Thursday, July 2, 2009

Thinking About Public Space, Religion, and Chilean Civil Society

The theme of my doctoral seminar today was "The Concept of Faith-Based in the U.S." After discussing the history of the subject and distinctions between progressive and conservative interpretations of faith-based, I initiated a discussion on some comparisons between Chile and the U.S. Robert Wuthnow has noted that U.S. religious congregations offer public space a variety of civic and social activities in communities throughout the country. The "religious campus" of church, auditorium, gym, classrooms, parking spaces, etc., facilitates the multiple uses of space for a variety of groups and associations-- everything from AA meetings to Boy Scout and Girl Scout meetings. The seminar participants could not cite civil uses of religious spaces in Chile. Furthermore they said that religious spaces are considered "private property" by the religious institutions, thereby limiting the capacity for religion to provide intermediary public spaces between the values of religious groups and civil society associations.

This strong spatial seperation of religion from civil society comes from a long history of church construction, particularly by the Catholic Church's model of a church without a parochial school and other meeting spaces, gyms, parking, etc. Almost all Catholic schools are operated by religious orders or associations that function as private schools and located away from parish churches. Furthermore Catholic education serves as a private school system with strong affiliation to the religious orders that operate them and often not connected to the life of dioceses and parishes. My seminar participants believed that Protestant congregations operate with the same distinctions.

What does this mean for "faith-based" in Chile? I have the impression that the very idea that there can be independent faith-based associations in civil society is a difficult thing to imagine when there are no contextual time and spaces that actually organize the concept of faith-based as an intermediary public process that connects religious values, ideology, and practices with more secular civil associations or even government that organize and maybe even deliver social services, community organizing, education, programs, etc., in a faith-based intermediary sphere between religion and the world of politics, economy, government, the media, etc.

At present there is very little ecumenical or inter-faith practical work being done in Chile. During the military dictatorship Catholics and many liberal Protestants joined together in the "Vicaria de la Solidaridad" which provided a primary space of resistance to the dictatorship and delivered many social goods to the participants. Since 1989 this kind of faith-based activity has largely ceased since the survival aspect of Solidaridad diminished. My interviews to date among Protestant leaders has provided me evidence that cooperation in civil society among Catholics and Evangelicals-Pentecostals is practically non-existent. Thus "faith-based" in Chile is really about Catholic-based, Evangelical-based, or Pentecostal-based services and organizations that come directly from the sponsoring religious entity and does not provide an intermediary context bring about pluralistic faith-based activities.

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