Pentecostalism in Brazil

Pentecostalism is the fastest growing sector of Brazilian Protestantism. It is made up of Classic Pentecostalism, founded by European and American missionaries during the first half of the twentieth century, and Neo-Pentecostalism, a later generation of indigenous churches that emerged after 1970. The first group includes such significant denominations as the Christian Congregation, the Assembly of God, Church of the Foursquare Gospel, Brazil for Christ, and God is Love. Major Neo-Pentecostal churches include Sara Our Land Evangelical Community, Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, the International Church of the Grace of God, and Reborn in Christ. 

Pentecostalism is largely decentralized, both structurally and theologically, although in recent decades significant centralization has begun to occur among the newer churches. Individual churches typically operate independently and autonomously, while sharing certain characteristics, such as a focus on the imminent return of Jesus to Earth (“second coming”) and a belief that intimate contact with the Holy Spirit allows access to Jesus Christ. Unlike traditional Protestant churches, which privilege individual interpretation of God’s written word, Pentecostalism locates the source of knowledge and power in the direct revelation received from God via baptism in the Holy Spirit. Spiritual gifts (charisma), such as glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and divine healing, are important expressions of the movement. While the older churches emphasize glossolalia, the newer Neo-Pentecostal churches focus on spiritual warfare, especially demon exorcism. The Neo-Pentecostal churches have also introduced the Prosperity Gospel to Brazil, a key belief of which is the power of Jesus Christ and the gospel to heal not just physical and emotional illness, but an individual’s economic ills as well.

Most members are poor, black and female with limited education. This reflects the history of Pentecostalism, which sought out impoverished Brazilians as rural networks began disintegrating, urbanization increased, and economic modernization heightened the marginalization of many, particularly Afro-Brazilians. Prior to the emergence of Liberation Theology, the Catholic Church failed to institutionally address the needs and interests of the growing poor and Pentecostal churches proliferated among these populations. Pentecostal congregations offered a replacement community with strong prohibitions against the temptations of urban life (drink, drugs, sex, gangs, in some cases, television). The emphasis on adherence to doctrine and devotion to prayer rather than Biblical knowledge and learning offered a comfortable space and opportunities for church leadership to the often illiterate laborers. Finally, with their theological emphasis on individual salvation and an unmediated relationship with Jesus, these churches stressed an ethos of individuality that resonated with those outside the existing client-patron structure. More recently, Neo-Pentecostalism’s embrace of the Prosperity Gospel, associating upward social mobility with devotion, also contributed to its widespread appeal among the urban poor and middle class.

Pentecostal and particularly Neo-Pentecostal churches make extensive use of old and new media (television, radio, and the internet). Increasingly, they are expanding their proselytization efforts abroad, especially in Europe, but also in the United States. In the creation of transnational networks Brazilian football players play a key missionary role.

Pentecostalism entered politics in the 1990s, with large voting blocs throwing their substantial weight behind Pentecostal and church-endorsed candidates, oftentimes church pastors and bishops running for office. Though Pentecostal churches initially lacked the organized political networks that the Catholic Church cultivated during the military dictatorship, they successfully leveraged their evangelical structure, processes, and culture. Many Pentecostals perceive political participation as a religious duty, another battleground in the ongoing spiritual war against demonic influences, with individual and communal health, wealth, and salvation at stake. This belief forges a fervent commitment to candidates and causes.

Such fervency can create problems. Several prominent churches issue strong attacks against Catholicism and Afro-Brazilian religions, such as Candomblé and Umbanda. They consider Catholicism obsolete and the others as a channel for demons’ entry into the world. The Neo-Pentecostal Universal Church of the Reign (Kingdom) of God is particularly known for such beliefs.

Still, unlike Pentecostals in North America, crentes (“believers”) don’t always vote along conservative lines, don’t congregate in a single political party, and have been surprisingly instrumental in the success of some leftist politicians, including Labor Party president Lula da Silva. On an individual level, some Pentecostals are engaged in social justice activism similar to their Catholic counterparts. However, Pentecostals are more likely to accept the status quo and work to climb the socioeconomic ladder while politically active Catholics are more inclined to change it.

 

Sources:

Christine A. Gustafson, “Faith-State Relations in Brazil:  What Does Religious Competition Mean for Democracy?” Religion and Politics in a Global Society, eds. Paul Christopher Manuel, Alynna Lyon, and Clyde Wilcox, (Lanham, MD:  Lexington Books, 2013), pp. 113-138. 

Maria das Dores Campos Machado, “Evangelicals and Politics in Brazil: the Case of Rio de Janeiro,” Religion, State and Society, Vol. 40, No. 1, pp. 69-91.

Carmen Rial, “The ‘Devil’s Egg:’ Football Players as New Missionaries of the Diaspora of Brazilian Religions,” The Diaspora of Brazilian Religions, eds. Christina Rocha and Manuel A. Vásquez, (Leiden:  Brill, 2013), pp. 91-115. 

Kenneth Serbin, “The Catholic Church, Religious Pluralism and Democracy in Brazil,” Kellogg Institute, February 1999, accessed May 5, 2014.

Manuel A. Vásquez and Christina Rocha, “Introduction:  Brazil in the New Global Cartography of Religion,” The Diaspora of Brazilian Religions, eds. Christina Rocha and Manuel A. Vásquez, (Leiden:  Brill, 2013), pp. 1-42. 

See also: Brazil, Christianity