Brazil – and much of Latin America and the Caribbean — is in the midst of what believers proudly call an “evangelical revolution”.
According to the IBGE, Brazil’s census board, the country’s Catholic population fell from around 89% in 1980 to 74% in 2000, while its Pentecostal flock grew from 3% to 10%. Brazilian churches are opening branches from Buenos Aires to Port-au-Prince.
The tendency is even likely to play a role in Sunday’s presidential election run-off, with the two candidates, Dilma Rousseff and José Serra, openly courting the denomination on issues such as gay marriage and abortion.
Cesar Romero Jacob, a political scientist at Rio’s Catholic University, said Brazil’s evangelical revolution had gripped two key areas: remote regions in the Amazon and the deprived outskirts of Brazilian cities such as Rio.
A “state vacuum”, where poverty, violence, alcoholism and prostitution proliferated, had laid the foundations for the boom. “If the [Catholic] church and the state are absent, somebody else will occupy the space,” said Jacob, a leading expert in religious voting trends in Brazil. “Pentecostalism occupied it.”
While government neglect has been key to the evangelical explosion, technology is also playing its part.
According to government figures, internet access doubled in Brazil between 2004 and 2009 and the Little Missionary owes much of her success to the web, a place where evangelists gain fame, fortune and sometimes notoriety through homepages and YouTube.
The growth of Brazil’s evangelical community has bestowed both considerable wealth and political power on many local evangelists.
Brazilian newspapers estimate that Macedo’s estate is worth about $2bn and includes a 35-bedroom mansion in São Paulo and a $50m private jet. Macedo, who claims about eight million followers worldwide, is thought to live in Westchester county, New York state, where the Clinton family were recently reported to be negotiating an $11m mansion.
Jacob said he understood why desperate, “invisible” Brazilians would respond to “those who reached out”.
“They are mothers who are worried about their husbands becoming alcoholics, their daughters becoming prostitutes or their sons becoming drug traffickers,” he said. “[The church] helps to hold their family nucleus together.”
Child curers and the wider Pentecostal church represented a possible form of salvation, he said.
While many question why Brazil’s poorest citizens should pay a tenth of their meagre wages to churches, Jacob said the decision was often pragmatic.
“My theory is that people are paying to be citizens in a place where they can,” he said. “In this environment people feel they are someone. It is a form of leisure, a place where you can find work, where you feel protected.”
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