to the FSLN. At the other extreme, a few Moravian ministers openly identified with Miskito Contra forces operating from Honduras. Most Pentecostal leaders, reflecting the conservative attitudes of the United States denominations with which they were affiliated, were cool toward the Sandinistas but generally adopted a public stance that was apolitical. Suspecting that the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Christian conservatives in the United States were promoting evangelical activity in Nicaragua to undercut their government, Sandinista authorities monitored and tried to intimidate certain Pentecostal leaders. They did not, however, attempt to limit the growth of normal religious activity. The expansion of the Protestant population actually accelerated under Sandinista rule. During the first five years of Sandinista government, the number of evangelical churches (largely Pentecostal) had doubled to 3,000.
By the time the Sandinistas left power in 1990, church-state relations were considerably smoother than they had been in the early 1980s and mid-1980s, in part because the Contra war, which intensified conflict over religion, was winding down. Some of the radicalized Roman Catholics who had supported the Sandinistas in the years since the 1970s remained loyal to them, but their influence outside the Sandinista movement and a few religious think tanks was limited. The number of active CEBs plunged in the early 1980s and never recovered, in part because the bishops had systematically restricted the church-based activities of pro- Sandinista clergy. The Pentecostal churches continued their rapid growth among the poor, eclipsing the radical branch of Roman Catholicism and challenging the Roman Catholic Church's traditional religious monopoly. By the early 1990s, the Pentecostal minority was large enough to cause some observers, aware of the recent role of Christian conservatives in United States politics, to speculate about the influence of Pentecostals in future Nicaraguan elections.
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