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There is no heaven without hell

The dubious relationship between the Neopentecostal churches and the devil

ANTÔNIO GAUDÉRIO/FOLHA IMAGEMOut, demon! This literal ‘war cry’ comes to the minds of many people when they hear someone talking about the neo-Pentecostal church, Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus/IURD, and its neo-Pentecostal ‘rivals’, because of their ‘exorcism’ rites, through which demon spirits are exhorted to ‘manifest’ themselves from the ‘individual’s inner being’ (in the temples, or live, in color, on TV); The ‘demons’ are generally based on the deities of the Afro-Brazilian religions. To the pastors, however, the devil is not as bad as people think. “Thanks to the devil and to the dynamics which allow the IURD to be aware of everything, this neo-Pentecostal church has increased its growth possibilities. Unlike the church’s preaching, the IURD’s creation and expansion is mostly due to this being. Thus, more than the candomblé and umbanda Afro-Brazilian religions, the church actually needs to conduct a dialogue with a social-religious tradition that offers sufferings that are equivalent to the devil”, explains anthropologist Ronaldo de Almeida, a professor at Unicamp and researcher at Cebrap, whose research study A Igreja Universal e seus demônios (Terceiro Nome, 149 pages, R$ 28,00) was recently launched with the support of FAPESP.

According to the research study Economia das religiões, published by the Fundação Getúlio Vargas foundation in 2007, the population of Evangelicals has increased from 16.2% (2003) to 19.9%. The study also shows that, due to the metropolitan crisis in the last decades, the urban sprawl of big cities, increased violence and insufficient access to public services, the neo-Pentecostal Evangelical churches have enjoyed significant growth on the outskirts of big cities. As ‘neo-poverty’ increases, people usually follow one of two paths: either they get attached to religions with more intense religious practices, such as the neo-Pentecostal denominations, or they lose all hope and abandon religion altogether. The study reveals that the growth of these denominations in the metropolitan regions can also be viewed as a way of taking up the space left by the State, the result of which is unemployment, the increase of ‘favelas’, (shantytowns) and precarious or no access to public services. The ‘old poverty’ of the rural areas is still Catholic; the ‘neo-poverty’ found on the outskirts of big cities seems to be migrating to neo-Pentecostal institutions. “The Liberation theology viewed the poor and oppressed as political actors on the public stage; the ‘Prosperity theology’ of the Igreja Universal views the poor as economic actors and renders their salvation possible. The church’s way of ritualizing money and strengthening the efficacy of the action (via the inclusion of witchcraft into exorcism) provides it with a broad discursive extension”, analyzes anthropologist Paula Montero, from USP and Cebrap. “In this new configuration, the codes that refer to health and prosperity, as ethics in the world of the poor, have proved to have enormous mobilization capacity, social capital that is made as its rituals  fill soccer stadiums, television stations and other premises.” The question is, do the bishops of the IURD really want the demon to leave?”

“The representations of the devil are the backbone on which the symbolic universe of this church is built. The devil is blamed for causing illnesses, conflicts, unemployment, alcoholism; the devil induces people to steal. As Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are the healers of these afflictions, they cure, pacify, provide health, prosperity, and release the faithful from sin and vices. This view denies the action of other spiritual beings as it denies human responsibility for such actions, and thus it also denies the historical origins of good and evil”, says sociologist Cecília Mariz, from the State University of Rio de Janeiro. Catholicism has abandoned Satan and his followers since the 18th century. The neo-Pentecostal doctrine, in contrast, preaches that it is necessary to eliminate the existence of the devil. “To the neo-Pentecostals, the other religious denominations are not engaged in this battle; sometimes they are even viewed as the devil’s playground, where the demons ‘hide’ behind deities that are worshipped by these systems, as exemplified, most of all, by the Afro-Brazilian religions, whose deities are viewed as manifestations of demons”, adds anthropologist Vagner Gonçalves da Silva, from USP. “Whoever has no God has the devil”, were a preacher’s words that Almeida heard during his field research. “Evangelicalism does not preach distancing oneself from God because of sin, hence the need for conversion; it preaches that people who had had contact with the devil, because they went to the ‘terreiros’, the place where Afro-Brazilian religions worship, require ‘spiritual release’ “, the anthropologist explains. According to the researcher, this ‘worshipping of spiritual release’ however, can be interpreted as a symbolic inversion of the rituals practiced at the terreiros. Paradoxically, although the initial relationship between these two religious worlds is based on opposition and confrontation, the IURD actually has to acknowledge (indeed, it is obliged to do so, for its own survival) the veracity of everything that occurs in the umbanda and candomblé religions. “This acknowledgment guarantees that possession in the terreiro is also reproduced in the temple, even though in the temple the function of the ‘devil’s manifestation’ is to reveal the devil’s strategies to enslave man spiritually and materially”. According to Almeida, because of its belief that it is battling an inimical faith, the Igreja Universal actually created a cosmology of evil beings, populating its hell with these entities. “Because of this inverse syncretism, the IURD ultimately produced its own demons, such as the ‘pombagira’, its ‘exu Tranca-Rua’, its ‘Maria Padilha’. This was done inversely, because the synthesis generated by this inversion sought the element that is equivalent to the entities on the negative side of Christian religiousness (the devil); thanks to this inversion, the church can still maintain its proselytism and demand exclusivity, which is a characteristic of Evangelism”, the researcher points out.

This is how the Igreja Universal fights against that which it partially helped create; it is not only the former worshippers of the Afro-Brazilian religions that have been converted and now worship at the altar of the Universal; the Afro-Brazilian deities are still worshipped, even though they have undergone transformations. “Neo-Pentecostalism, because it has distanced itself from classical Pentecostalism and has come closer to umbanda and other religions – even though it denies these religions – began to translate the ethos of personal and magical manipulation into its system, now under a ‘new management’, substituting ‘favors’ by ‘rights’ “, Vagner explains. “The church prepared a war-like cannibalism of the inimical faith. The different beliefs of the Brazilian religious scenario are not only references based on which, and by contrast, one can reflect on the identity of the Igreja Universal. More than by opposition, the church governs its expansion process by means of this religious cannibalism, in which the original content of different beliefs can be denied and at the same time be assimilated in terms of their forms of presentation”, Almeida points out. Hence its ability to ‘soften’ Pentecostal asceticism, softening the stereotype of the traditional, historical Protestant believer. This new church enhances worldly pleasures and encourages the consumption of material goods as signs of salvation. “Unlike the invocations of umbanda, in neo-Pentecostalism the exu deity is no longer invoked to act as the messenger or the ‘subject of the favor’. His mission now is to be expelled in the name of the healing and the salvation of the believer who is under obsession. As the believer is no longer the home of the ‘evil one’, the released believer ‘expels the favor’ and states his ‘right to divine grace’, talking directly to God”, Vagner explains. At the Igreja Universal, the faithful ‘take possession of the blessing’.

“At the terreiros, ‘the service charge’ personalizes the payment, which raises suspicions of private interests and exploitation. At the Igreja Universal, this act is viewed as being a ‘donation’, a direct demonstration of faith to God, to challenge Him. The offering creates an alliance between God and man, through which God is obliged to provide immediate restitution”, says Paula Montero. In the words of Edir Macedo, bishop of the Igreja Universal, the believer becomes ‘God’s partner’ and under this privileged status, benefits from the blessings of the Lord. “To prove their faith and gain the rewards, the faithful are induced to make sacrifices or financial donations. The pastors warn that the faithful who do not pay the tithe are stealing from God. As the strength of faith is measured according to the higher or lower risk undertaken at the time the tithe is donated, people who openly want to show the strength of their faith have to undertake high financial risks”, explains sociologist Ricardo Mariano, from the Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul/ PUC-RS. “The sacrificial nature that money takes on during the rites of the Igreja Universal removes the violent and barbarian nature of sacrifice (supposedly in opposition to the ‘gifts’ offered to the gods during the Afro-Brazilian rituals) and transforms it into an abstract relationship of risk, in the manner of an economic investment”, adds Paula. The basis of this pecuniary ideology is the so-called ‘theory of prosperity’, the alliance with God, the guarantee that everybody can have whatever they want if they have faith and they demonstrate their faith with firm conviction. This includes a house on the beach, the latest car model, successful business ventures and even love. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a spiritual or a physical asset. “Igreja Universal seeks to maximize the provision of real and immediate compensations in the world, adapting its message to the physical and cultural life of the poor masses in order for them to make some sense out of their lives, to explain why they live they way do, justifying their given social standing”, Mariano points out.

Money is not present only in the religious practices of the Igreja Universal; it is also present in other religious practices. “The Igreja Universal is the only place where the faithful gather once a week to worship prosperity, to listen to the legitimacy of abundance and to hear a sermon that resembles a ‘lecture’ on market issues”, says anthropologist Diana Nogueira de Oliveira Lima, from the Instituto Universitário de Pesquisas do Rio de Janeiro/Iuperj Research Center. “The dynamics of the worshipping and the related media are perspicacious in the sense of awakening beliefs and in the sense of resorting to magical notions of religiousness and denying any accusation of ‘marketing that which is sacred’. The Igreja Universal has organized itself in the manner of  exporting a Brazilian church, with branches in various countries around the world (USA, France, among others), directed by a Corporate Bishop, enjoying business and political success, with the power of public and strategic penetration, also anonymously, directed at anonymous individuals and clients. “Therefore, it is a church ‘providing services’, a secularized religious institution acting as such through its business-client relationship”, writes theologian and sociologist Odêmio Ferrari, from the Catholic University of São Paulo/ PUC-SP, author of Bispo S/A: a Igreja Universal e o exercício do poder (published by Ave-Maria, 264 pages, R$ 29,00). “Its originality lies in the fact that it has produced a two-fold inversion: on one hand, its rituals have generalized ‘witchcraft’ in public spaces; on the other hand, it has made charitable and economic prosperity coincide. After all, the most important ritualistic practices of the Igreja Universal have retrieved the classic categories of Christianity: exorcism and cash donations”, says Paula. No wonder apostle Hernandes, the husband of the husband-wife team that heads the Igreja Renascer em Cristo church, which also follows the ‘theology of prosperity’ answered: “we are being persecuted by the devil himself”  when he was accused of being a swindler.

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“Igreja Universal and the other churches respond immediately to daily appeals. More than responding to illnesses, the church responds to the fear of some kind of stigmatized illness. In addition to releasing the faithful from their financial bondage, it also promises to make the faithful rich. It is universal in the sense of its broad interlocution with society, aiming at more public space and, if possible, converting the interlocutors to the Kingdom of God”, Almeida analyses. Following this path to a universal condition, the neo-Pentecostals have been gaining elbow room in the world of politics. In addition, they have been making well known efforts to use the means of communication – including the Internet (which, together with music, is to provide better access to young people) – in the most efficient way possible. “The Universal and Assembleia de Deus churches know how to take advantage of their authoritarian models as an instrument to capture the votes of their flocks and implement a regime of discipline and hierarchy among their political party cohorts, removing the autonomy of their peers in Congress”, says sociologist Saulo Baptista, author of Pentecostais e neopentecostais na política brasileira (published by Annablume, 430 pages, R$ 67,00). Until the 1980s, the position of these churches was one of social and political absenteeism, in spite of a strong anti-communist bias and strong support for the military regime. “Pentecostal politics are exemplified by attitudes such as the belief that smoking and drinking are a sin, but it is not sinful to legislate in favor of the elite and evade taxes to avoid paying for the food, housing and health care of the very needy. From the ethical point of view, participating in a scheme of corruption is not wrong, provided that the scheme benefits the church in the form of ambulances or radio network concessions, because this expands the capacity of ‘winning souls for Christ’ “, says Saulo Baptista. Nonetheless, the research study reveals that the scandals such as the ‘mensalão’ hush money scandal and other similar corruption scandals shocked some of the faithful who reacted by refusing to vote for the churches’ ‘official candidates’. “By entering politics in a corporative manner, the churches have adopted the populist behavior of manipulating the faithful to gain votes and the presence of these groups in the public space has repeated the vices of our national political culture, by refusing to confront social issues and claiming that the related problems are caused by supernatural reasons”. The popular ‘brother votes for brother’ attitude is what led the Evangelical politicians to adopt a horse-trading political profile.

“Based on the tripod cure – healing, exorcism, and financial prosperity – and viewing the devil as the source of all evils, the Igreja Universal has carved out a space for itself in the scenario of Brazilian popular religiousness. Refusing to be bothered by further theological issues, the Igreja Universal, more than any other Evangelical denomination, has created a message to meet immediate worldly needs”, Almeida adds. The Protestant ethic guided the economic behavior of the Calvinist puritan, the historian says, and the task of the religious institution was only to teach the doctrine of predestination; in the case of the Igreja Universal, the institution itself has a relationship with the market, driven by the Evangelical mission. “It is a true multinational holding company, whose core product is the faith that drives the entire structure”. This is why the religious practices of the Igreja Universal include the demon, and the Afro-Brazilian religions, because without these elements, the Igreja Universal would lose its reason for existence and would die away. So, in ideology, just as in rituals, the devil can leave, but he will always come back.

MONTERO, P. Religião, pluralismo e esfera pública. Novos Estudos. Cebrap, v. 74, p. 47-66, 2006.
SILVA, Vagner Gonçalves da. Neopentecostalismo e religiões afro-brasileiras: Significados do ataque aos símbolos da herança religiosa africana no Brasil contemporâneo. Mana (Rio de Janeiro), v. 13 (1), p. 207-236, 2007.
HILL, J. História do cristianismo. Editora Rosari, 560 pages, R$ 79,00.