Conservative pastors are increasingly participating in the country's politics, turning community work into political activism and then campaigning on far-right causes.
CORDOBA, Argentina — When Argentinian president Mauricio Macri decided to give a green light to the debate on Februrary 2018, about whether abortion should be legalised in the country, he set in motion a number of political movements that previously didn’t have great visibility or momentum.
Argentina's feminist movement is one of those. The support for the ‘green scarves’, the movement's symbol that identifies the demand for the right to legal, secure and free abortion, began to grow, along with the support for sexual education in schools, popularising slogans such as: “Sexual education to choose, contraceptives to avoid abortions, abortions to avoid death.”
On the other hand, it also gave purpose and momentum to some factions of Christian - Catholic, but mainly evangelical - ‘pro-life’ groups, which chose light blue scarves as a counter symbol. They also took to the streets in large crowds, and across the country’s important cities during the debates in Congress in 2018.
At the end of the debates, after the law was debunked in the Senate, these groups took to the streets again, this time victorious and in even larger crowds. For many politicians, it was a provocative demonstration of power, especially with the 2019 national elections just around the corner.
The light blue electoral surprise: the Santa Fe elections.
Walter Ghione is a pentecostal pastor from Rosario - Argentina’s third largest city, and the most populated in the province of Santa Fe - is a city that’s been governed for over a decade by one of the most progressive administrations in the country, and that is one of the few places with a pregnancy interruption protocol in place.
After running and losing five times for various legislative offices, Ghione again ran in this year’s provincial election and won a legislative seat. His front emerging as the third most popular political force.
Speaking to TRT World, Ghione said he's a third generation pastor who father is considered to be a "very important figure" in a church named Asamblea de Dios (God's Assembly).
"Pastorship kind of runs in my blood," he said. "I remember as a child we went to the south of Brazil for family vacations, and as we always did, no matter where we were, when Sunday came we went to church. There was a pastor giving service that really impressed me, he was captivating. My father must have seen my expression, so he approached and told me that the pastor was a great man, and part of what made him great was that he was also mayor of the city. My father always expressed his admiration towards the Brazilian model. On how there isn’t this taboo about politics and religion, and evangelicals have political power and are well organised. From the first time since I got involved I’ve always had his support.”
In the 2019 provincial elections, Ghione was part of a pre-poll coalition led by a model-turned- TV commentator Amalia Granata, who participated on different ballots with no success.
They ran a low-budget campaign, counting on Granata's celebrity stature and vast popularity. Taking a tough anti-abortion and anti-gender stance, both Ghione and Granata sidestepped the most compelling issues of the country, including rising poverty. It turned out they didn’t need to. Their coalition won six seats, fetching a quarter of a million votes, almost 10 times more than any of their members had received in the past, which made it the third most important force in the provincial lower chamber of Congress.
“I personally don’t see the contradiction between religion and politics," Ghione said. "At the end of the day, it’s service. When things get bad the state relies on us to help out with the situation and it’s been that way since the early 2000s. But when the debate is about things so holy to us like life, the conception of family, of education, values...then everybody rushes to leave us out of the conversation and say we’re a bunch of fanatics."
Ghione believes that since his social and ideological views are shared by a large number of population, it's important for people adhering to hardline evangelical views to contest elections and represent people's aspirations in Congress.
"Why shouldn't we take a stand and say: hey, you're not crossing that line. If there's dozens of green scarf Congress ladies, why can’t there be people expressing Christian values?”
Ghione comes across as an exceptionally genial man. Unlike his pro-life companions, he says he believes in giving respect to political opponents.
But at a recent Youth Congress gathering he invited TRT World to, he took shots at his rivals and openly described them as “the enemy”, a term the far-right often uses to demonise feminists associated with green scarves and the LGBT movements.
Ghione’s rhetoric became increasingly pugnacious. He accused the proverbial "enemy" of quietly pursuing an agenda of legalising paedophilia and zoophilia, a claim which has no correlation with reality.
Before leaving the stage, Ghione asked the audience of young, curious minds to “stand up for your Christian values and be proud of them."
He added: "And to those who laugh at you and defy those values say: ‘I have a right to my beliefs, I will defend them if under attack’, and you better get used to them because sooner than expected we’re going to govern you.”
The majority of evangelical churches in Argentina fall into two major organisations, the Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches of Argentina (known by its Spanish acronym ACIERA) and the Argentinian Federation of Evangelical Churches (FAIE). Both organisations have publicly manifested their complete non-partisan position on several occasions over the past year, regarding the forthcoming presidential elections. Although they did not extend their support to any particular evangelical party, they haven't spoken against pastors getting involved in politics either.
The evangelical pastors have grown in places where the state was absent. From working with poor drug addicts to rehabilitation of prisoners, they have gained a lot of street experience.
But Gaston Zoroastro, who works as a psychologist of pastors in Argentina's Cordoba city, is a recognised intellectual voice that's critical of the growing evangelical influence in the country.
He's also been critical of new evangelical causes and remains sceptical of the support they are gaining within the Christian establishments.
“I think the light blue scarf movement is an enormous mistake that has no coherence with the evangelical tradition," Zoroastro said. "If we’re true Christians, how can we stand beside a position that criminalises the women practicing abortion? The correct and Christian position on abortion should be to first decriminalise that act, and then further on other debates; but that’s the first act that we should as Christians agree on.”
For 52-year-old Sergio Toranzo, the political choices of people are largely driven by people's day-to-day problems and the candidate who can tap into the local pulse usually emerges as the winner.
"When people vote, they vote with a lot more at stake than just conservative moral values. In that sense, these experiences have nothing to offer to the voters, even to evangelical voters, and even in cases where these political experiments come from good people with good intentions. You need a lot more value than being a good person to administer the state. That’s why at the end of the day the people rely on politicians to solve their problems, not the pastor,” said Toranzo, a pastor from Unquillo, a small town near Cordoba.
Toranzo is also a retired police commissioner and has worked closely with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
Lashing out at the evangelicals who join politics, he said the group doesn't "want to follow Christ".
"They wouldn't recognise Christ if he walked upon us today. They would be fighting him. Christ would be drinking and dancing with the poor or in the streets protesting. He would be born inside the LGTBQ movement, questioning these perverse structures of power,” he said.