While I returned back to the United States, I gave a presentation to a Catholic Youth Group about Guatemala. Of course religion had to come up. Guatemala, like most Spanish colonies, has a level of Catholicism in it that seems to stick around much longer than any of the Spaniards. Guatemala's roughly 45% Catholic, 45% Born-Again Protestant, 5% that are other and 5% that the Catholics and Protestants fight over claiming.
The Protestant bug is something that didn't hit until the last 30 years. Protestant missionaries first started making big hits in after the earthquake of 1976 devastated the country by helping rebuild. Since Catholicism hadn't been challenged in centuries, plenty of people that were Catholic due to lack of options were easy pickings for Protestant sects. Since evangelical religions have made a comeback since the 1990's in the US, mission groups abroad have been an integral part of their functions. Spreading the word of God in the poorer parts of the world calls back to idealistic beliefs that the world only needs to hear the words of Jesus to be saved. Ironically, the influx of evangelical missionaries into Latin America has really just tipped the scales away from Catholicism and more greatly into conservative Protestant groups. Mainline Protestant churches -- Episcopal, Lutherans, Northern Baptists, etc. never took a major foothold into Latin America, leaving what we Americans would perceive as a gaping crevice in between Catholic and evangelical Christianity. Christianity in Spanish colonies remains a domineering force in culture.
The inseparability between Spanish government and the Catholic church was uniquely powerful until the Spanish Civil War of the 20th century. The dominance of Catholic/Christian icons permeating culture was passed on to Spanish colonies. Through Spain's civil war, religion painfully untangled its roots from the government and popular culture. Christianity in popular culture did not face this conflict in Guatemala. As a result, Christian icons remain ubiquitous here.
Saints' names are attached to everything from convenience stores to brands of rice. I eat Saint Joseph’s holy saffron rice with my dinner on occasion, while drinking from a bottle of Coke that I bought from the Convenience store of the Holy Blessing down the street. When I had to replace a light switch last week, I bought it at the Saint Matthew's Hardware Store, and get photocopies done at the Shaddei and Fatima Supply Store. When I need to go to the capital, I often get on the Saint Elena bus line, which (like many buses) has a sign overt the door telling me that God blesses me upon my entry and exit of the front bus doors. Meanwhile I take my seat on the bus, which has "those who hate me suffer" stenciled onto the back tinted windows and silhouettes of naked women posted on the mud flaps, rear view mirror, two on the windshield, and maybe another underneath the decoration on the rear-view mirror -- a decoration which consists of a color photocopy of Our Lady of Guadalupe taped to a compact disc and hung by fishing wire.
All and all, I can't help but feel a little smug regarding all of this thematic religious decoration. Am I to believe that Guatemala is more pious, full of dedicated Christians because of it? Does the sign of the cross made by the bus driver cancel out the obscenities he shouts at the competing buses? Is there a hidden Saint Francis in the teenager at the hardware store that whistles at the girls walking by? Personally, I see little morality in naming a hostel after Saint Christopher, let alone a bar after the Mary Magdalene. What's the result of naming the mundane things in life after the sacred? It simply makes the sacred appear mundane. So, what about our culture? I recently received an e-mail telling my fellow Americans that we should not accept dollar coins because they don't include the words "In God We Trust." I couldn't help but laugh and think back to Our Lady of the Sacred Oil Change a half a block up. If you want to show off your piety, go to church, tell your friends God bless, and fight every day to make yourself a more moral person and the world a little more just. Just don't mix proclaiming your belief in God with something you use to to buy Preparation H and Oreos with.