Ireland on Chesnut, 'Competitive Spirits: Latin America's New Religious Economy'

R. Andrew Chesnut
Rowan Ireland

R. Andrew Chesnut. Competitive Spirits: Latin America's New Religious Economy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 200 pp. 35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-531486-1.

Reviewed by Rowan Ireland (La Trobe University)
Published on H-Pentecostalism (November, 2009)
Commissioned by Gene Mills

Spirits Vie for Market Share in Latin America

In his introduction, R. Andrew Chesnut nails his theses to the church door. He will deploy Rodney Stark’s model of religious economy, in which rational consumers choose products from competing firms in a religious marketplace, to explain the dramatic rise of religions of the Spirit in Latin America over the last half century. And, to analysts of religion in Latin America, he will demonstrate the utility of applying microeconomic theory to religious behavior. In his view, they have mostly ignored that project or considered it and found it wanting. There are tones of a quality manifesto here--welcome, because the clarity and challenge typical of that genre ensure the book remains a landmark for studies in its field six years after first publication.

The argument unfolds in several moves. First, Chesnut, who is a historian by trade, tells the story of the development of the religious market in Latin America. Following independence, the Catholic Church’s religious monopoly in colonial Latin America was broken over a century of political and ensuing legal changes. By the mid-twentieth century, the one-time monopoly had to compete for the hearts and minds of the popular classes with Protestant churches and various forms of spiritism. As a monopoly religion, the Catholic Church had not engaged much with the masses. But from the 1950s on, it was forced to do so in response to losses. Millions of nominal Catholics were choosing Pentecostal churches. In Brazil and the Caribbean, Afro-diasporan  religions, like Brazil’s Candomblé and Umbanda, Cuba’s Santeria, and Haiti’s Vodou, flourished. By the late twentieth century, a vibrant religious market had developed.

Second, Chesnut sets up a frame, borrowed from microeconomics, to analyze the conditions for success in the new religious economy. He equates success with “member maximization” (p. 11). Potential members, consumers in the religious marketplace, search and create demand for religious products (beliefs, rituals, and social services provided by the religious group) that will help them deal with “the pathogens of poverty” they encounter in everyday life (p. 14). Religious associations, from large transnational churches to small, local groups of Umbanda, are the firms that compete to sell their products and cultivate product loyalty among consumers. Clergy and dedicated laypersons figure as salespersons for the leading products of their firms. And so to the conditions for success: those religious firms do best that understand and accept they are involved in a market contest, that provide products that the consumers demand, that market their products effectively through their salespersons, and that exploit their competitive advantages with market segments.

Third--and here we get to the core of the book--Chesnut seeks to demonstrate the efficacy of the religious economy frame by showing how well it explains market dominance by the three most successful religions. These are Protestant Pentecostal churches and congregations, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR) movement, and the religions of the African diaspora. The three share features that, according the Chesnut, are in high demand by the popular classes in the Latin American market. They are “pneumocentric” religions, that is, they put at the center of belief and practice direct communication with the Spirit (Pentecostals and CCR) or spirits (African diasporan) (p. 5). They also emphasize faith healing, usually achieved through the intervention of the Spirit or spirits. These features respond to popular demand, which Chesnut appears to establish in two ways. There is a circular argument that finds a primary cause of success in these two distinguishing characteristics of the most successful groups. He complements this with a social psychological argument that sees members of the popular classes, relatively deprived of power and resources to address the pathogens of poverty, disposed to seek direct access to transcendent power made immanent in religious practice.

Since these two products are well marketed through viable (though very different) organizational structures in the three religions, they have become serious contenders in the Latin American popular religious market. Other religious formations, like the Catholic Base Christian Communities, are failing, in Chesnut’s view, precisely because they lack the two essential products and the necessary marketing panache and structure. But the success stories also hinge on the cultivation of market segments and attention to the need for “marginal differentiation” to cater to diversity in the popular market. Thus, the CCR appeals to Catholic traditionalists by marketing national or regional cults of the Virgin Mary, while the Pentecostals, sometimes with literal iconoclasm, reject the cults of Mary and indeed of all the saints. Both Christian firms very carefully, even aggressively in the case of Brazil’s Pentecostal Church of the Universal Reign of God (IURD), distinguish their product of the one Spirit from the pagan spirits of the diasporan groups. Each firm cultivates specific groups of women, who are significantly overrepresented among consumers of religious products. Chesnut devotes an entire chapter to the satisfactions awarded to these “practical consumers” (p. 128).

This reviewer confesses that he has not been much attracted to rational choice theory in the study of religious phenomena. Nonetheless, Chesnut persuades him that the microeconomic frame does help shed light on the specific issue he addresses: how to explain the spectacular membership and resource gains of some religious groups in Latin America, as against the relative decline in others. On substantive matters, Chesnut provides some compelling evidence from his own research in Brazil and Mexico (Born Again in Brazil [1997]), and from selected case studies by others. There are several problems, though, with the religious group profiling in the central case study chapters. These include selectivity of data, a rather rigid format followed in the separate chapters on each group, and a tendency to repeat favorite evidence and interpretative formulae. Arguably, that is the manifesto style: to pare down and ruthlessly marshal evidence to substantiate a thesis. And arguably too, that style serves to advance significantly debate about broad trends in Latin American religious life.

But it cannot close it. Further advance will, among other things, involve attention to some outstanding issues. There are historical issues in connection with Chesnut’s argument that both the Base Christian Communities and later the CCR were developed by the Catholic Church as a response to Pentecostal gains among nominal Catholics of the popular classes. At the very least, there are theological and political stories that must be told to complement Chesnut’s account of reaction to market loss to the Pentecostals. The story of the Base Christian Communities and the accompanying development of the Theology of Liberation go back well before any gathering threat from Pentecostalism was appreciated, and the Catholic movements that spawned both the theology and new pastoral practices in Latin America are easily traced back to theological and pastoral experiments in European Catholicism from the late 1930s on. Scott Mainwaring, writing on the Brazilian case in The Catholic Church and Politics in Brazil (1986), has long since detailed the nonreactive theological history referred to here as well as the national political factors involved. But Mainwaring does not even make it into Chesnut’s bibliography. Nor do works by researchers on Pentecostalism and the diasporan religions that might likewise challenge or nuance his pared down market economy explanations.[1]

Then there are issues connected to the categories and aggregations that Chesnut deploys. First is the crucial category of pneumocentric. Debate here might address questions left hanging by Chesnut. Do the three successes center belief and practice around the spirit(s) in the same sense and degree, such that common pneumocentricity can be claimed to be a prime common factor in success? If pneumocentricity is an explanation for rates of induction, is it also an explanation for retention rates when experience of the Spirit often appears to decline in importance for believers over time? Second, the category diasporan and the aggregations under it warrant attention. Chesnut notes differences between the diasporan religious groups but generalizes across them in his analysis of market practice. However, some studies of the two largest conglomerations in Brazil, Umbanda and Candomblé, suggest important differences in product and market behavior. Chesnut appears to draw most of the aggregate profile from studies of Umbanda, and that fits his analysis very well indeed. But Reginaldo Prandi, to whom Chesnut does refer, noted that in 1980s São Paulo, Candomblé, despite features less expected to meet success in the cosmopolitan city, was doing far better in terms of recruitment than rival Umbanda--and for reasons of identity definition that are hard to squeeze into Chesnut’s religious market frame.[2]

There are similar issues concerning the Pentecostals. The differences in theology, church structure, and ritual between neo-pentecostal churches, notably IURD, and older Pentecostal churches, raise serious doubts about the extent to which they belong to the same class of religious phenomena. Chesnut acknowledges differences but rather too easily generalizes across them as he profiles the successful Pentecostal firm--drawing heavily on the possibly deviant case of the IURD as he does so. This reviewer is not equipped to say Chesnut is wrong here, only to claim that he should have discussed more of the rich case studies on different streams of Pentecostalism and justified his elisions with reference to them.

In his conclusion, Chesnut argues that Manuel Vásquez is wrong to assert the “messiness” of religious life as a criticism of the reductionist tidiness of the religious economy perspective (p. 150).[3] This review concludes that Chesnut has indeed demonstrated that microeconomic tidiness helps us understand not all religious phenomena in Latin America, but specifically why some religious groups have declined and others spectacularly grown over the last half century. But to advance further, even on that specific matter, we must consider the “messiness” anew.


[1]. On a nuanced religious economy approach that focuses more on shoppers rather than sellers of religious products and on on-going syncretism rather than lean firms, see Sydney Greenfield, “Population Growth, Industrialization and the Proliferation of Syncretized Religion in Brazil,” in Reinventing Religions: Syncretism and Transformation in Africa and the Americas, ed. Sydney Greenfield and A. F. Droogers (Lanham:Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), 55-70.

[2]. Reginaldo Prandi,“Sincretismo afro-brasileiro em São Paulo: Da Umbanda ao Candomblé” (paper presented at the 46th International Conference of Americanists, Amsterdam, July 4-8, 1988.

[3]. Manuel Vásquez,“Toward a New Agenda for the Study of Religion in the Americas,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 41 (1999): 1-20.

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Citation: Rowan Ireland. Review of Chesnut, R. Andrew, Competitive Spirits: Latin America's New Religious Economy. H-Pentecostalism, H-Net Reviews. November, 2009.

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