“En Dios Confiamos”: Politics, Populism, and Protestantism in Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua

  • Timothy Steigenga
  • Kenneth M. Coleman
  • Eduardo Marenco


Using data from the 2004 to 2014 AmericasBarometer surveys, this paper examines attitudes toward politics among Nicaraguan Protestants, who in 2014 represented an astounding 38.4% of the total national population in Nicaragua. We find that while Protestants are more conservative than Catholics or the non-affiliated on specific social issues such as abortion and homosexuality, they are equally or more supportive as are Catholics for President Ortega and the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) and differ little from Catholics on a scale for ideological self-placement. The Nicaraguan case is telling, because it suggests that populist politicians such as Daniel Ortega have discovered a potential winning electoral strategy by combining hot-button public morality issues (such as homosexuality and abortion) with leftist political rhetoric. These findings are important not only because they point to the potential for such coalitions elsewhere in the region but also because they provide further evidence that politics of Protestantism in Latin America is multidimensional and rarely conforms to the sort of right/left ideological scale applied in many popular and scholarly treatments of the subject.


Nicaragua Protestantism Pentecostalism Politics Populism 

Introduction: En Dios Confiamos

In 2012, Nicaragua’s Central Bank ignited a firestorm of controversy in the country when it eliminated the phrase “In God We Trust” from its five Córdoba coins as part of 100-year commemoration of the 1912 creation of the currency. The president of Nicaragua’s Conference of Catholic Bishops, Father Sócrates René Sándigo, accused the Sandinista government of “disrespecting the Christian sensibility” of its people and urged the Catholic faithful not to accept the change (La Opinión 2012). For a regime whose motto is “Socialism, Solidarity & Christianity,” removing the phrase represented a potential threat to President Daniel Ortega’s carefully constructed alliance with the Catholic Church and some Nicaraguan Protestants. The phrase was re-added to the coins just 2 years after the special edition currency was released.

The controversy surrounding the currency highlights a long and complicated relationship between President Daniel Ortega and the Catholic Church in Nicaragua. Under the revolutionary government of the Sandinistas in the 1980s, leftist priests and the “popular church” played an important role in both the revolution and the government, much to the chagrin of the institutional Catholic hierarchy and Pope John Paul II. But in his more recent political incarnation, Ortega has alienated leftist supporters and gained support among Christian conservatives across denominations for endorsing the penalization of therapeutic abortion leading up to the 2006 elections (Berntzen 2012). Although Ortega and first lady Rosario Murillo are frequently filmed at Catholic mass, the religious rhetoric they utilize in public speeches appeals to Pentecostals as well as Catholics. On one hand, Ortega has lost old allies, such as Ernesto Cardenal (famously chastised by Pope John Paul II for his taking a position with the first Sandinista government) who recently accused him of making “false and hypocritical use of religion, pretending he has faith he doesn’t have” (Fox News Latino 2011). On the other hand, former arch-enemy of the Sandinistas, Cardinal Obando y Bravo, is now frequently present at Sandinista events and was appointed the chairman of the Commission of Verification, Reconciliation, Peace, and Justice (Fox News Latino 2011). In celebration of the cardinal’s recent 90th birthday, Ortega proposed that he be honored as a “national hero of peace and reconciliation,” and the National Assembly, in which the Sandinistas had a two-third majority, quickly acted to approve the President’s suggestion.

The relationship between the Sandinistas and Nicaragua’s growing Protestant population has also long defied conventional wisdom. Calvin Smith (2007) has argued that Protestants (with the notable exception of Council of Protestant Churches of Nicaragua [CEPAD]) primarily opposed the Sandinistas in the 1980s and leading up to the 1990 elections. However, Christian Smith and Liesl Haas’ analysis of 1990 surveys conducted by Gallup in Nicaragua suggests that “evangelicals were in many cases more supportive of the Sandinistas than were Catholics” (Smith and Haas 1997: 443). While there were early attempts in the post-Sandinista period to organize evangelicals who had been sympathetic to the Sandinista cause into political parties (Partido de Justicia Nacional in 1991 and Movimiento Evangélico Popular in 1992), neither party was successful in winning seats in the National Assembly. In the ensuing years, Nicaraguan Protestants have made multiple forays into the world of Nicaraguan political parties, forming the Movimiento de Unidad Cristiana and the Camino Cristiano Nicaragüense parties in the 1990s to advocate for evangelical rights in Nicaragua’s lay state (vis-a-vis privileges granted to the Catholic Church) (Siegal 2006). While evangelical parties have not had great electoral success in Nicaragua,1 as Gooren (2010a, 2010b) has argued, the evangelical vote proved to be a critical part of the Ortega’s 2006 winning presidential coalition. Evangelicals have clearly become an electoral constituency that has been targeted by the post-2006 incarnation of the Sandinistas. In the run-up to the 2016 elections, two small Protestant parties joined an alliance led by the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional FSLN, while another small Protestant party joined the major opposition alliance.2

Utilizing data from the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), this paper explores and extends Gooren’s (2010b) argument that Daniel Ortega’s populist campaigns have actively courted new votes from evangelicals and conservative Catholics in order to build a new electoral coalition in Nicaraguan politics. While Gooren focuses his analysis on Ortega’s strategic alliances (the infamous pact with former president Arnoldo Alemán and a newborn alliance with Cardinal Obando y Bravo) and Ortega’s image make-over as a “new man” who could appeal to evangelical voters, this study uses public opinion data to provide a demographic profile of evangelical Protestants in Nicaragua and to explore the political issues and trends among Protestants, comparing them with Catholics and the religiously non-affiliated.

Three findings stand out from our analysis. First, the growth of Protestantism in Nicaragua has exploded in Nicaragua in the 2000s, with 38.4% of the Nicaraguan population being Protestant by 2014 (with a demographic profile skewed toward young people, females, and the less educated).3 Without question, Protestants represent a significant demographic segment of the Nicaraguan population to which candidates are increasingly likely to tailor their electoral appeals. Second, as we have found in previous studies in Central America (Aguilar et al. 1993 and Steigenga 2001), Protestants were not significantly different from Catholics in their overall political orientations toward authoritarianism, on an ideological scale, or in support for the government. In other words, the conventional wisdom that evangelicals are broadly right-wing, authoritarian-supporting, or apolitical should be dropped in favor of a more nuanced understanding of Protestant politics. Third, we found that Protestants as a group are significantly more conservative than Catholics or the religiously non-affiliated on specific issues of public morality such as abortion or gay rights.

These findings matter for the study of religion and politics in Latin America in three respects. First, as Smith (1998) and Steigenga (2001) have argued elsewhere, the most potent political alliances potentially raised by the growth of evangelical Protestantism in Latin America are likely between conservative Catholics (and some national Catholic hierarchies) and Protestants on issues of public morality. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega initially tapped into precisely this combination to structure his own coalition for electoral success in 2006. Second, this convergence on issues of public morality does not necessarily translate in an overall conservative political worldview for evangelicals. Depending upon the political context, Protestants in Latin America may be available to support regimes across the political spectrum. Third, further studies that focus on the overall “pentecostalization” of religion and politics are necessary to uncover and understand these dynamics more fully. Pentecostalization refers to the acceptance of certain religious beliefs (such as a dramatic personal conversion, millennialism, and to some degree, biblical literalism) and the experience of particular pneumatic religious practices (such as speaking in tongues, divine healing, and other charismatic practices) that extend across religious denominations. Comparing Protestants and Catholics can take us only a limited distance in understanding the religious and political dynamics at work in the region. It is increasingly by exploring the particular pentecostalized beliefs and practices that cross formal religious boundaries in Latin America (and the political implications of those beliefs and practices) that we will fully understand the impact of religious change on the region.

Protestant Growth in Latin America and Nicaragua

According to data from the AmericasBarometer, across Latin America as a whole, by 2012, the average national percentage of Protestants had reached 23.7%.4 The Pew Research Center’s’s 2014 study concluded that “In nearly every country surveyed, the Catholic Church has experienced net losses from religious switching, as many Latin Americans have joined evangelical Protestant churches or rejected organized religion altogether. For example, roughly one-in-four Nicaraguans, one-in-five Brazilians and one-in-seven Venezuelans are former Catholics” (Pew Research Center 2014). In Central America, the diffusion of Protestantism has been even more dramatic, reaching over 37% in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, countries once thought to be incontestably Catholic.

We set out to explore not only the numerical growth of Protestantism in Nicaragua but also who the Nicaraguan Protestants are and what they believe about social and political issues. Nicaragua represents an especially interesting case as the country experienced a revolutionary government during the years 1979–1990, beset for most of that period by a counter-revolutionary insurgency supported by the USA. Following the electoral defeat of the governing FSLN in 1990, Nicaragua experienced 16 years of more conservative governments. Since returning to power in 2007, the FSLN continues to speak the language of revolution, but its rhetoric and politics are frequently at odds. According to Henri Gooren, evidence on the ground suggests that Ortega has “converted to neo-liberal policies, while maintaining a leftist rhetoric” Gooren (2010b: 56)

The trajectory of Protestant growth in Nicaragua initially moved upward toward the end of the Somoza regime and even during the first Sandinista government and then boomed during the country’s more recent political history. Earlier work by Henri Gooren (2003) illustrates the existence of waves of Protestant growth through the early 2000s in Nicaragua. Combining the historical scholarship of Gooren with data from the AmericasBarometer for Nicaragua in the years 2004–2014, Fig. 1 illustrates the trajectory of Protestant growth over 114 years in Nicaragua.5
Fig. 1

Growth of Protestants in Nicaragua (1900–2014) as percentage of total population

Gooren describes an initial and very slow growth of Protestants between 1900 and 1963 from 1.2% to 3.8%. Then he identifies a first boom in the growth of Protestants between 1967 and 1970 in Nicaragua, thanks to the work of missionaries and campaigns of evangelization in a context of social unrest. A second boom developed between 1980 and 1990 during the Sandinista Revolution where many Protestants participated in the political process, and the Protestant population increased from 8.4% to 15%. Growth stagnated during the 1990s but modest growth was evident by 1997, with the total population of Protestants reaching 18.8% in 2000 (Gooren 2003: 347–348). In the early 2000s, there was a substantial increase in Protestantism to 25% of the Nicaraguan population.

Data from LAPOP surveys (2004–2014) allow us to continue tracing the growth of Protestants from 25% in 2004 to 38.4% in 2014, an impressive growth rate over a decade from roughly 1,055,697 Protestants (Gobierno de Nicaragua 2005) to approximately 2.3 million in 2014. The two primary types include Mainline Protestants (5.9%) and Pentecostals (32.5%). Concurrently, the decline of Catholic population has accelerated in the last decade. Catholics represented 96% of Nicaraguans in 1963, 72.9% in 1995, and 58.5% in 2005 (Gobierno de Nicaragua 2005). By 2014, only 48.5% of Nicaraguans identified as Catholic while 11.2% declared no religious affiliation (Coleman and Zechmeister 2015). Throughout the initial Sandinista period from 1979 to 1990, the successive period of conservative governance up to 2006, and the return of Sandinista governance, from 2007 through the present, Nicaragua has experienced hyper-growth of evangelical Protestantism.

Operational Definition

The religious affiliation question from the 2014 LAPOP survey asks: If you belong to a religion, can you name your religion? Pre-coded options included the following: Catholic; Mainline Protestant (Christian, Calvinist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Disciples de Christ, Anglican, Episcopalian, Moravian Church); Non Christian Oriental Religions; No Religion; Pentecostal Protestant (Pentecostal; Church of God, Assemblies of God; Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, Baptist, Four Square Gospel; Church of Christ; Christian Congregation, Mennonite, Brothers in Christ, Christian Reformed Church, non-Catholic Charismatic; Light of the World, Church of the Nazarene, Salvation Army, Adventist; Seventh Day Adventist, Sara Nossa Terra); Mormon; Traditional Religions (Candombé, Voodoo, Rastafarianism, Mayan Religions, Umbanda; María Lonza; Inti, Kardecist, Santo Daime, Esoterica); Judaism, Agnostic or Atheist, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Based on two re-codings of this question, we created distinct dummy variables for alternative ways to measure Protestantism in Nicaragua. The first such variable includes both the less numerous Mainline Protestants and the more numerous Pentecostals, while a second dummy variable includes Pentecostals only.6

Sociologically, Who Are the Protestants in Nicaragua?

The LAPOP surveys do not explore anything about the process of conversion to Protestantism, as Gooren (2010a) has done,  but they do provide us with a snapshot of the Protestant population in Nicaragua in 2014. Previous research on Protestants in Nicaragua found that Protestants come from the poorest sectors of society and rural areas, are less educated on average than the rest of population, and are disproportionally young (Smith and Haas 1997; 444). Similarly, research from El Salvador demonstrates that Protestants frequently come from the poorest and least educated strata of society (Aguilar et al. 1993:111–133).7

Based on the demographic trends found by previous research, we used data from the 2014 round of the AmericasBarometer in Nicaragua to test which of the following variables would be good predictors of Protestant identity: gender, age, level of education, quintile of wealth, and urban versus rural residence. We examine all of these in both bivariate and multivariate logistic regression equations (where being Protestant or something else is the dependent variable).

Figures 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 present bivariate results comparing these variables. As can be seen from Fig. 2, there is a big difference between Catholics (50%), Protestants (56%), and the No Religious Identity group (31%) in terms of the percent female. This gender difference between those with and without religious identities is statistically significant in bivariate analysis. Figure 3 similarly illustrates a significant difference in the youth of the three religious groupings. Some 63% of those with No Religious Identity are 35 years or younger, versus 48% of the Protestants and 42% of the Catholics. So while Protestants tend to be a bit younger than Catholics, again, the greatest difference is with those with no religious identity.
Fig. 2

Percent female by religious identification

Fig. 3

Percentage identifiers 35 years or younger

Fig. 4

Levels of education attained by religious identity

Fig. 5

Wealth distribution across quintiles by religious identity

Fig. 6

Percentage identifiers in urban areas

In Fig. 4, it can be seen that Protestants exhibit somewhat lower educational levels than do Catholics or those with no religious identity, but the differences are not statistically significant in bivariate analysis. The most notable feature about Protestants is that only about 12% have some exposure to university level education, whereas roughly 17% of the other two groups exhibit that level of educational attainment.

Additionally, it can be seen in Fig. 5 that Protestants tend toward lower incomes but there are Protestants at all quintiles of the income distribution (22% in the lowest quintile but 18% in the highest). The most disparate group in terms of income is the No Religious Identity group, with 28% in the lowest quintile, but nearly 20% in the highest. Once again, differences are not statistically significant.

Finally, in terms of bivariate results, Fig. 6 shows that urban residence is marginally significant (p = 0.043) in distinguishing between the three communities, with Catholics (62%) and Protestants (60%) being slightly less likely to be urbanites than those with no religious identity (72%). However, Nicaragua is essentially an urban country, and all three groups reflect the national trend.

Figure 7 presents the findings of our logistic regression model, showing that the strongest predictor of Protestantism (with Mainline and Pentecostals combined together) is gender, with women being more likely to be Protestants. This result holds up from the bivariate analysis, as does age as a significant predictor, with Protestants being slightly younger than the sum total of all other Nicaraguans (although somewhat older than Catholics). Additionally, in multivariate analysis, education is a significant predictor of Protestantism, but just barely (when it was not so in a bivariate analysis). In the multivariate analysis, quintile of wealth (not significant in bivariate analysis) and urban/rural residence (significant at p < 0.05 in bivariate analysis) do not predict membership in a Protestant church in contemporary Nicaragua. It is of special interest that wealth appears unrelated to Protestantism—defined as either a Mainline Protestant denomination or as a Pentecostal variant. In a number of prior studies, poverty was seen as predictive of affiliation with a Protestant denomination. Rural residence was found to be predictive in at least one prior study.
Fig. 7

Predictors of protestant identity in Nicaragua

We also tested the same array of predictors for different types of Protestants. For example, considering only Pentecostals, the same relationships described in Fig. 8 hold true, but the relationships tend to be even stronger. Pentecostalism attracts women disproportionately and they tend to come from least educated strata of Nicaraguan society. But for analyzing Mainline Protestants (N = 90), none of the sociodemographic variables prove to be significant predictors of affiliation.
Fig. 8

Political preferences of Protestants exhibit little difference from Catholics or those professing no religion

In contrast, if we run the same sociodemographic predictors on Catholic religious affiliation, we find that age and education are significant at the 0.05 level, each exhibiting a positive relationship. What distinguishes Catholics is that they tend to be older and more educated than are other Nicaraguans.8 Those with no religious affiliation tend to be male, to be young, to fall into the lower quintiles of wealth, and to be urban residents.

Since 67.5% of the Nicaraguan population is under 29 years of age (Gobierno de Nicaragua 2005), demographic trends remain conducive to the expansion of Nicaraguan Protestantism, since younger and less educated people are more attracted to Pentecostal variants of the religion. The Nicaraguan pattern of Protestant growth is similar to other Central American cases (see Freston 2008) where recruitment efforts have been most successful among young, female and less educated populations. In sum, today, nearly two of every five Nicaraguans identify as some sort of Protestant, and one in three identifies as Pentecostal. If we were to include Catholics who identify as charismatic (or pentecostalized), the figure might well be closer to one in two. This group could represent a numerically dominant voting coalition in a competitive election where it to be mobilized around particular issues of concern (such as issues of public morality). Before turning to such issues, however, it is important to contextualize the broader politics of Protestantism in Nicaragua.

The Political Complexities of Nicaraguan Protestantism

The early conventional wisdom about Protestantism in Latin Central America was that evangelicals in general and Pentecostals in particular would be politically conservative (Brouwer et al. 1996), apolitical (Stoll 1991), corporatist (Bastian 1993), and even authoritarian. While this conventional wisdom has been widely challenged elsewhere (Steigenga 2001; Steigenga and Cleary 2007), the 2014 AmericasBarometer data provide us with another opportunity to explore the connections between Protestantism and politics. As in other Central American cases, we find that the broad strokes of Protestant political attitudes and orientations tend to defy the old conventional wisdom. We compared Protestants, Catholics, and the religiously non-affiliated on their support for support of a hard line government (gobierno de mano dura), support for the FSLN, approval of president Daniel Ortega in office, and an ideological self-placement scale (100 points = far right; 0 = far left).

In the upper left quadrant of Fig. 8 we see that there is no significant difference between Protestants and others in their level of support for a mano dura government (initial answers are transformed into a 100-point scale). In fact, the level of support is quite low, which may be a reflection of the relative absence of crime in Nicaragua vis-a-vis some Central American countries where crime is higher and support for a government purporting to be hard on crime is also higher. Still, it is noticeable that there is essentially no difference between Nicaraguan Protestants and those with other religious beliefs on this issue. Public impressions of Protestants as being especially conservative or prone to support authoritarianism are not borne out on this item.

Similarly, when asked to use an ideological self-labeling scale, where 0 represents the position furthest to the left and 100 equals the position furthest to the right, differences are small and not statistically significant, although in this case, Protestants do describe themselves as slightly to the right of other religious groups (upper right quadrant, Fig. 8).

The bottom row in Fig. 8 suggests that, if anything, Protestants might be slightly more supportive of the FSLN and of the performance of President Ortega in office than are Catholics and those professing no religion. Once again, the differences are not significant. So, assuming that the government of the FSLN retains some claim to leftist status,9 then the existing level of Protestant support for the FSLN would seem to belie the perception of Nicaraguan Protestants as an especially conservative group. As Steigenga and Coleman (1995) have argued elsewhere, Protestants may be available as supporters of political regimes that cross the political spectrum in Latin America, depending upon the political context.

In separate analyses, we also compared Catholics, Protestants, and the non-affiliated on a series of other political factors and found no significant differences. These comparisons included responses on the perceived trustworthiness of the US government (with nearly half of all Protestants and Catholics finding the US government not very or not trustworthy) attention to the news and Internet, attendance at meetings of political parties, belief that the government should implement strong policies for reducing inequality, agreement that the government should own certain important industries, preference for a democratic over authoritarian government, and other measures of political orientation and participation. Across this battery of political questions, there were no significant differences between Catholics and Protestants.

There is little evidence in the Nicaraguan press during 2013–2016 that Protestants are especially critical of the existing political order or would favor a sharp turn to the political right.10 Moreover, since reassuming the presidency in 2007, Daniel Ortega has sought to appeal to the poor via public policy initiatives financed with Venezuelan aid, such as Cero Hambre (as the name suggests, an anti-hunger program). While those programs have not reached all Nicaraguans, their intent may be appreciated by the poor, from whose ranks Protestant (and particularly Pentecostal) denominations draw heavily.

These findings also support some prior research in Nicaragua (Smith and Haas 1997) and elsewhere (Aguilar et al. 1993; Steigenga 2001) suggesting that Protestant political worldviews may be more complicated than is frequently assumed. Smith and Haas (1997) found that Protestants were not significantly different from Catholics in their political orientations and were, in fact, quite engaged in the Nicaraguan political process during the 1990s. They found that Protestants were more supportive of the Sandinistas than were Catholics at that point in time, contrary to suppositions (for example Calvin Smith 2007) that Protestants would be more conservative (see also Brian Smith 1998:450).

In El Salvador, using data from the archives of the Instituto Universitario de la Opinión Pública from the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas, Aguilar et al. found that Protestants were not necessarily disengaged from the political process and they did not show distinctly more sympathy for the political right or for the left than did Catholics (Aguilar et al. 1993).

Steigenga and Coleman’s 1995 research with Chilean archival survey data demonstrated that a key element for understanding political participation among Protestants was the “opportunity structure provided by the political environment” (Steigenga and Coleman 1995: 481), a determinant perhaps more important than a doctrinaire vision of the political life. In Chile, Protestants could be found on the political left or the political right, depending on the historical circumstances (Steigenga and Coleman 1995: 480). The Nicaraguan case appears to provide a similar example. But in this case, the political opening for Protestant political participation appears to be carefully orchestrated by the new FSLN under Ortega.

The Art of the Deal: Unifying Catholics and Protestants on Social Issues

In Nicaragua today, the FSLN is back in power under the centralized direction of Daniel Ortega. But to regain power, Ortega struck a bargain with the Catholic Church in 2006 to oppose abortion in all circumstances, including situations dangerous to the health of pregnant women. The Ortega-Catholic Church bargain attracted the support of activist Pentecostal groups, who participated along with Catholics in a major public anti-abortion march (Zub 2008). Our data suggests that it is the issues such as this one that do distinguish Protestants politically. Indeed, prior research by Smith (1998) and Steigenga (2001) suggests that Latin American Pentecostals are likely to be especially attentive to matters of sexuality, defining sexual morality as crucial to their religious faith. The 2014 LAPOP data allowed us to examine three issues in particular: support for allowing abortion in cases endangering the life of the mother, support for gay marriage, and support for the rights of homosexuals to run for public office. We found clear differences between Nicaraguan Protestants, Catholics, and those who profess no religion at all11 when we examine positions on issues of sexual morality.

One of the LAPOP survey questions asked Nicaraguans if abortion was justified in cases where the life of the mother could be at risk. We recoded this question into a scale of 0–100 where 100 would represent all group members being strongly supportive of allowing abortion in such circumstances and 0 would indicate all group members being strongly opposed. Figure 9 (upper left quadrant) shows that overall, there is a moderate level of support for abortion when the life of the mother is at stake. However, Protestants are less supportive (55.3) than are Catholics (61.7) and especially than those who report no religious affiliation (65.2). The differences between Protestants and Catholics and between Protestants and religiously unaffiliated people are statistically significant.12
Fig. 9

Morality issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and political rights of homosexuals divide Protestants and others

In a similar manner, Protestants are significantly less supportive of gay marriage (Fig. 9, upper right quadrant), where they rate only a 16.9 average on a similar 100-point scale versus mean ratings of over 27% among the other two groups.13 An intriguing finding of the 2014 Nicaraguan data is that Catholics are significantly more supportive of gay marriage than are Protestants, although both groups remain fundamentally unsupportive of gay marriage. Protestants are also less supportive of the rights of homosexuals to be candidates for public office, where their mean rating is only 25.6 on a 100-point scale of support for the right of homosexuals to run for office versus mean ratings of 39.8 among Catholics and 44.5 among the religiously unaffiliated.

To summarize, just as prior work in Central America and elsewhere would suggest, there are very real differences between Protestants, Catholics, and the religiously unaffiliated when we examine issues pertaining to perceptions of sexual morality. Protestants exhibit a more conservative orientation than do Catholics, and especially more conservative than do those in the residual category of no religious affiliation on such issues. It is precisely on these issues that Ortega targeted his appeal to Protestants in Nicaragua. As Henri Gooren (Gooren 2010b: 58) explains, “Daniel Ortega did both. He made promises to evangelical leaders and directly appealed to poor evangelicals through his language of reconciliation and his many Bible quotes in speeches. Moreover, Ortega followed the same strategy with regards to the then-conservative Catholic hierarchy and the mostly conservative Catholic voters, by improving relations with Obando y Bravo and changing the abortion laws.” After the 2007 election, Rosario Murillo emerged as the central spokesperson for the Ortega government via daily radio broadcasts, frequently invoking religiosity, among a mélange of symbolic and substantive appeals to the Nicaraguan poor (Salinas Maldonado 2016).

Conclusions and Implications

Nicaragua has experienced an exponential growth of Protestantism in the last decade. This study considers who those Protestants are, how they are similar to Catholics on many basic measures of political orientation, and where they differ on issues of public morality (such as abortion and gay rights).

We found that gender, age, and education are the best predictors of this segment of the Nicaraguan population: women, young people, and least educated Nicaraguans are those most likely to be Protestants. By way of contrast, Mainline Protestants are demographically undistinguishable from other Nicaraguans.

However, on broad political issues, Nicaraguan Protestants in 2014 exhibit few significant differences from Catholics or from those with no religious beliefs. Protestants tend to support the FSLN and President Ortega at levels similar to Catholics and those with no religion, even being slightly more supportive of Ortega than those with no religion. They are equally as unlikely as are Catholics or the religiously unaffiliated to favor a government hard on crime (mano dura) and, on balance, place themselves on a left-right ideological scale in positions similar to Catholics or to those with no religion.

Significant differences did emerge, however, on issues of public morality, where Protestants were significantly more conservative than other Nicaraguans. On issues such as abortion (even when the life of the mother is endangered), gay marriage, and tolerance of the right of homosexuals to run for office, Protestants are more conservative than Catholics and particularly more so than those with no religious affiliations.

Recently, the Nicaraguan press has devoted much attention to the growth of Protestantism in Nicaragua (Chamorro 2014) and to Protestant pastors who expressed an intent to form one or more Protestant political parties in anticipation of the 2016 presidential campaign (Córdoba 2014). Our data suggest caution in jumping from the existence of a surge in the numbers of Protestants, which has surely occurred, to the suppositions that Protestants will all behave in a similar fashion politically or have success with evangelical candidates or parties. Given that the FSLN makes claims on the loyalties of the poor, FSLN-dominated organizations, such as the Gabinetes de la Familia, penetrate poor neighborhoods, and most recent recruits to Protestantism come from the poorest and least educated urban strata, we should not find it surprising that that support for the FSLN remains as high among Protestants as among other groups in Nicaraguan society. While the possibility for erosion of such working class support is conceivable given an expected decline in the Venezuelan aid that has underpinned populist programs undertaken by the FSLN,14 President Ortega has found another cross-cutting set of political issues that appeal both to Protestants and to conservative Catholics: conservative positions on issues of abortion and homosexuality. By taking an extremely conservative position on the issue (no abortion under any circumstances) in 2006 and maintaining that position through the present, Ortega and the Sandinistas have appealed to a cross-section of Protestants and Catholics who share conservative social agendas.

As Gooren (2010a, 2010b) points out, the additional votes that Ortega and the Sandinistas have gained by making this “unholy alliance” would not have been enough to form a winning coalition in 2006 were it not for the 1999 Ortega-Alemán pact, which dropped the winning percentage in the first round of presidential elections to 35% (with a 5% margin of victory over the next closest competitor). The 2009 Supreme Court of Justice ruling overturning a 1987 ban on term limits then opened the door to Ortega’s third term as president. As Berntzen (2012: 176) explains, in the 2011 elections, “all presidential candidates pronounced themselves against abortion, including the therapeutic version.” As Ortega ran for his fourth term as president in 2016, the FSLN-controlled Corte Suprema de Justicia (CSJ) ruled on June 8, 2016, after a 6-year delay in hearing the case, that official registration of the Partido Liberal Independiente be removed from the hands of Eduardo Montealegre, who had presided over the party’s second place finish in the 2011 presidential election (31% of the vote). Combined with a decision by the Consejo Supreme Electoral (CSE), to remove from office all previously sitting PLI members of the Asamblea Nacional, the FSLN faced no effective opposition in the 2016 elections. The Ortega-Murillo ticket won an overwhelming majority of votes among those who voted (in a very low turnout election)15 and in the FSLN gained an even larger supermajority of seats in Nicaragua’s Asamblea than the two thirds they had attained in 2011.

The Nicaraguan case is illustrative of a trend that may become increasingly evident elsewhere in Latin America. The AmericasBarometer data suggest that the rapid growth of evangelical Protestantism in Latin America could lead to voting coalitions that include conservative Catholics and Protestants on issues of public morality. While this convergence on issues of public morality does not necessarily translate into an overall conservative political worldview for evangelicals, it does illustrate a troubling trend for women’s reproductive rights and gay rights in the region. Attempts by the Michelle Bachelet’s socialist government in Chile to decriminalize therapeutic abortion in that country were stymied by a similar coalition of political forces. Today, Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Suriname continue to prohibit abortion all together, with no exception to save the life of the mother (Guttmacher Institute Report).

The Nicaraguan case also points to the need for students of religion and politics in Latin American to move beyond simple comparisons of Catholics and Protestants to understand the specific beliefs and practices that may united them politically. On the one hand, Protestants are not the conservative political monolith that they were once purported to be. In Nicaragua, as elsewhere, Protestants have proven themselves to be reliable supporters of a leftist government. On the other hand, Protestants can be mobilized around issues such as opposition to abortion or gay rights. By studying the actual beliefs and practices shared by charismatic Catholics and (primarily Pentecostal) Protestants, we may find better predictors of political tendencies that cross denominations.16 As Martin Lindhardt (2016: xviii) has pointed out, it is also worth paying greater attention to the fact that politicians who are not evangelical or Pentecostal themselves “also find themselves compelled to reach out for Pentecostals who due to their numerical growth now constitute a large segment of potential voters.”

Despite a significant drop in aid from Venezuela and subsequent financial difficulties, Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, enjoyed strong approval ratings leading up to Nicaragua’s 2016 elections and might well have won a competitive election, had the process been sufficiently democratic to allow real competition. The Ortega-Murillo team sustains support among the poor in Nicaragua not only via the selective distribution of material benefits but also through symbolic moral stances. A coalition of socially conservative Catholics and Protestants are among the many Nicaraguans who respond to such appeals, especially when focused on hot-button issues such as abortion and homosexuality.


  1. 1.

    With the exception of the Camino Cristiano, which elected four deputies to the National Assembly in 1996

  2. 2.

    Unidad Cristiana, which has existed since 1999, formed part of the Alianza Nicaragua Triunfa, headed by the FSLN. Camino Cristiano Nicaragüense, also in existence since the 1990s, was also an enthusiastic participant in this alliance (Montez Rugama 2016: 2). On the side of the opposition, the Partido Nueva Alianza Cristiana (PANAC), headed by Saturnino Cerrato, was initially part of the Coalición Nacional por la Democracia, along with the Partido Liberal Independiente, the Movimiento Sandinista Renovador, and the Unión Demócrata Cristiana (Aragón and Mora 2016). As an aside, the Partido Social Cristiano, another branch of the Social Christians who have a long history in Nicaragua, has joined a non-competitive coalition, along with the Partido Conservador and an organization representing independents, known as Unidad.

  3. 3.

    While this figure might appear to be high, it is confirmed by other reputable data sources including the Pew Research Center which estimated 40% Protestants in Nicaragua in 2014 (Pew Research Center 2014).

  4. 4.

    The AmericasBarometer data sets are collected by the Latin American Public Opinion project with funding primarily not only from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) but also from the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and Vanderbilt University.

  5. 5.

    This table is based on data by Gooren (2003) from 1900 to 2000, Nicaragua’s Census (1963, 1995, & 2005), Cid-Gallup (2007), and LAPOP data (2004–2014).

  6. 6.

    Following a convention established in the research of Gooren (2003), our analyses focus on Mainline Protestants and Pentecostals, excluding Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  7. 7.

    Among other sources, one can consult Marcano (2013), Gooren (2005), Zub (2008), Smith and Haas (1997), Steigenga and Coleman (1995), and Aguilar et al. (1993).

  8. 8.

    Using a definition of Protestants that included Mainline Protestants, Pentecostals, as well as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witness (excluded by Gooren, whose definition we follow in the text for reasons of comparability), only gender was a good predictor of Protestantism. That is, women were more likely to be members of all Protestant denominations, including Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  9. 9.

    There is a line of criticism encountered in the Nicaraguan press and among intellectuals that since assuming the presidency in 2007, Ortega has compromised with “large capital” to the extent that the FSLN no longer warrants consideration as a “progressive or leftist” government. Such a perspective holds that Ortega projects a leftist image on international affairs, but behaves in a different manner at home, even turning the Ortega-Murillo family into “invisible capitalists” via corrupt redistribution of Venezuelan aid toward family enterprises.

  10. 10.

    Analyses not presented herein show no significant differences between Protestants, Catholics, and others on level support for democratic institutions, such as the press, the court system, or the National Assembly, although in some cases, such as the National Assembly, support may be low among all religious groups.

  11. 11.

    Among all Nicaraguans, 11.2% fall into this category. Fewer than 2% of Nicaraguan fall into other categories (Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Asiatic religions, other). For reasons of small sample size, these cases are excluded from analysis in this and the following section.

  12. 12.

    But the difference between Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated is not significant on this issue.

  13. 13.

    The 100-point scale being used transforms “strongly disapprove” statements into values of 0 and “strongly approve” statements into values of 100, with “approve” and “disapprove” being assigned intermediate values, and then takes an average across all respondents in a given category (Protestants, Catholics, etc.). So readers should not interpret the numbers reported as percentages of approval.

  14. 14.

    Illustrating the declining utility of Venezuelan foreign assistance, at the time of the 2014 LAPOP study, 31.7% of Nicaraguans indicated that unemployment was the most important issue confronting the country. In October of 2016, according to a CID-Gallup poll, 55% of Nicaraguans specified unemployment as the most important problem in the country. See Cerda (2016).

  15. 15.

    See, inter alia, López and Chamorro 2016, and Álvarez 2016.

  16. 16.

    Additionally, under Pope Francis, some (or many) Catholics in Latin America may well share progressive views on poverty and social justice at the same time as holding conservative perspectives on issues pertaining to abortion and gay marriage. So there may well be countervailing tendencies existing in both the Catholic and Protestant communities.



The authors acknowledge, with gratitude, the editorial and formatting assistance of Melanie Oates of the Harriet Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University. Kenneth Coleman would like to acknowledge the assistance of Elizabeth Zechmeister, Mariana Rodríguez, and Arturo Maldonado of the Latin American Public Opinion Project, Vanderbilt University.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Wilkes Honors CollegeFlorida Atlantic UniversityJupiterUSA
  2. 2.Association of American UniversitiesWashingtonUSA
  3. 3.Independent Journalist & ScholarManaguaNicaragua

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