Brazil: Evangelicals Gaining Influence

By Daniel Azevedo

Photo Credit: Igreja Adventista Central de Porto Alegre / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Photo Credit: Igreja Adventista Central de Porto Alegre / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Brazil still has the largest Catholic population in the world, but evangelical churches are gaining in size and political clout.  In the 1980s, persons identifying themselves as evangelicals made up 6.6 percent of the population; today they are 22.2 percent, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.  Whereas Catholics have generally not organized politically, evangelicals from various parties have gradually been gathering under their religious banner.  They have been growing in numbers and influence since the 2010 elections that chose President Dilma Rousseff.  That year, fearing she would lose the second round of the election to opposition candidate José Serra, Rousseff signed a letter to deputies and senators of the “evangelical bench” promising that she would not sign any laws that went counter to their values, such as legalizing abortion or gay marriage.  The letter gave her the support of evangelical churches, and ensured Dilma’s victory.  Also in 2010, the evangelical bench in the legislature grew 50 percent compared to the 2006 election, reaching 60 deputies and 3 senators.

The evangelical bench anticipates even greater gains in the general elections this October, although polls substantiating its optimism are lacking.  The Folha de São Paulo reports that the Evangelical Parliamentary Front of the House of Representatives estimates it will grow 30 percent, reaching up to 95 representatives – 18 percent of the total House.  This could have legislative consequences.  As a congressman, for example, Pastor Marco Feliciano tried to win approval for a “gay cure” law, which would make it legal for psychologists to treat and “heal” homosexuals in search of heterosexuality.  (Feliciano may at times be an outlier.  Last year he said that “black people are cursed by God in the Bible and, for that reason, Africa is the worst continent in world.”)  Despite the evangelicals’ strong unifying platform, gaining support beyond their bases may be difficult.

The evangelicals seem to have electoral strategies in Rio de Janeiro in place.  Among the four pre-candidates for state governor, two of them are members of the evangelical bench.  Early polls suggest one or the other may become the executive of Brazil’s second most important state, although both face legal problems.  The first one, Anthony Garotinho, has been accused of money-laundering and illegal distribution of political propaganda; his Caravana da Palavra da Paz allegedly misused public money and broke election laws by distributing Bibles and other materials just to people over the minimum voting age.  The other, Marcelo Crivella, is suspected of misusing of public money with his NGO, Farm New Canaan.  (The Portal de Transparência Brasil, an NGO tracking Brazilian politicians, has found that all of the evangelical bench members face unspecified lawsuits, and 95 percent of them are on the list of House members missing the most sessions.)  They are leading the polls, albeit with only 19 percent and 18 percent of intended votes, because the two non-evangelical candidates have apparently more serious political problems.  One is connected to the current and discredited governor, and the other faces serious legal challenges.  Despite the low probability of a breakthrough at the presidential level in the near future, the evangelicals’ efforts in the legislature and states strongly suggest their conservative voice will be an increasingly powerful force to be reckoned with.

Brazilian Evangelicals: Stepping out into the Streets?

By Andrew Johnson

Kneeling in prayer. Photo by: Philip Anema

Kneeling in prayer. Photo by: Philip Anema

There is growing evidence of a potential shift in how Evangelicals engage in social issues in Brazil.  I witnessed their traditional approach recently inside a prison in one of Rio de Janeiro’s gritty peripheral suburbs.  Twelve men stood with their eyes closed and their arms draped around each other’s shoulders while an Evangelical pastor led the group in prayer.  After the final “amèm,” an inmate leader embraced the pastor and thanked him for his visit, to which the pastor responded, “I know that if I am ever in here in the future, you would come to visit me too.”  The pastor’s presence in the cellblock and his subtle pledge of solidarity with the inmates is typical of how Evangelicals have confronted pressing social problems through direct intervention and meeting the immediate needs of individuals in distress. They have been more likely to try to change the prison system by visiting inmates than by voting for a particular candidate or pushing for prison-specific legislation.  Theirs is a politics of presence.  But recently there have been signs that Brazilian Evangelicals’ intentional proximity to the needy is pushing some towards a different and more public strategy: street protest.

Even without an explicit political agenda, Brazilian Evangelicals have proven their ability to mobilize.  In early July, an estimated 2 million Evangelicals participated in the “March for Jesus” in the streets of São Paulo.  They sang hymns and prayed for the future of their country, but they did not use their collective voice to make demands of the government.  In contrast, just two weeks earlier, 65,000 people captured the global media’s attention by marching through the same avenues in São Paulo to protest increased public transportation fares, government corruption, and the fortune being spent on soccer stadiums for the 2014 World Cup.  The street protests gained momentum over the summer, but many Evangelical pastors and leaders were hesitant to offer public support, preferring to continue a strategy that relies on their direct service to the poor, the oppressed, and the imprisoned in their communities.

Antonio Carlos Costa and volunteers from Rio de Paz protesting in the streets of Rio de Janeiro asking the government for “FIFA Quality” Hospitals and Schools.  Photo by: Gabriel Telles

Antonio Carlos Costa and volunteers from Rio de Paz protesting in the streets of Rio de Janeiro asking the government for “FIFA Quality” Hospitals and Schools. Photo by: Gabriel Telles

Evangelical support of the street protests in Brazil has been minimal, but not completely absent. Some Evangelicals appear eager to move beyond a “politics of presence” approach and address the social structures and institutions they blame for many of Brazil’s social problems.  In Rio de Janeiro, the human rights NGO Rio de Paz – one of the most visible and vocal groups in the recent protests – is led by an Evangelical pastor, and the bulk of the volunteers are Evangelicals.  One such volunteer, a son of a Pentecostal pastor, joined the masses demanding governmental reform and, to encourage  others from his church to follow his lead,  posted Proverbs 29:4 to his Facebook page: “By justice a king gives a country stability, but those who are greedy for bribes tear it down.” He closed his appeal by writing that “in 30 years I want to tell my children that they live in a more dignified country because their parents didn’t sit at home waiting for a change.”  If that message resonates widely among Brazil’s 40 million Evangelicals, the Brazilian government will confront ever greater pressure from the streets to carry out long overdue reforms of corrupt institutions and practices.

Andrew Johnson is a Research Associate at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California and a contributor to a two-year project on Religious Responses to Violence in Latin America carried out by the AU Center for Latin American & Latino Studies with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.


The Catholic Church as a Field Hospital after Battle

By Alexander Wilde

Pope Francis / Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Pope Francis / Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Pope Francis is presenting a fresh and personal vision of the Catholic church and Christian faith that seems likely to breathe new life into the church in Latin America.  In a long interview released last week, he couched his message in terms appropriate to his global responsibilities, but it reflects how this first Pontiff from Latin America reads the recent history of his native region and its church. “I see the church,” he said, “as a field hospital after battle.” Having lived through several generations of often bitter conflict and traumatic violence, he clearly believes that the church must, in his words, “heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.” This dramatic, arresting metaphor of the church’s role in ministering to the human condition as he sees it today suggests that he aims to chart a fresh course – in the church and in society – after the divisions that marked the papacies of his two immediate predecessors. “The image of the Church I like,” he said in language that echoes the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and Latin America’s Liberation Theology, “is that of the holy, faithful people of God…on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows.”

This vision seems firmly rooted in his own experience as Jesuit Provincial and Archbishop in Argentina, where despite controversies over his actions or inactions during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, he is universally admired for his dedication to pastoral ministry. With this fundamental focus on those wounded by life, Francis will build on a foundation that already exists in Latin America today. Despite the notorious purges of liberationist tendencies in church structures that began in the 1970s, priests, nuns and lay people can be found throughout the continent living out pastoral vocations amidst new (and old) forms of violence at the grassroots. Francis will almost certainly, like his predecessors, affirm most doctrinal orthodoxies, such as the intrinsic value of even unborn human life (“I am a son of the Church”). But already his pastoral emphasis is a clear break: “The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must … be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.”

Francis thinking is permeated by concepts and practices that come from the Council, Liberation Theology and the pastoral experience of the Latin American church. He clearly hopes to move beyond old divisions and draw from what that church has learned to meet the regions challenges today. Those include a challenge to convey the churchs deepest truths of salvation in ways that Evangelical Protestants have done so successfully in the region. And it is not coincidental that he urges, We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner. He will, undoubtedly, be opposed by conservatives that dominate the church’s ecclesiastical structures (resisting, for example, new paths of policy advocacy by the faithful on issues of poverty and inequality). His new appointments to gatekeeper roles such as nuncios and bishops will be closely watched. He has also inherited an institution shamed by sexual and financial scandals that will demand much of his time and energy. But in just a few months Pope Francis has changed perceptions among Christians and non-believers alike of how the Catholic church may again become a vital force in our world today. In Latin America a new emphasis on face-to-face pastoral ministries among the poor could well move its moral voice for social justice behind already visible popular pressures against growing economic inequality.

Alexander Wilde directs the Center’s two-year project on Religious Responses to Violence in Latin America with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

Pope Francis I: The First Latin American Pope

Pope Francis | Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

Pope Francis | Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

What will the first Pope from Latin America mean for that region, home to 40 percent of the world’s Catholics?  Leading scholars – several of them participants in a multi-year research project at American University* – offered insights recently in The New York Times.  Among many factors that they point to as conditioning the leadership of the newly elected Pope Francis – Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires – are how the Church meets the challenge of Evangelical Protestantism and deals with its own past in the region.

With their remarkable rise in recent decades, Evangelicals have broken centuries of Catholic monopoly and made Latin America far more pluralistic religiously than ever before.  Professors Virginia Garrard-Burnett and Daniel Levine underline the limitations of the strategies for renewal employed by the last two Popes – the return to traditional pieties, the adaptation of Pentecostal spiritual practices by “charismatic” Catholics, and the embrace of what Garrard-Burnett calls “neotraditional” organizations such as the elite, secretive Opus Dei.  Levine singles out various Evangelical strengths: churches that “work well with new media, have local leaders close to the community and provide expanded roles for women and minority groups.”  Perhaps the Evangelicals’ most fundamental advantage is their success in making religious faith relevant and real to the millions of Latin Americans that have swelled the region’s violent cities and experienced wrenching social change.

Latin American Catholicism will also be shaped by how it faces its own past in a region where democracies have replaced the dictatorships of old.  The personal story of Pope Francis illustrates different dimensions of that past: an “option for the poor” that took hold after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) together with a long history of ecclesiastical accommodation with repressive regimes.  The Argentine hierarchy as a whole was seen as supportive of the military dictatorship during the massive violation of human rights in 1976‑83.  Bergoglio’s personal role is unclear.  His supporters hold that he combined pastoral concern for his flock with quiet humanitarian diplomacy toward the junta. His critics argue that he failed to protect several left wing priests and his silence constituted complicity with the regime.  Like many other clerics who rose to dominate today’s Latin American hierarchies, he did not publicly defend human rights.

As Pope Francis, Bergoglio’s personal style and pastoral simplicity already mark an important signal to his Church that it must be committed to the poor.  In Latin America it has a historic opportunity to stand for their dignity and foster their empowerment.  Public identification with their cause is vital, but so is living and working with them to overcome the poverty and violence of their communities.  John XXIII, Paul VI and notable Latin American bishops after Vatican II saw this as a matter of securing their fundamental human rights.  This is an enduring legacy of their leadership during dictatorships that Francis and his Church should build on in the democracies of today.

* 2012-13, with the support of the Religion and International Affairs Initiative of the Henry R. Luce Foundation

Religious Responses to Violence in Latin America

By Alexander Wilde, CLALS Research Fellow

Commemoration of those killed in the 1980's at a church in Cordoba, Argentina | By: Pablo Flores "pablodf" | Flickr | Creative Commons

Commemoration of those killed in the 1980’s at a church in Cordoba, Argentina | By: Pablo Flores “pablodf” | Flickr | Creative Commons

Latin America today is one of the world’s most violent regions. It has been so for 50 years, although the character and agents of violence have changed considerably over time. The “old violence” of the 20th century was largely political, associated with revolutionary insurgencies and repressive regimes that systematically violated fundamental human rights. The “new violence” is largely criminal – illegal drug traffickers and urban gangs are among the leading perpetrators – but its consequences in many societies have been comparably lethal. Countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela and Colombia have among the highest murder rates in the world.  “Citizen security” is a leading issue in politics throughout the region.

Religion played a significant part in confronting the old violence.  Human rights became a new cause for the Catholic Church, which in some cases helped legitimate peace settlements and democratic transitions. In the generation since then, Latin American Christianity has been transformed.  Evangelical and Pentecostal churches have achieved unprecedented growth. Catholicism has been reined in by Rome to curb the influence of Liberation Theology. More pietistic and spiritually-oriented theologies have flourished within both traditions. The result has been a tendency to turn away from the “political” ministries of the past – defending human rights and promoting social justice. The Christian churches, it is widely believed, have failed to address the widespread violence of today.

Fresh research, however, is revealing ways in which – although less visible at the national level – they remain a vital force in violence-plagued societies. A two-year project at American University has produced studies of religiously based shelters for Central American migrants in Mexico, a 15-year Jesuit program of peace building and development in Colombia, and an Evangelical prison ministry in Rio de Janeiro, among a dozen pieces of new research. They identify particularly the significance of an active church presence among poor and marginalized populations, who suffer disproportionately from violence. This “accompaniment” appears to be motivated by Biblically-based beliefs about Christian love, the redemptive power of God and the direct experience of living with these populations in perilous, threatening conditions. Another emerging theme in project research is the potential significance of supportive national and international allies – who clearly contributed to the defense of human rights in the past and remain important in our changed, globalized world.

Violence in Latin America today reflects the wrenching changes these societies have undergone in the last half-century, and religion has been a dynamic dimension of those changes. In the region’s civil societies and the lives of its citizens, Catholic and Evangelical Christianity remains a potent and creative presence. Where it is willing to work and live in situations of conflict and violence, it could find a new role in bringing about more stable, peaceful and just societies.