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Religious Competition and Ethnic Mobilization in Latin America: Why the Catholic Church Promotes Indigenous Movements in Mexico


This article suggests that a society's religious market structure can explain whether religion is “the opium of the people” or a major source of dissident secular mobilization. I present a simple model explaining why under monopolistic conditions, Catholic clergy in Latin America ignored the religious and social needs of poor rural indigenous parishioners but, when confronted by the expansion of U.S. mainline Protestantism, became major institutional promoters of rural indigenous causes. Catholic indigenous parishioners empowered by competition demanded the same benefits their Protestant neighbors were receiving: social services, ecclesiastic decentralization, and the practice of religion in their own language. Unable to decentralize ecclesiastic hierarchies, and facing a reputation deficit for having sided with rich and powerful elites for centuries, Catholic clergy stepped into the secular realm and became active promoters of indigenous movements and ethnic identities; they embraced the cause of the Indians as a member retention strategy and not in response to new doctrinal ideas emanating from Vatican II. Drawing on an original data set of indigenous mobilization in Mexico and on life histories and case studies, I provide quantitative and qualitative evidence of the causal effect of religious competition on the creation of the social bases for indigenous ethnic mobilization.

Corresponding author
Guillermo Trejo is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Duke University, 309 Perkins Library, Box 90204, Durham, NC 27708-0204 (
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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
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