Salvadoran culture has been deeply affected by Roman Catholicism, which was introduced by the Spanish. Spiritual life in El Salvador is invigorated through public religious festivals and popular devotions that are occasions to express beliefs and build community.
While the Catholic Church in El Salvador used to be very conservative, it was changed by years of political unrest. A form of Catholicism called Liberation Theology emerged in the 1930s in response to political repression and hardships. Luis Chavez Gonzalez, archbishop from 1939 to 1977, encouraged peasant-run co-operatives.
In the late 1960s, a more overtly political movement called the comunidades eclesiales de base (Christian base communities) arose out of the Vatican II renewal of the Roman Catholic Church and especially out of the Latin American synods. These grassroots communities were created to encourage church members to work actively for political and social change. Priests and other religious workers met with parishioners to study the Bible and discuss how the parishioners could work to improve their lives.
During the 1970s 15,000 lay leaders and church delegates attended the seven centres set up throughout the country to study the faith and learn about agriculture, co-operativism and leadership skills. The country’s new archbishop, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, adopted an outspoken revolutionary stance that alienated many of the church’s wealthy patrons and led to his assassination. Although many comunidades were dismantled after the war, the church continues to have an important role in the social and political lives of Salvadorans.
Recently, Protestant and Baptist fundamentalist and evangelical groups have been rapidly growing in El Salvador and now have adherents in over 20% of the population. Unlike the comunidades, these denominations tend to emphasize personal salvation over collective action.