WASHINGTON/LIMA (Reuters) - Losing the fight against same-sex marriage at home, leading U.S. Evangelical Christians are joining in the culture wars in Latin America as cheerleaders for opponents of gay legal partnerships, abortion and pornography.
One of the Americans is veteran legal crusader Mat Staver who was both a disciple of late Moral Majority co-founder Jerry Falwell and the leader of a campaign against the removal of religious symbols from celebrations of Christmas in stores and public buildings.
The other is Samuel Rodriguez, a dynamic Latino preacher with strong ties with Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Washington D.C. who describes his religion as mixing Martin Luther King Jnr. with televangelist Billy Graham and then “putting a little salsa on top.”
Working together, both men increased their influence in Latin America in April when a U.S. Hispanic Evangelical group that they help to run took over one of the region’s oldest Evangelical organizations.
“Because of what was happening in Latin America and what we are fighting here in America there needed to be a combination to be able to create a firewall for our Judeo-Christian values. That is what ultimately brought about this merger,” Staver told his Faith and Freedom radio show.
The new group — known as NHCLC/CONELA and headed by Rodriguez — boasts a network of socially conservative pastors in Latin America who it is asking to be more politically active.
The many left-leaning governments in Latin America will not be easily swayed by U.S.-backed conservatives and the fight against gay marriage has already been lost in Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico City, which have legalized it in the last four years.
But the alliance of U.S. and Latin American Evangelicals is having some success in Peru, where a conservative lawmaker who is an NHCLC/CONELA officeholder is blocking a bill in Congress that would allow gay civil unions.
Staver gave the lawmaker, Julio Rosas, moral support by speaking to an audience of social conservatives at a legal conference in a hall of the Peruvian Congress last November.
“I urged them to stand strong” against abortion and same-sex marriage, the U.S. Evangelical said in an interview.
Staver is a hardened cultural warrior who was a friend and legal advisor to Falwell. He successfully defended the televangelist from a complaint at the Federal Election Commission that Falwell broke federal election law by calling on his supporters to back President George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004.
Staver heads the law faculty at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia which was founded by Falwell and is run by the late Baptist’s son, also named Jerry.
Staver has argued against abortion rights before the U.S. Supreme Court. His Liberty Counsel non-profit law firm led the charge over the last decade against the “War on Christmas” by threatening to sue stores and government agencies for secularizing the Christmas holiday.
Legal counsel for NHCLC/CONELA, Staver said one of his motivations for becoming involved in Latin America is that the U.S. government via the State Department is funding gay rights groups in other parts of the world, unsettling Latin American conservatives.
“They were looking to us in America for help. Why? Because America through this current administration has been using a bully pulpit to try to tell them what to do on abortion and homosexuality and they don’t like that,” he said.
Staver’s Peruvian ally, lawmaker Rosas, was one of the leaders of a “March for Family” in May against the gay civil unions bill. Rosas said nearly a million signatures against the legislation were delivered to Congress days later.
The justice committee is expected to take up the civil union measure in coming months, but even supporters say it is unlikely to pass, in part because of strident opposition from Rosas.
“I expected a strong reaction from the Catholic Church, but I didn’t expect Evangelicals to be so aggressive,” said the bill’s author, Carlos Bruce, who came out publicly as gay while promoting the legislation. “I think it’s the first time the Evangelical church has such a strong political presence” in Peru.
Critics accuse Staver and Rodriguez of trying to repeat the performance of visiting U.S. Evangelicals who urged church and government leaders in Uganda to crack down on gay activism. That led to the African country banning homosexuality in February, a move that was rejected by the constitutional court this month.
American conservative Christians, including Massachusetts pastor Scott Lively who later hired Staver as his lawyer, were widely accredited with fostering an anti-gay climate in Uganda through a series of speeches to lawmakers and opinion makers there.
“If I were to speculate, the Religious Right in the U.S. sees the writing on the wall regarding gay marriage, and are going to try to influence global movements in Latin American and Africa - two places that still have very strong anti-gay secular and religious sentiments,” said Arlene Sanchez-Walsh, a Latino church expert at Azusa Pacific University in California.
The number of Evangelicals in Latin America is growing but
exact figures are elusive. A 2012 report by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center Religion and Public Life Project estimated 98 million Protestants in Latin America and the Caribbean, or 18 percent of the Christian population there.
Staver says he wants the new U.S.-Latin American group to expand into the Caribbean, boost operations in Mexico and train pastors throughout Latin America, starting in Peru in 2015, on how to conduct political campaigns.
California-based Hispanic preacher Rodriguez will be key to any growth in Latin America.
He will travel to Argentina later this year to meet conservative pastors and has named a NHCLC/CONELA leader in Mexico who has begun meeting state governors to persuade them to crack down on pornography and defend traditional family values.
He said he is encouraging affiliated preachers in Mexico to become more involved in politics to defend traditional family values, fight poverty and promote education.
“Yes, I can’t deny that we are asking Evangelicals in Mexico to rise up and become very engaged and to defend Biblical truth and religious liberty to stand up for family and faith,” he told Reuters.
Described by U.S. Spanish-language television channel Telemundo as “leader of the Hispanic Evangelical movement,” Rodriguez has political connections on both sides of the aisle in Washington. He led prayers at the Republican Party convention that nominated Mitt Romney as the 2012 presidential candidate.
Rodriguez said he has grand ambitions for his U.S.-Latin American group to “serve as the catalyst for the global revitalization of Evangelicalism.”
NHCLC/CONELA calls itself perhaps the world’s biggest Protestant network with 500,000 affiliated churches, although academics and other Latin American Evangelical Christians dismiss that number as far too high.
Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico, editing by Ross Colvin