The evangelical phenomenon in Brazil - Intercultural Insights
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The evangelical phenomenon in Brazil
June 11, 2015

In Brazilian society, the evangelical movement today represents a genuine economic and media empire which wields major political power. There are today approximately 42.3 million evangelicals in Brazil, the second largest Protestant country after the United States.

The Theology of Prosperity

As its name suggests, this theology is known for its insistence on the prosperity promised to the faithful: health, wealth and often liberation from “demonic influences”. It developed out of evangelical Pentecostalism in the United States in the 1960s/1970s. This majority faction of the Protestant faith is fast rising in Brazil, a very religious country. Here, we will draw up an overview of the practices of this faith and the means used by evangelicals in Brazil to attract ever more believers and donations, and to make their mark in society.

Brazil, where religion plays a key role in the lives of most Brazilians, is the country with the largest number of Catholics in the world: more than 123 million practising members, i.e. 64.6% of the population according to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). However, barely 10 years ago they accounted for 73.6% of the Brazilian population. This decline is explained by the growth of the evangelical movement. Over just a decade, an extra 16 million people have joined an evangelical church. The theology of prosperity preached by the pastors is attracting ever more followers.

A carefully designed strategy and message

The strength of this movement lies in its presence and its network. The neo-Pentecostal churches such as the well-known “Universal Church of the Kingdom of God” (UCKG), began setting up in the suburbs of cities, in the poor districts of the major cities of the south-eastern part of the country and in Amazonia. In communities effectively abandoned by the state and the Catholic Church, becoming part of an evangelical church meant joining a new family. A family whose members are loyal, warm, friendly, and share the same values and beliefs, giving a very strong sense of belonging to this group.

Extremely charismatic, the pastors are excellent speakers and have a huge influence on the faithful. They preach a demonstrative faith with dances, singing, and even exorcisms being performed in public. The pastors have a very well thought out populist message expressed in a theatrical biblical language, most of the time broadcast noisily from the temple’s loudspeakers. The ceremonies end with a sort of general expiation, with the faithful falling to the ground, freed from their ills.

The message put forward by the evangelists uses a simple and direct language based on the logic of money and reward. Their messages are based on concrete examples taken from the day-to-day lives of the faithful (problems related to love, the family, money, social relationships, and life in the favelas, etc.), directly appealing to feelings and experiences familiar to those of the listeners, who immediately feel that they are being listened to, heard and understood.

Sometimes, during the ceremonies, the Child preachers” arrive and join in. Rare figures but nevertheless very popular in Brazil, they come to “spread God’s word on earth” in fiery speeches, worthy of any great writer.

Appeals for donations

According to the IBGE, the sections of the population belonging to an evangelical church are generally poorer than the Catholic congregations. However, the value of their donations to the church is higher. The evangelical temples collect a total of 1 billion reais per month compared to 680 million reais for the Catholic Church. On average, an evangelical pays 32 reais per month in comparison to 14 for a Catholic.

It is not rare (and having experienced this I can confirm it) that bankcard payment terminals do the rounds during the services. The pastor comes around several times to encourage people to donate and if in his opinion you don’t give enough money he will draw attention to you.

Keen to ensure “modernity” and “easy access”, the EURD has even set up a donation system using the Facebook social network. Looking beyond social networks, the influence of the evangelical movement is such that a number of banks are also taking an interest.

Consequently, Bradesco, one of Brazil’s largest private banks, proposes an evangelical bankcard for its clients. This offers the same characteristics and services as any other bankcard, but provides for the automatic deduction of 10% of the client’s salary (the “dizimo»), which is intended for the church. The aim of this bank card is to “give the client the option to acquire a bankcard from an organisation with which he identifies”.

The evangelicals’ political power

The purpose of the sums collected by the church is fairly opaque. It includes the construction of churches, the enrichment of the pastor, and the financing of political campaigns, etc. The power of the evangelical movement is such that it has become a powerful political lobby, enabling it to have several of its leaders elected to Parliament. As an example, Marco Feliciano, a famous evangelical pastor, is also a federal MP, and in 2013 was elected as president of the Human Rights and Minorities Committee thanks to the “evangelical vote.

The pastors readily issue instructions on how the faithful should vote, instructions which are followed. The evangelical vote provides many strategic benefits, and presidents Fernando Collor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Luis Inacio Lula and Dilma Roussef have used this strategy to get themselves elected: alliances with the traditional oligarchies in the north-east and agreements with the evangelicals of the urban suburbs of the south and south-east of the country.

Indeed, the evangelical vote is so important that the main election candidates have had to clearly lay out their positions on themes such as abortion.

Universal Church of the Kingdom of God

This is one of the most influential neo-Pentecostal churches in Brazil. Founded by Edir Macedo in 1977, it today has 5,000 churches across the country.

Edir Macedo, Brazil’s richest pastor, has joined the highly selective Brazilian billionaires club according to the Bloomberg International ranking. His fortune is estimated at almost $1.2 billion. His assets include 34 publications, with a circulation of 10 million copies, the TV Record television channels (Brazil’s second-largest network), the Folha Universal newspaper with an average circulation of 2.5 million (the largest readership across Brazil), record companies, luxury properties, and a private jet company, Bombardier Global Express XRS, worth an estimated $35 million.

At his initiative, and with an investment of 224 million euros and requiring four years’ building work, the Temple Salomão was completed in 2014 in São Paulo. It was officially opened by Macedo and by President Dilma Roussef herself, her very presence bearing witness to the political importance of the evangelicals. With a surface area of 70,000 m2, equivalent to 16 football pitches, the church can welcome up to 10,000 worshippers. This church is a replica of the Temple of Jerusalem (destroyed in 586 BC by the King of Babylon) and produced from stone imported from Israel.

Pastor Macedo is also known to the judicial authorities: in 1992 he spent 10 days in prison for “fraud and charlatanism”. Later, in 2009, he was once again accused, this time for “misappropriation” of donations from the faithful. However, these accusations were never proven.

Another evangelical pastor, pastor Romuald Panceiro, was investigated for “incitation, fraud and appropriation of the assets of others”. During a television programme, he publicly put forward arguments to encourage the faithful to donate money: “Everything you saved will be lost through the global crisis. You need to save your assets by putting them in the hands of God. He will return them to you soon“.

In 2009, the UCKG was accused of money-laundering by the Brazilian Ministry of Public Affairs, an accusation which once again was never proven.

A socio-cultural viewpoint

Although the Conseil National des Évangéliques de France believes that this movement corresponds to the material aspirations of a section of the Christian population, which has finally managed to approach the subject of money in a manner devoid of stigma”, the Brazilians probably don’t see things this way.

According to Diana Lima, an anthropologist at the Rio de Janeiro University research institute, “accusations of this kind [accusations of misappropriation of donations by the pastors] does not seem to worry the faithful, who view it is normal that part of their donations end up in the pastor’s pocket, because he is sanctified and must be able to operate in satisfactory material conditions”.

The faithful are also not seemingly shocked at the use of their money for political campaigns. Diana Lima adds: “the faithful see Brazil as a lost world, in the grip of drugs, violence and corruption. In their eyes, the “voice of God” therefore needs to be present in the political sphere, through pastors working close to the higher echelons of power in order to save everyone”.

Proselytism and expansion

Evangelicals practice large-scale proselytism and not just through the media. During the World Cup (to take just one example) thousands of worshippers could be found in front of the stadiums hoping to present their church, their beliefs, their faith but above all their theology of prosperity.

At the entrance to some churches, the worshippers vigorously intercept passers-by to encourage them to come in and worship with them.

What’s more, just like a real business, many pastors have developed strategies to recruit and keep the best speakers. Thanks to this kind of competition, some pastors do not hesitate to issue bonuses to those who meet their turnover targets.

The Catholic response

Conscious of the rise of evangelism, the Catholic Church is trying to find the means to respond. All too late, it has launched media communication initiatives. It controls nine TV channels and approximately 250 radio stations in the country, but with a low audience.

Among the initiatives, we should mention the “movement for charismatic renovation” which is designed to increase its influence among the faithful and copy the evangelical cults with fiery speeches and charismatic speakers. This has given rise to another noteworthy phenomenon: the rockstar priests” who give full-scale “shows” attracting thousands of the faithful and selling thousands of albums. Very popular and lively, these charismatic singer-priests are the “armed wing” of the Catholic church when it comes to blocking the rise of the evangelists.

The EURD was expelled from the Portuguese Evangelical Alliance in 1992. In 1995, the Federation of Evangelical Religious Entities of Spain (FEREDE) no longer recognised the UCKG as an evangelical church. Nevertheless, these events have not affected the movement’s worldwide growth.

The influence of the evangelical churches in Brazil is powerful and omnipresent throughout society, and is constantly rising. Between now and 2040-2050 anthropologists predict that more than half of Brazilians will belong to an evangelical church.


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Alexandra Brougne

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