The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus or IURD) is one of the largest and strongest Neo-Pentecostal churches in Brazil with global reach. Founded by Bishop Edir Bezerra Macedo and two other pastors in 1977, the church encompasses 8 million members in over 150 countries, television networks (including the second largest in Brazil), radio stations, newspapers, a publishing house, a record company, and numerous other business enterprises both in Brazil and elsewhere. Church members are encouraged to start small businesses and receive start-up capital from the church. These businesses provide church members with job opportunities and a stepping stone to the middle class, a key objective of its prosperity gospel.
Not only does the church own businesses, it operates much as a business. A strategic planning process allocates productivity goals to individual pastors and measures their accomplishments. Marketing research highlights new service opportunities, such as exorcisms. This wealth and breadth of reach makes IURD one of Brazil’s strongest churches and also one of its most controversial.
The church emphasizes spiritual warfare through the broadcast of public exorcisms, oftentimes of spirits related to Candomblé or Umbanda. Another key tenet is the sacrificial economy is in which the individual seeks a change in life through sacrifice to God and God responds an external manifestation of the internal transformation. This economy is enacted through ritual points of contact, such as daily thematic programming and the bestowal of ritual mementos on each attendee.
Macedo’s personal wealth, estimated at more than $1 billion, and conspicuous consumption contrasts significantly with the abject poverty in which the majority of his followers live and the church has been the focus of several fraud investigations prompted by this discrepancy. In 1992 police investigated Macedo for fraud and charlatanism, leading to his arrest and imprisonment for eleven days. A photograph of Macedo sitting in his jail cell, reading the Bible has become an iconic image for Macedo and his church, reprinted in official publications and other media.
Another source of controversy derives from actions of religious intolerance, such as the televised kicking by an IURD pastor of a statue of Our Lady of Aparecida, a national religious symbol sacred to both Catholics and Afro-Brazilian religious adherents. Macedo publicly promotes the idea that Catholicism is obsolete, deceptive, fetishizes poverty, and allies itself with demons. He considers the Afro-Brazilian religions, such as Candomblé and Umbanda, even worse. According to Macedo, these religions serve as the primary channels by which demons enter Brazil. Macedo’s advocacy of all-out spiritual warfare on these groups has led to episodes of temple invasion, vandalism, kidnapping, and forced exorcisms.
The IURD is also politically active, establishing its own political party (the Brazilian Republican Party) and encouraging both pastors and members to run for office. Allegations by IURD leaders that the majority of politicians are “servants of Satan” and that the devil resides in the National Congress generate further controversy but also indicate the theological underpinnings of IURD’s political activism. Politics is simply another battleground in the ongoing spiritual war between God and the devil. As such, believers are called to participate in the effort to conquer demons and establish God’s kingdom on Earth.
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.
Clara Mafra, Claudia Swatowiski, and Camila Sampaio, “Edir Macedo’s Pastoral Project: A Globally Integrated Pentecostal Network,” The Diaspora of Brazilian Religions, eds. Christina Rocha and Manuel A. Vásquez (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp. 45-67.
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.