WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Gallup polling from 2007 indicates members of Latin America's growing Protestant population are somewhat more likely than those in the region's majority Catholic population to say they have a plan or idea to improve their standard of living -- a difference of 57% vs. 49%, respectively.
Protestant groups have spread rapidly through much of Latin America over the past 40 years, driven largely by the efforts of U.S. evangelicals. Gallup's 2007 polls indicate that at least one in three residents say they are Protestants in five Latin American countries (Guyana, 41%; El Salvador, 36%; Honduras, 36%; Nicaragua, 36%; and Guatemala, 35%). At least 1 in 10 residents say so in 13 countries, including Brazil (21%), Chile (17%), and Peru (15%).
This trend has sparked considerable interest in the possible effects of Protestantism on Latin American societies. Some scholars have theorized that it may have a positive effect on economic development in some countries, applying Max Weber's well-known ideas about the "Protestant work ethic" -- namely, their more puritanical approach to day-to-day life helps Protestants resist short-term gratification and encourages hard work, saving, and reinvestment.
For his 1990 book Tongues of Fire, David Martin of the London School of Economics and Political Science compiled case studies from several Latin American countries and concluded that, though its impact depends on local conditions, Protestantism -- especially Pentecostal denominations -- has tended to encourage the development of skills that promote economic activity. "By moulding individuals with some sense of their own selfhood and capacity to choose," Martin wrote, "[Pentecostalism] may well be building up a constituency well-disposed to a capitalistic form of development."
The previous finding suggests there is some validity to this argument, though so far the region-wide impact has been modest. In addition to their greater likelihood to say they have a plan to improve their standard of living, Latin America's Protestants are somewhat more likely than Catholics to say they plan to start their own business in the next 12 months -- 32% vs. 26%, respectively, do so.
However, materialistic impulses do not seem to motivate Protestants any more than they do Catholics. Asked to choose from several attitudes toward life, similar proportions of Protestants and Catholics select "work hard and get rich" (18% of both groups) and "try to make a name for yourself" (4% of Catholics; 3% of Protestants). The biggest difference, as Weber's theory would predict, is that Protestants are nearly twice as likely as Catholics (23% vs. 12%) to select a "pure and just" life, resisting vices that offer short-term gratification.
As Martin notes, the effects of Protestantism in Latin America tend to be context-dependent, typically constrained by local political and cultural circumstances. That helps explain why, 18 years after Martin's book was published, region-wide differences between Catholics and Protestants are still only moderate. But those differences are there -- and in a region where job creation is so critical to the future, they indicate that the spread of Protestantism is certainly a trend worth watching.
Results are based on in-person interviews conducted in 2007 with approximately 1,000 residents, aged 15 and older, living in each of 17 Latin American countries, and 500 residents in an additional five countries (Belize, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago) and in Puerto Rico. For results based on the total samples of 1,000 residents, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. For results based on the total samples of 500 residents, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.