Brazil’s evangelical turn
Brazil’s new churches are booming. But for all their marketing savvy, they don’t yet have the status of Catholicism.
Guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 29 September 2009. There is a popular proverb in Brazil: God is Brazilian, and the land is blessed. No one knows, of course, whether God really is Brazilian, but his popularity in the country is not in doubt, and in the last 10 years, Brazilians have been finding many different ways to communicate with him.
Rock concerts, fighting events and surfer rituals are some of the activities laid on by new churches that are garnering increasing numbers of followers. In the past 20 years or so, Brazil, cited as the country with the biggest catholic population in the world, has witnessed a migration from Rome to the booming evangelical churches. According to IBGE (the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), the Catholic population in the country was 91.8% of the total in 1970. But the most recent survey, in 2000, revealed that the number of Catholics had fallen to 73. 8% with the number of evangelicals up from 5.2% to 15.6%.
Evangelical churches exist across the spectrum of Protestantism: from the older Lutheran, Presbyterian or Baptist churches to Pentecostalists such as Assemblies of God and The Foursquare Church and even those created in Brazil, such as the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, the International Church of the Divine Grace and Reborn in Christ.
According to Antonio Flávio Pierucci, professor at the department of sociology of the University of São Paulo and a specialist in the sociology of religion, one of the reasons for churchgoers’ change in allegiance is the development of the religious freedom, a process which began at the end of the 19th century. With the end of the empire and the advent of the republic in Brazil, the Roman Catholic church lost much of its power.The military dictatorship (1964-1984) also helped sow the seeds of the evangelical “boom”.
But if the proliferation of churches in the big cities of Brazil is proof of the growth in evangelicalism, media reports of their activities only heightens the impression that they’re booming. According to Pierucci, “the new Pentecostal churches [are good at] media and marketing, but analysing the statistical data shows that older evangelical churches have grown too. It means that Catholicism is struggling against older Pentecostalism as well as the new varieties”.
This evangelical boom is reflected in the fact that the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, one of the biggest evangelical churches, is also the owner of TV Record, one of the country’s main televisions channels. Further evidence of these movements’ power includes events such as the Jesus March, in which around 3 million evangelicals from all over Brazil gather each year to walk the streets of Sao Paulo.
Even the national political establishment has begun to experience the influence of these new groups. Among the 513 members of parliament, 40 belong to the evangelical bench, a grouping of politicians from different parties that aims to defend evangelicals’ interests.
Although the power of these new religions has increased, Catholicism hasn’t quite lost its privileged status. Pierucci again: “Since the Catholicism once encompassed more than 90% of the Brazilian population it would be impossible to grow without converting Catholics.” But it is important to stress that most of the new evangelical converts are from the lower classes, which means that the Catholicism is still the religion of the elite.
However, Pierucci also argues that the potential for Pentecostalists to increase their influence among the middle classes is intrinsically linked to their strategies for growth. The new Pentecostal churches in particular are more aggressive in attracting new followers and raising funds.
The Bola de Neve (Snowball) Church, for example, a congregation focused on the youth market, uses novelties like a surfboard in place of the altar and show fights. But to Pierucci, this kind of strategy can be self-defeating. “In a short time, the church’s leaders willl be old, bald and potbellied and it will be difficult to keep the church focused on youth values.”
To him, this church just exoresses youth values in religious terms. “They know that the young need a place to meet. The idea of belonging is important: not just belonging to Jesus, but to a special Jesus, ‘The one from my church'”.But he explains that reports linking evangelical churches to criminal activities are partly why the country’s establishment is still prejudiced against them: “Nowadays, in the University of São Paulo, there’s a tolerant mentality. So, you can say that you are Catholic, that you are Jewish, that you are Muslim, or even a follower of Candomblé or Umbanda (the African religions have a high number of followers in universities). But it is really rare to find a student who is brave enough to say that he is a new Pentecostalist. There is still some prejudice. It is not just about class, but about the status of the new Pentecostalism. This religion doesn’t have a lot of prestige.”
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