WASHINGTON — Losing the fight against same-sex marriage at home, leading U.S. Evangelical Christians are joining in the culture wars in Latin America as cheerleaders for opponents of gay legal partnerships, abortion and pornography.
One of the Americans is veteran legal crusader Mat Staver who was both a disciple of late Moral Majority co-founder the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the leader of a campaign against the removal of religious symbols from celebrations of Christmas in stores and public buildings.
The other is Samuel Rodriguez, a dynamic Latino preacher with strong ties with Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Washington, D.C., who describes his religion as mixing Martin Luther King Jr. with televangelist Billy Graham and then “putting a little salsa on top.”
Working together, both men increased their influence in Latin America in April when a U.S. Hispanic Evangelical group that they help to run took over one of the region's oldest Evangelical organizations.
“Because of what was happening in Latin America and what we are fighting here in America there needed to be a combination to be able to create a firewall for our Judeo-Christian values. That is what ultimately brought about this merger,” Mr. Staver told his Faith and Freedom radio show.
The new group — known as NHCLC/CONELA and headed by Mr. Rodriguez — boasts a network of socially conservative pastors in Latin America who it is asking to be more politically active.
The many left-leaning governments in Latin America will not be easily swayed by U.S.-backed conservatives and the fight against gay marriage has already been lost in Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico City, which have legalized it in the last four years.
But the alliance of U.S. and Latin American Evangelicals is having some success in Peru, where a conservative lawmaker who is an NHCLC/CONELA officeholder is blocking a bill in Congress that would allow gay civil unions.
Mr. Staver gave the lawmaker, Julio Rosas, moral support by speaking to an audience of social conservatives at a legal conference in a hall of the Peruvian Congress last November.
“I urged them to stand strong” against abortion and same-sex marriage, the U.S. Evangelical said in an interview.
Mr. Staver is a hardened cultural warrior who was a friend and legal adviser to Rev. Falwell. He successfully defended the televangelist from a complaint at the Federal Election Commission that Rev. Falwell broke federal election law by calling on his supporters to back President George W. Bush's re-election in 2004.
Mr. Staver heads the law faculty at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., which was founded by Rev. Falwell and is run by the late Baptist's son, also named Jerry.
Mr. Staver has argued against abortion rights before the U.S. Supreme Court. His Liberty Counsel nonprofit law firm led the charge over the last decade against the “War on Christmas” by threatening to sue stores and government agencies for secularizing the Christmas holiday.
Critics accuse Mr. Staver and Mr. Rodriguez of trying to repeat the performance of visiting U.S. Evangelicals who urged church and government leaders in Uganda to crack down on gay activism. That led to the African country banning homosexuality in February, a move that was rejected by the constitutional court this month.
American conservative Christians, including Massachusetts pastor Scott Lively who later hired Mr. Staver as his lawyer, were widely accredited with fostering an anti-gay climate in Uganda through a series of speeches to lawmakers and opinion makers there.
“If I were to speculate, the Religious Right in the U.S. sees the writing on the wall regarding gay marriage,” said Arlene Sanchez-Walsh, a Latino church expert at Azusa Pacific University in California, “and are going to try to influence global movements in Latin American and Africa — two places that still have very strong anti-gay secular and religious sentiments.”
The number of Evangelicals in Latin America is growing, but exact figures are elusive. A 2012 report by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center Religion and Public Life Project estimated 98 million Protestants in Latin America and the Caribbean, or 18 percent of the Christian population there.