Rise of evangelicalism in Brazil

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 12th of March, 2020. You’re listening to The World and Everything in It and we are glad you are!  Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up, religious faith in Brazil.

This South American country has long had the most Catholics of any country in the world. But millions of Brazilians are leaving the faith each year. Catholics are projected to be a minority in the country a decade from now.

BASHAM: The reasons for the exodus are complex, but one factor is the rapid rise of evangelicals. They made up only 5 percent of the population in 1970. Now they account for more than 30 percent. 

In fact, some researchers believe the country now has the second or third largest evangelical community in the world. Pentecostals make up the majority of that group.

REICHARD: There are aspects of this movement that are troubling. A few Brazilian churches are in the grip of prosperity gospel teaching. And some politicians with evangelical roots have been involved with scandals. 

But the news isn’t all bleak. WORLD’s Jill Nelson reports on how the Protestant church has also been a force for good.

AUDIO: Brazil is in an awakening! You are the fruit of it and you are the catalyst of it! 

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: Last month about 140,000 people gathered in three soccer stadiums for a Christian revival called The Send Brazil. The 12-hour event drew more than 2 million online viewers. It’s one of many ways Brazil’s social, political, and religious landscape is changing in the wake of rising evangelicalism.

Eric Miller is a professor at Geneva College who studies faith in Brazil. He recently edited a book about the influence of Brazilian evangelicals. 

MILLER: In almost anyplace you go, it’s something you’re going to find some evidence of, whether it’s on a billboard, turning on the television. In fact, one of the largest channels in Brazil is owned by an evangelical church. 

AUDIO: [Sound of TV Record] 

Miller is talking about TV Record, which began producing religious miniseries nearly a decade ago. The network built its own artificial river, temple, and Old Testament set and has become a hit with Brazilian families.

But evangelicals are going beyond revivals and elaborate television sets. Miller says they’re also going to Brazil’s darkest places.

MILLER: There’s some really interesting accounts that you can find of non-evangelical observers, social scientists for instance, who are making studies of poverty in Brazil for instance and they find some moving tributes to the work evangelicals are doing in places no-one else wants to go to, places that are beyond the reaches of the law.

He’s referring to favelas, slums started by squatters and often run by drug cartels.

Evangelicals are also leading disaster response efforts. Ten years ago, massive flooding destroyed the crops of farmers living several hours from Rio de Janeiro. International agencies quickly came in to lend a hand. 

But when Miller visited a year and half after the flood, only one group remained: a charismatic Protestant organization. Its members stayed behind to live among the farmers, helping them rebuild their homes and sell their crops to church communities in nearby cities.

MILLER: And they were just living right there with the people in a very, very sacrificial way. And that’s the kind of thing that’s been sticking out for many people who are watching the scene. I think that’s one of the most remarkable effects. 

Evangelicalism is also penetrating Brazil’s political establishment. Igor Sabino is a Brazilian evangelical and a 24-year-old doctoral student. He’s encouraged by the work of 55-year-old Damares Alves, who heads Brazil’s Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights. 

SABINO: The team who’s working for her is committed to promoting religious freedom not only in Brazil but abroad. Also to protect our children because the numbers of sexual exploitation and human trafficking are very high.

Alves is an evangelical pastor who has a story that resonates with Brazil’s poor communities. She was raped as a young girl and several years later climbed a guava tree, intending to commit suicide. She says Jesus spoke to her at that moment and saved her life. Now she’s on a campaign to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies … by promoting abstinence.

Alves has also criticized schools for encouraging homosexuality, a campaign that has drawn the ire of Brazil’s vocal LGBT activists. Still, she’s the second most popular government minister in Brazil.

But Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is a more controversial figure. He’s an avowed Catholic but has appealed to evangelicals. He even made a surprise appearance at one of the stadiums hosting the February revival. 

BOLSONARO: [Speaking in Portugese]  

Bolsonaro took office last year after winning 69 percent of the evangelical vote. His wife attends a charismatic mega church. But his behavior doesn’t always reflect the faith he proclaims—one reason some call him “Trump of the tropics.” 

Sabino says some of Bolsonaro’s more controversial comments include derogatory statements about women and praise for Brazil’s two decades of dictatorship.

SABINO: So he doesn’t have a Christian behavior, but many people are trying to portray him as a Christian. So some nonbelievers are saying if that’s Christianity, we don’t want to be Christians. 

Miller says the rise of Protestants in politics looks like a big power block to non-evangelicals. In some ways, it mirrors the American political context and the rise of the new right. These are all issues Brazil’s evangelicals will need to reckon  with in order to preserve their integrity. 

But Miller says there’s still much to celebrate, even among the thorns.

MILLER: A lot of the observers and social scientists will say they may not agree with the theology behind it, but they… see families that are healthier, marriage relationships that are more intact, less violence among these communities, and the poor are finding an actual community in an everyday kind of way. 

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jill Nelson.


(Photo/Creative Commons, Flickr)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Rise of evangelicalism in Brazil

  1. Pedro says:

    People really need to stop taking the opinions, concerns and views of complete outliers like this Sabino figure (a 24 year old doctoral student who speaks english and writes for mainstream media sources) as representative of the average brazilian evangelical’s. It would be like taking the opinion of some business student in Manhattan as representative of that of american evangelicals, but even worse.

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