Evangelicals represent a third of the population in Brazil, and have succeeded in electing President Jair Bolsonaro, expanding their presence in all sectors of the state.
With the evangelical push in the 2018 elections, the number of evangelical legislators in the Chamber of Deputies increased to 112 (or 21% of the 513 deputies), while in the Upper House, 15 evangelical senators were elected, or 18.5% of the 81 members of the legislature. A quarter of a century earlier, barely 4% of the deputies were evangelicals. It is now a dominant component in Brazil.
This country of 215 million inhabitants is still the largest Catholic country in the world, but its dominant religion has been in constant decline in the face of the rise of evangelical congregations since the 1970s, when 92% of Brazilians called themselves Catholic. In 2010, they came in at only 64%.
According to demographers, the two currents should balance out in 2030. The census conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), which began on August 1, 2022, will show the progress of evangelicals in Brazil on the number of Catholics.
We have never seen such a rapid change anywhere in such an important country, note the observers. Evangelical growth has been developing for four decades. It started strongly in the 1980s and exploded in the 1990s with the growth in the outskirts and favelas.
Exempt from paying property or income tax, evangelical congregations, through aggressive collection techniques from their followers, have considerable economic resources with which they have built media empires that enhance their religious influence and politics.
Pastors, by preaching the “gospel of prosperity” in underprivileged areas, promise them success and personal enrichment, in return for the tithe collected (10% of their income). In the cities, there are evangelical hospitals, evangelical universities, evangelical schools, evangelical media, evangelical publishing houses, evangelical food products, and even evangelical fashion items.
Temples are growing from north to south, in rural territories and in metropolitan areas, to the millions of people stricken by unemployment, drugs, alcoholism, and domestic violence who are often no longer pastorally served by the Catholic Church. The “evangelical surge” has in fact supplanted Catholicism, in particular among the poorest, in the outskirts of large cities, in the favelas.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the main reasons why so many Catholics leave the Church for other ecclesial communities are, according to sociological studies, that they find there “a greater personal union with God” (81% ) and more help for their members (60%).
Fr. Martín Lasarte, a Uruguayan priest present at the Synod on the Amazon, believes that the liberation theology movement has often placed political and social issues above religious experience. In this case, “it lacks the existential sense of the joy of living the Gospel, this personal encounter that so many Pentecostal denominations offer their faithful,” he said.
Some Catholic movements in Latin America have sought to win back the lost sheep, either by imitating Pentecostalism or through a certain traditionalism. Since the 1970s, charismatic Catholicism has tried to keep many Catholics attracted to Pentecostalism in its ranks, with “faith healing” and “speaking in tongues,” associated with Catholic practices, in particular devotion to the Virgin Mary. In 2020, 22.8% of Catholics in Latin America were charismatic, according to the World Christian Database.
Militant conservative Catholicism more recently emphasizes apologetics. One of the main leaders is Fr. Paulo Ricardo, who has 1.5 million followers on Facebook. He has condemned liberation theology as heresy. Born in Recife on November 7, 1967, he was ordained a priest on June 14, 1992 by Pope John Paul II. He holds a licentiate in theology and a master's degree in canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
Since 2006, he has practiced his apostolate on his Internet blog, dedicated “to the theological and spiritual formation of Catholics around the world.” The most significant content of this work is condensed in his courses, among which may be found: “Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses,” “Cultural Revolution and Marxism,” “Holiness Engineering,” “Luther and the Modern World,” “The secret of little Thérèse,” and many others”.
The Financial Power of Evangelicals
Tithes and profits from the business empire run by evangelical congregations in Brazil — which includes television networks and cruise lines — have given the movement financial muscle to fund political campaigns.
In downtown São Paulo, a $300 million replica of the Temple of Solomon bears witness to the meteoric rise of evangelicalism. Built in 2014 by one of the largest and richest neo-Pentecostal denominations in Brazil, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, this temple can accommodate up to 10,000 worshippers.
Many Pentecostals preach “prosperity theology” – better known in the United States as the Prosperity Gospel – according to which the grace of God is reflected in material wealth.
For example, at the Temple of Solomon in São Paulo, men in suits regularly stand before the altar with bags and credit card readers to receive offerings, while the pastor promises his followers that they will become rich if they donate generously.
Unfortunately, although he made his first international trip to Brazil in July 2013, and has since visited nine other countries on the continent, Pope Francis does not seem to be seeking to reconquer Brazil for Catholicism.