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Evangelical churches

Gaining ground

by Carlos Albuquerque

In depth

Evangelical mass-rally in São Paulo in the summer of 2012.

Evangelical mass-rally in São Paulo in the summer of 2012.

Brazilian Pentecostal churches give many people comfort in view of societal modernisation. Evangelical leaders' political influence and their hostile attitude towards dissenters are problematic however.

"The legal minimum wage is 678 reais", a priest tells his faithful in Senador Pompeu, a small town in the dry, hot Northeast of Brazil. The sum corresponds to about € 260. "Ten percent of 678 are 67.80 reais", the reverend continues. "This is the amount that you owe your church every month."

His message hits home. In Senador Pompeu, there used to be camps for refugees from drought areas. Thanks to the national policy of Zero Fome ("Zero Hunger") and the enormous economic boom of the recent years, nobody is dying of hunger anymore these days. In the past ten years, almost 40 million Brazilians managed to escape poverty. Today, they form the lower middle class – and they are the target group of Evangelical preachers.


Break with tradition

In Brazil, the term "Protestant" stands for the churches that go back to the reformation, including those of Presbyterians, Lutherans and Anglicans. In contrast, the adherents of the Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal churches are called "Evangelical".

The Evangelical churches preach a way of life which is new to traditionally catholic Brazil. For instance, they consider economic success a personal moral accomplishment. They emphasise personal discipline and exercise great social control. Their idea of family values is basically the same as that of the Catholic Church, but they insist on them with greater fervour. During services, Evangelical preachers address their flock at a more personal level than Catholic priests do in mass.

Today, the Catholic Church in Brazil is suffering distance from its believers, and anonymity among the faithful is common. In contrast, Evangelical congregations stick closely together. “When you enter a Pentecostal church, they greet you at the doorstep, as if you were coming home”, says Ubirajara Calmon Carvalho, professor of theology at the University of Brasilia. "You are called by your name and blessed." In his analysis, the Evangelicals manage to create comforting social environments in a society in which the standard attitude to strangers is hostility and lack of trust. 

Pentecostal churches preach faith in the Holy Spirit, demanding that followers lead a morally sound life. They focus on personal experiences of epiphany and conversion. Their liturgy gives space for the expression of euphoric feelings. It emphasises matrimony, work and protection from diseases. Evangelicals love to tell of miracles and faith cures.

In the meantime, the Catholic Church has started to copy certain practices from the Evangelicals. Karina Bellotti, a historian at the Universidade Federal in Paraná, says the competition with them is making the Catholic Church "invest more in evangelisation and media".
 

Demonisation of competitors

The Pentecostals are marked by their idea of a spiritual war. Religious competitors are considered demonic, including the Catholics, who – in the eyes of Pentecostals – don’t even deserve to be called "Christians".  In 2007, pastor Fábio Guimarães da Silva Pereira from the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus was brought to court for burning two statues of Catholic saints during an Evangelical service. The historic statues from the 17th century were listed as protected heritage. 

Afro-Brazilian cults like "Umbanda" and "Candomblé" are rejected even more by the Pentecostals. They call them "Macumbaria" – witchcraft and black magic. This view is shared by the Catholic Church. On the other hand, Evangelicals sometimes adopt cult practices and give them a new meaning. 

The "spiritual warfare" is not limited to the temple, but also reaches streets, schools and even Parliament. It sparked outrage throughout the nation when pastor Marco Feliciano of the Christian-Social Party (PSC – Partido Social Cristão) was recently elected president of the Human Rights Commission. This preacher's racist and homophobic statements have been making headlines for a long time. Shortly after assuming office, he fired all employees of the Commission and announced, during a church service, that the institution had been "controlled by the devil". Whether he will manage to stay in his post or not was not clear in mid-April, when this article was written.
 

Political relevance

Today, the Pentecostal movement is politically very influential. Its members stand as candidates in elections. As elected representatives at different political levels, they act as hard-line advocates for Evangelical values.

Until the late 1970s, the Evangelicals were considered apolitical, says Ricardo Mariano, a sociologist at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul. In the course of democratisation after the end of military rule, however, they started to seek public office and campaigned with the motto "brother votes for brother", doing their best to attract likeminded citizens.

In political terms, the Pentecostals have been extremely successful. In 1982, there were only two Evangelical members of Parliament; today there are 70. That is a share of about 14 %. This increase reflects the rising share of the Pentecostals in the population as a whole (see box). In comparison:  conventional Protestant churches have only 14 members of Parliament.

The Pentecostals claim they need their own representatives in legislative bodies in order to ensure freedom of worship. At the same time, they use the political arena to spread their message. They oppose legalising prostitution, abortion and euthanasia, for instance. They voted against a draft bill, which would have made homophobia a criminal offence. For many years, they campaigned against the legal recognition of homosexual partnerships, which the Brazilian Supreme Court finally approved in 2011 without legislative mandate. The Evangelicals, moreover, are arguing against the decriminalisation of the private use of drugs, which is one way in which the government wants to fight organised crime.

More than half of the Evangelical legislators are priests, gospel-singers or relatives of church leaders. Some work as televangelists and own radio and TV stations or gospel-record companies. Some of the leaders of the Pentecostals have made quite a fortune – just like their counterparts in the USA and other places. 

During electoral campaigns, Evangelical politicians count on the support of priests and other church members. They all depend on the same target group, but belong to different parties. Nonetheless, they agree on issues like defending traditional Christian moral principles and the interests of their churches. Concerning these matters, they often cooperate with conservative Catholic groups.


Hitting home in everyday life

Today, the influence of the Pentecostals is evident in the day-to-day life of practically all political parties. Candidates from all walks of life court them. On the other hand, many faithful are not in favour of mixing religion and politics. According to sociologist Mariano, this is why two Evangelical churches, the Igreja Cristã do Brasil and Igreja Deus é Amor, which unite 12 % of Brazil's Pentecostals, make no political commitments.

Social scientist Orivaldo Lopes Júnior of the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte explains the success of the Evangelical Pentecostals with the modernisation of Brazil. For a long time, he says, Brazil had not caught up with the Western modern world in terms of economic rationality, secular rule of law and representative government. The end of the religious monopoly of the Catholic Church is going along with substantial cultural changes.

According to Lopes, the country has developed into a globalised consumer society. The Evangelical kind of religiosity with its quick and personalised salvation experience is now widely accepted, he adds. In a fast changing society, the religious movement to grow quickest is the one that has a lot to say about good individual conduct, but nothing about overarching social systems.

 

Carlos Albuquerque works for the Brazilian service of Deutsche Welle in Bonn.
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