Myths, in general, owe more to hope than fact. So it is with one of the commonest myths in the world of Western religious education - the myth of liberation theology.
The "myth of liberation theology" - as distinct from "liberation theology" itself, which is a different and far more complex beast - can be described most simply as a semi-religious illusion. Adherents of the myth believe that Third World societies - notably, the countries of Latin America - are made up of teeming masses of hard-working Catholic peasants, kept in submission by a tiny but tyrannical land-owning class, armed and directed by agents of the US government. The myth owes a great deal to Hollywood, and is reinforced by movies like Oliver Stone's Salvador and the award-winning Romero.
The presumed peasant masses are held to be at the same time deeply religious and deeply revolutionary in their natural political instincts. Nevertheless, in the Hollywood version this imagined peasant character is far more activist than ascetic, drawing little distinction if any between the heroic figure of Jesus Christ and that of Che Guevara.
The emphasis is on the word "imagined", for serious study of the Catholic Church. in Latin America invariably reveals a much lower level of left-wing political involvement among the organised Christian churches than outsiders expect. This is not to deny the important historical influence of political-religious figures and factions, like the dead guerrilla-priest Camillo Torres, killed "in action" in 1967, or the Chilean "Christians for Socialism" group that sprang up during the Marxist reign of President Salvador Allende. Such people have lingered long in the left-wing imagination, in the First World as in the Third. But it is increasingly obvious that they earned their significance chiefly by being different from the mainstream Latin American Church. That Church was in the '60s, and remains today, predominantly non-political and faithful to the doctrinal content of traditional Roman Catholicism.
Of recent years, the excitement felt by political Christians over the imagined revolutionary fervour of Latin American Catholics has focused on the "basic Christian community" movement which has spread throughout the region. The movement provides an alternative local church structure to the normal Catholic parish, gathering believers into close-knit, self-directing religious communities.
It is commonly assumed that the base community movement, which has had the blessing of Latin American bishops for at least two decades, is alive with radical political doctrines. But is it? Contrary to what many politicised Christians may optimistically believe, as few as one-third of Latin America's base Christian communities have been involved in any kind of political action. Many of those which have done so have only become active on local issues. The picture which emerges from recent in-depth studies, like William E. Hewitt's Base Christian Communities and Social Change in Brazil, is that the communities are made up of devout Catholic men and women who are deeply interested in "liberation" in a personal and moral sense, but are not drawn towards dramatic political acts.
More revealing about the true character of Latin America's 'peasant masses' is the enormous success of Evangelical Protestantism in converting them. In areas where Catholicism has had difficulty gaining, or even holding adherents - particularly the economically underdeveloped countries of Central America - US-style Protestant groups have reaped an enormous harvest of souls in recent years.
The religious style of these groups emphasises dramatic personal testimony to the workings of the Holy Spirit, and a dramatic lack of interest in affairs of state. This style of evangelism has been so effective among the poor and uneducated of Central America in recent years that Catholicism has been rendered a minority religion there. It is an extraordinary development for a region that is still dominated in most respects by Catholic Hispanic culture.
While Hewitt's book suggests the base communities are largely non-political, it has also been shown that they are far less widespread than is commonly thought. This can be seen from Philip Berryman's 1989 book, Liberation Theology: a guide to the revolutionary movement in Latin America and beyond. Berryman, an American priest and sympathiser with the more politicised factions within Latin American Catholicism, shows that although radical liberation theology finds its strongest expression in the base Christian community movement, the percentage of all Catholics who participate in these communities is minuscule indeed. "In any given country", he wrote, "only a minority of parishes - perhaps 10 per cent - have adopted this model of pastoral work."
If base communities represent such a small percentage of the population, and only a third of these are political, then we begin to see how wide of the mark is the liberal misconception about Latin America's 'revolutionary masses'. What conclusions should be drawn from this is a matter for argument. To the conspiratorially-minded, it may be seen as evidence of the success of 'conservatives' in the Latin American Church in stamping out dissenting radical voices, like the recently laicised Brazilian liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff.
However, those of less excitable mentality may see starker, more eternal lessons in it. Like the fact that to most Catholics, Latin American and otherwise, religion is far more interesting than politics.
Paul Gray is a Melbourne writer.