On stage a woman in a brown trouser suit is moaning into a microphone, her back to the audience. Her voice flits uncontrollably between gruff low tones and high-pitched squeaks. This is the devil talking. He has been with her ever since the mistress of her philandering husband went to an African cult and put a spell on her. The congregation prays, the priest puts his hands on her and the devil is cast out, leaving its former host exhausted and shivering.
Brazil is fertile land for Pentecostalism, a strain of Christianity characterised by the belief that God performs miraculous works for his faithful so regularly that they can be written into a timetable. The best guess of the World Christian Database, an American statistical service, is that Brazil has 24m Pentecostal Christians, compared with 5.7m in the United States, where modern Pentecostalism began.
The Universal Church is only the third-biggest Pentecostal group in Brazil, but it is the most ambitious. It has branches in 172 countries, but in Brazil it also has its own political party (the Partido Republicano Brasileiro, or PRB) and owns Rede Record, the second-largest television network (which includes a 24-hour news channel).
The man behind this religious conglomerate is Edir Macedo, known by his followers as “the Bishop”. One of the world’s most successful religious entrepreneurs, he does not give interviews. But two of his journalists have recently published his authorised biography, “The Bishop: the Revelatory Story of Edir Macedo”.
Despite the subtitle, the book gives little away. He describes his arrest for charlatanism in 1992 as a blow “like a heart attack”, but does not deal with the substance of the allegation (he was released after just 12 days). The book is long on trivia (Mr Macedo confides that his favourite cologne is Acqua di Parma and discusses his large collection of Italian silk ties). But there is nothing on the church’s finances.
Mr Macedo was born to a fairly comfortable middle-class family that became less so when his father died. He and his brothers hawked snacks made by their mother round the industrial districts of Saão Cristovaão, in Rio de Janeiro state. Mr Macedo got his first regular job in the Rio state lottery, thanks to a family political connection. He studied at night. His description of his conversion from Catholicism is oddly muted.
– The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:3-10 NIV
From its foundation in 1977, the Universal Church has stressed that the faithful would be rewarded for sacrifices, usually of a financial kind. Followers are asked to give 10% of their income; “the church of results” will then reward them with blessings, in the form of miraculous healing, or success for their families or at work. Church services often revolve around testimonies of such results. “Offerings [to God] are investments,” says Mr Macedo.
Selling prosperity theology to the poor attracts criticism from those who believe that the Universal Church exploits the credulity of the desperate. In his book Mr Macedo defends himself robustly. Those who earn nothing can still come to services and enjoy the large air-conditioned hall and a clean bathroom without paying. They may go away determined to succeed, and might even give up drinking, stop beating their wives and join the church. “Whom have I harmed? That is the question: whom have I harmed?” He attacks the Catholic Church for eulogising poverty.
Mr Macedo’s success has brought growing influence in Brazilian public life. He has built Rede Record, bought for $45m in 1990, into a powerful rival to Globo, the country’s leading broadcaster. Though the Universal Church provides a captive audience for its religious programming, Record has grown mainly by showing popular American shows and investing in its own telenovelas (soaps). It has secured exclusive rights to the Beijing Olympics.
The PRB, founded in 2005, has only four of the 513 seats in the federal Chamber of Deputies. It is driven by pragmatism rather than by ideology (it is not hostile to abortion, for example). Its main purpose appears to be to defend the interests of the Universal Church by deterring attacks from its powerful enemies, which include the Catholic church and Globo.
Preaching in his Saão Paulo cathedral, Mr Macedo is soothing, his message backed by rising chords played on a synthesiser. He asks the congregation to talk to God, and a couple of thousand private conversations resonate in the hall. Some people start to cry, others hold their arms aloft. Then the Bishop gets on to the subject of offerings. To sacrifice is divine, he tells the congregation. Maybe so, but to devise ingenious business models is human.