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Public faith

Researchers around the world are attempting to understand the growth of evangelicalism in Brazil, where it is rising faster than in any other country

Evangelical preacher reads from the bible in front of São Paulo Cathedral

Léo Ramos Chaves

In the past 30 years, evangelicals have increased their role in public life beyond the frontier of the Church, now occupying spaces in the media, culture, and politics. Initially only subject to studies in Brazilian sociology, the phenomenon has started to attract the attention of researchers from other fields, such as anthropology, after the results of the last census by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) in 2010, which identified a 61% increase in the country’s evangelical population over a 10-year period. Since then, several hypotheses have been suggested to explain the increase, marked by the spread of evangelical churches nationwide—including hierarchical and functional differences to Catholicism.

“In absolute terms, Brazil’s evangelical population has grown more than any other country in recent years,” says historian and anthropologist Paul Freston, a professor at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. In the 1980s, Freston was one of the first to research evangelical religions in the country—a term that encompasses non-Catholic Christian churches and modern branches of Protestantism—dedicating himself to studying the differences between the institutions of mainline Protestantism, Pentecostalism, and Neopentecostalism.

The book Evangélicos y poder en América Latina (Evangelicals and politics in Latin America) (Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and Instituto de Estudios Social Cristiano, 2018), coordinated by Peruvian sociologist José Luiz Pérez Guadalupe, from the School of Government and Public Policy at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP), investigates the role of these religions in different nations, calling the rapid expansion that is disturbing five centuries of Catholic hegemony in the region a “silent revolution.” The book shows how evangelicals left their “garage temples” to occupy positions in the federal legislature, local governments, and major companies. According to Guadalupe, despite occurring across all of Latin America, the phenomenon has specific characteristics in each country. For example, although the evangelical community in Mexico is small, in Guatemala and El Salvador it represents almost half of the population, while in Colombia and Peru, evangelicals have become increasingly involved in political decision-making. It is in Brazil, however, that evangelicals have achieved the greatest political structure, Guadalupe points out.

In the Brazilian census of the year 2000, 26.2 million people declared themselves evangelical, equivalent to 15.4% of the population. In 2010, that number jumped to 42.3 million people, corresponding to 22.2% of Brazilians. In 1991, evangelicals represented 9% of the Brazilian population, and in 1980, just 6.6%. The most recent survey by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) found that the number of evangelicals is increasing in direct contrast to the number of Catholics, which has been falling significantly since the 1990s: in 2010, 64% of Brazilians identified as Catholic, compared to 91% in 1970. The IBGE estimates that 14,000 evangelical churches are opened every year in the country. If the current trends continue, Catholics will represent less than half of the Brazilian population by 2022.

Léo Ramos Chaves Inaugurated in the São Paulo neighborhood of Brás in 2014, the Temple of Solomon was built with stones from Israel. It is as high as an 18-story buildingLéo Ramos Chaves

Institutional spaces
Scholars have observed that the growth in evangelicalism has been accompanied by an increase in their presence in institutional spaces, such as the House of Representatives, the executive branch, schools, and the media. “The demographic increase of evangelicals has spilled over into other dimensions of public life,” says Ronaldo de Almeida, from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP). Almeida has been researching evangelical religions since the 1990s and notes that the change is also reflected in public-access TV programs, with churches buying up airtime to broadcast services; in the major broadcasting of gospel music on radio stations; and in the urban landscape, with churches of all sizes spreading across cities.

Paula Montero, from the Department of Anthropology at the University of São Paulo (USP), who has been leading a research project on Brazilian secularism since 2015, explains that about 30 years ago, religion was understood as an institution geared towards its followers and their beliefs, shared almost exclusively by them. At the time, academic studies were dedicated to understanding how religion worked within its internal spaces, such as temples. “One of the tenets of contemporary democracy is that religion and politics should not overlap,” she says. “But since in practice this is not the case, researchers have been asking how we can better understand democratic systems in which religious organizations operate in the public arena and in government.”

In its search for this understanding, Montero reports that the project identified the development of a new phenomenon in Brazil: a concerted effort by religious organizations to increase visibility as a means of gaining legitimacy. The article “Fazer religião em público: Encenações religiosas e influência pública” (“Religion in public: Religious performances and public influence”), released last year by Montero and other members of the research group, argues that public experiences of religion now take place in different arenas, such as the 2014 opening ceremony of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God’s Temple of Solomon, in São Paulo, which was attended by political figures and widely reported on by the media; the controversies at the Federal Supreme Court (STF) involving religious figures in debates on abortion and the use of stem cells in research; and the media coverage of the work of transgender pastor Alexya Salvador. In the case of evangelicals specifically, Montero observes that in Brazil, their growing presence in public life has been achieved using a “triangular strategy,” which includes the religious sphere, the pursuit of greater media exposure, and leading roles in the legislature. “At the moment, Brazilian secularism is undergoing a process of change, marked by the expansion of evangelical churches and their growing influence on the public and in the country’s political system,” says the anthropologist.

Relationship with the Catholic Church
One of the starting points when studying the growth of evangelicalism is a comparative analysis with how the Catholic Church functions, whose relations with the State go all the way back to the arrival of the Portuguese, accompanied by members of the clergy, in 1500. Until the end of the Empire, the Catholic Church was responsible for civil registrations (births, weddings, and deaths) and the management of most schools, hospitals, and cemeteries. The secularization process—the official separation of the Church and State—started with the Proclamation of the Republic in 1889 and was made concrete by the 1891 Constitution, with the administration of many schools and cemeteries being handed over to public organizations. Another change came with the promulgation of the 1988 Federal Constitution. “On that occasion, there was a rupture in the understanding of Brazil as a syncretic and Catholic nation,” indicates Montero, from USP. This rupture, she explains, led to an increasing appreciation of religious pluralism, motivating different doctrines, including evangelicalism, to look for ways to increase their role in society.

Léo Ramos Chaves The Assembly of God temple in the Tavares Bastos community, Rio de JaneiroLéo Ramos Chaves

Theologian Rodrigo Franklin de Sousa, from Faculté Jean Calvin in Aix-en-Provence, France, believes the Catholic church has failed to keep up with the transitions society has gone through in recent years. “The Church ended up distancing itself from young people and the low-income population,” he says. In the same line of argument, sociologist Lilian Maria Pinto Sales of the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP) points out that the Catholic Church has existed for 2,000 years and has strict rules and a central hierarchy. “As an institution with a consolidated structure whose maximum authority is represented by the pope, it is difficult to put changes into practice, which is in stark contrast to evangelicals, who have no solid hierarchy and are flexible enough to adapt to new circumstances,” she says.

According to Freston, from the Balsillie School of International Affairs, the consolidated hierarchical structure is reflected in rigid territorial organization, where bishops are responsible for preestablished dioceses and the opening of new churches is a slow process. In addition, Catholic priests usually have to train for about eight years, and they are required to make sacrifices, such as celibacy. Data from the Center for Religious Statistics and Social Investigations, an agency run by the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB), indicates that there are 27,300 priests in Brazil—one for every 8,000 inhabitants. The global average is one priest for every 2,000 people. “The low proportion in Brazil limits the Church’s reach,” suggests Freston.

Léo Ramos Chaves A collection envelope used by a church in the Pinheiros neighborhood of São PauloLéo Ramos Chaves

New evangelical churches, meanwhile, need only to register with a notary, and for certain denominations such as the Universal or Foursquare Churches, prior authorization from the central institution is required. In addition, although the time required to train Pentecostal and Neopentecostal clergy varies widely and can take weeks or months, the process tends to be much faster than the long period of preparation required of Catholic priests or representatives of mainline Protestant churches.

The ease of opening new churches has encouraged Pentecostal and Neopentecostal organizations to establish themselves on urban peripheries and agricultural outskirts, say scholars. “Where a slum appears today, tomorrow there will already be an evangelical church,” says Freston, using the history of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God as an example. Founded in Rio de Janeiro in 1977, its first temple was inaugurated in a former funeral home. As it grew, the Church expanded its presence on the fringes of the city, occupying areas previously used as warehouses or supermarkets. “The initiative of
building large temples began in the 1990s. The opening of the Temple of Solomon five years ago represents a milestone in this expansion process,” he highlights. With room for 10,000 people seated in the central nave, the temple was built with stones brought from Israel and it is as tall as an 18-story building.

Pragmatic discourse
Another distinctive point of comparison is the fact that the Catholic Church is fundamentally motivated to act in the name of the poor, who are seen as “chosen by God.” “Catholicism teaches society that the path to redemption is by working with the most humble. The discourse is centered on promoting community,” explains Montero, from USP. Similarly, despite its premise of prioritizing society’s poorest, liberation theology, a philosophy that emerged in Latin America after the Second Vatican Council, is based on an intellectualized discourse that does not seem to contemplate the immediate needs of the people, notes Sousa, from Faculté Jean Calvin. “As time went by, the sections of society originally prioritized by liberation theology chose to follow evangelical churches, which seem to offer more concrete answers to everyday problems,” he says. The dynamic is clear during evangelical services, for example, when pastors ask for divine intervention to help their followers find employment or to stop men from drinking alcohol and mistreating women. “It is a pragmatic discourse, through which a supernatural power can have a direct effect on reality,” says the researcher.

Léo Ramos Chaves The Comfort of Israel Ministry, an evangelical temple located in the São Paulo neighborhood of Belenzinho, tries to help its followers solve everyday problemsLéo Ramos Chaves

By organizing themselves around the individual success of their believers, evangelical denominations support and promote the values of “prosperity theology,” which is particularly predominant among Neopentecostal churches, says Almeida, from UNICAMP. Originating in the United States, the philosophy holds that wealth is achieved through devotion to God. “While mainline Protestantism argues that wealth is the result of hard work, prosperity theology emphasizes the idea that it is necessary to start a business, to become a boss,” compares Almeida.  “In this context, people’s problems are not caused by the social structure—they stem from a lack of individual effort,” he explains. In Brazil, prosperity theology began to spread in the evangelical scene in the 1970s. “At the Universal Church, for example, the wealth of religious leaders is seen as proof of divine blessing,” says Freston, citing Edir Macedo, founder and leader of the Church, as an example. According to Forbes magazine, he is the richest pastor in Brazil, with an estimated net worth of R$2 billion. “Evangelical churches are more sensitive to the material desires of the public and talk about daily life in a way that traditional religions do not,” summarizes sociologist and expert on Latin America David Lehmann, from the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. He also points out that although there are very few working as pastors, women play an important role in organizing community activities.

According to Ricardo Mariano of USP’s Department of Sociology and one of the pioneers in researching this subject in Brazil, factors such as those mentioned above have resulted in many Catholics converting to Pentecostal and Neopentecostal churches: “Forty-four percent of evangelicals in the country were born Catholics and later changed their religious beliefs,” he says.

Léo Ramos Chaves Present in 30 countries, the Metropolitan Community Church welcomes sexual and gender diversity, including among its religious leadersLéo Ramos Chaves

Spiritual service
While some researchers argue that a discourse based on solving everyday problems and an emphasis on the pursuit of financial prosperity are fundamental to the growth of evangelical religions in Brazil, others believe that the role these religions play in community life is the driving force, especially in poorer areas where the State has a low presence. Martijn Oosterbaan, from the School of Social Sciences at the Utrecht University in the Netherlands, has been conducting research in Rio’s favelas for about 20 years, and partly attributes the growth of evangelicalism to the precarious nature of these urban outskirts. “Especially in services at small churches, pastors listen to people, they donate food and offer social assistance, in addition to a spiritual service that aims to help followers solve everyday problems,” he explains. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, for example, has 15 social programs, including support for homeless people, drug addicts, and women who have been victims of violence, as well as initiatives aimed at resocializing former prisoners. According to official data from the Church, 10.8 million people—regardless of their faith—were helped by these projects last year.

Without ignoring the emphasis Neopentecostal denominations place on financial prosperity, Lehmann says that most churches only subsist thanks to donations made by the followers as a religious obligation, and that the leaders do not necessarily get rich from the collections. “More than just a way of earning money, becoming a pastor is about presenting yourself to society as a worthy person.”

1. Religion, law, and secularism: Reconfiguration of the civic repertoire in contemporary Brazil (nº 15/02497-5); Grant Mechanism Thematic Project; Principal Investigator Paula Montero (USP); Investment R$2,620,216.86.
2. The visual culture of evangelicalism in Brazil: Origins (nº 15/13737-7); Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator Helmut Renders (Metodista); Investment R$69,222.77.

Scientific article
MONTERO, P. et al. Fazer religião em público: Encenações religiosas e influência pública. Horizontes Antropológicos. Vol. 24, no. 52, pp. 1–17. dez. 2018.

GUADALUPE, J. L. P. and GRUNDBERGE, S. (editors). Evangélicos y poder en América Latina. Lima (Peru): Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and Instituto de Estudios Social Cristianos, 2018, 430 pages.
OOSTERBAAN, M. Transmitting the Spirit – Religious Conversion, Media, and Urban Violence in Brazil. Pensilvânia (USA): The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017, 264 pages.