Evangelical religion and social instability in Southern Highland Peru

Michael Ferguson
Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan
July, 2005


The first Protestant missionaries entered the historically-volatile province of Azángaro, Peru around 1915 and instituted a program of religious education. This mission, the work of U.S-based Seventh-day Adventists, helped inspire uprisings against hacienda owners and force some long-term social change. Operating today without foreign leadership or support, the Azángaro Adventists occupy a self-consciously ambiguous social position, at once insiders and outsiders, at once socially conservative and anti-establishment. Their political engagement follows suit, adhering to a principal perhaps best termed 'the politics of the apolitical.' While professing neutrality they surreptitiously wield influence over political life, adaptive to the social moment and to the historic instability of Azángaro. This political character is brought into focus by studying recent periods of social crisis, in particular the guerilla insurgency of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). During this period, they presented themselves to the police and to Sendero (as needed) as sober, law-abiding citizens, bereft of power and authority, unlikely to stir up trouble. At the same time, drawing on their history of anti-establishment activism, the Adventists maintained a varied and ambiguous relationship with Sendero, ranging from mild sympathizing to armed participation in the movement. In the end, the Adventist Church emerged from the insurgency period relatively unscathed, while the Catholic Church, which practiced a more overt brand of politics, was shattered by repeated attacks. Examined as a social/political movement, the case will build on the 'cultural politics' construct by considering it in a processual/historical sense, rather than a matter of simple coincidence. With its mix of transnational and local elements, the semi-conservative Church also helps problematize the notion of the 'indigenous political movement,' while challenging implicit assumptions about the 'progressive' nature of most social movements under study. Building on these points, and referencing current debates, it will be argued that religious studies can productively focus on the social effects of religion (neo-Weberian or otherwise), as long as effect is considered the end point of a process and sufficient holism is employed in the analysis.