Invasion of the Sects: Pentecostalism in Latin America

Please click here to proceed to image galleries.

Latin America has long been considered the world stronghold of Roman Catholicism. This religious identity has been virtually inseparable from the social and political fabric of the region since the arrival of the Conquistadors. Only 30 years ago, just 2-3 percent of Latin Americans declared themselves Protestant. Today 15 percent do, and their numbers are growing at a rate double that of population growth in the region. Some sociologists estimate the percentage of evangelicals in Latin America could reach 31 percent. Brazil could reach 57 percent with over 100 million evangelical Protestants.

The growth of conservative Protestantism in Latin America is as significant as the rise of revolutionary Islam, asserts sociologist David Martin of the London School of Economics. Since the Iranian revolution, militant Islam has reshaped world culture and politics. But the rise of Pentecostalism in Latin America happened largely without notice by the Western World. “Suddenly the great Catholic continent, home of almost half the Catholics in the world, is swarming with evangelicals, above all Pentecostals,” Martin writes.

Fervent Pentecostal services — in which worshippers speak in tongues and seek other manifestations of the Holy Spirit — ring out through the slums of Brazil, where up to 25 million evangelicals live. Researchers at the unaffiliated Religious Studies Institute (ISER) in Rio de Janeiro assert that evangelical Protestantism is “the most important movement changing attitudes in contemporary Brazilian society, especially in the poorest urban strata.”

With 126 million on church rolls, Brazil is the world’s largest Catholic country, but barely a tenth of those are regular churchgoers. Considering the 25 million the evangelical sects boast, there are surely more evangelicals than Catholics in church on Sunday.

According an ISER study, 90 percent of new growing churches in the state of Rio de Janeiro are Pentecostal. And Rio, a city of nine million where five new evangelical churches open every week, “is the center of the Pentecostal earthquake,” says ISER researcher André Mello.
“They are destroying Brazilian culture,” notes ISER anthropologist Rubem César Fernandes. “You’re not supposed to samba if you’re a member of one of these churches.”

Reasons for evangelical growth vary by country throughout Latin America, but there is one constant — the failure of the Catholic Church to meet its congregation's needs.

A notable failure for the Catholic Church was the Liberation Theology movement of the 1970s and 1980s which attempted to bring the church closer to the poor by mobilizing them for social change. But researchers found the people too busy trying to meet basic needs, too spiritually hungry, and too cynical about reform to accept a doctrine of social and political action.
Sociologist Phillip Berryman feels the Catholic Church lost touch with its flock because of vast social differences between priests and parishioners.

“Most Protestant ministers come from the same class and culture as their congregations,” Berryman said. “By contrast, most progressive Catholic priests, while striving to provide an ‘option for the poor,’ inhabit another world by virtue of culture, training and class.”

If it was at first stunned by the explosive growth of Pentecostal sects throughout Latin America, the Catholic Church is now mounting a credible response in the form of 33-year-old Padre Marcelo Rossi. The former aerobics instructor leads regular weekday masses in São Paulo, Brazil, that draw up to 10,000 worshippers to his Church of the Byzantine Rosary. Daily radio and TV broadcasts attract millions more across the country. Sales of the compact discs of hymns and prayers he has recorded have sold 5.2 million copies.

In November 1999, Rossi held a mass in the streets of São Paulo’s Interlagos neighborhood that drew an estimated 600,000 people. The production involved a stage 40 feet above a street intersection with two mammoth TV monitors sending images of the service to the third-largest crowd ever to attend a religious service in Brazil. Rossi’s mass was third only to two held by Pope John Paul II.

The charismatic priest has jump-started growth in the Catholic Church. Since his ordination in 1994, the diocese of Santo Amaro where Rossi serves has opened 30 new parishes, largely on the popularity of the athletic, blue-eyed priest. In the same period numbers of seminarians jumped from five to 115.

Protestants also make gains by invading areas chronically short of Catholic priests, such as parts of Perú formerly overrun by the Shining Path guerrillas, or in remote areas of Guatemala. Conversions tend to be by whole families or social groups, and the massive slums of the Third World have provided an open door for the work of evangelists.

ISER researcher André Mello argues that the strict moral path of Pentecostalism is a powerful attraction for Latin America’s poor who face constant economic and personal crises.

Adherence to the strict rules of the new locally-grown Pentecostal churches can fulfill the miracles promised by ministers who claim their members will receive the help of Jesus in finding jobs. “An evangelical person has a promise to be faithful to God, faithful in business, sincere in work, obedient to his bosses,” explains Brazilian Pentecostal pastor Odair Gomes. Such converts naturally win more jobs in an increasingly tight Latin American job market.

Anthropologist David Stoll also sees changes in the personal lives of church members. “Latin American women back the evangelical Protestant movement because its ban on alcohol, gambling and whoring means men no longer waste the family food budget,” Stoll told Reuters.

Some critics have attributed this “invasion of the sects” to conscious North American political strategy and financial support of the religious Right. It is clear that many converts define being “American” as being Protestant, and aspirations to be more Norte Americano are powerful.
But the facts show that this is a truly indigenous movement sustained by the financial support of church members. Congregations are often exhorted to contribute much of their income as a demonstration of their faith. Empires have been built on such donations.

Brazil’s Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is now the country’s 34th-largest enterprise, with the country’s third-largest TV network, 35 radio stations, a bank, a furniture factory, and 2,100 churches in 46 countries — all gained on the generosity of a congregation drawn from among the poorest people in the world.

The church was founded in 1977 by Bishop Edir Macedo, a man frequently investigated for fraud who now spends most of his time in New York. He has filled Rio’s gigantic Maracanã soccer stadium with 250,000 for revival meetings, and dragged out duffel bags full of cash.

In October 1995, tensions rose between the Catholic Church and the growing Pentecostal sects when a bishop of the Universal Church derided Catholics for “idol worship” by aggressively attacking a statue of the Virgin Mary on a live television broadcast. “This doesn’t perform miracles,” Bishop Sergio von Helder asserted. Though Catholic leaders appealed for calm, some Brazilians broke into Universal churches to smash pulpits, sound equipment and windows.

With evangelical churches growing so rapidly, demand for new ministers is high and many take to the pulpits with little theological education, simply declaring themselves ministers. That has created problems in a few cases.

In late 1998, six members of the United Pentecostal Church of Brazil were arrested at a remote rubber plantation after they subjected former members of the group to vicious, ritual beatings. Members of the tiny religious cult deep in the Amazon beat and kicked to death six people, including three children, to “wipe out the enemies of God,” Brazilian police told Reuters.

The killings began when the pastor of the church announced during a sermon that he could hear “voices from Jesus Christ” ordering a former leader of the group and all his followers to be punished. Helped by his wife, he and two other men began beating, whipping and stamping on the worshippers to chants of “out, Satan!” Among the dead were two boys, ages three and four, allegedly killed by their father, and another 13-year-old boy. The mother of the dead brothers also was murdered.

By sheer consequence of numbers, evangelical movements are at least a potential political force in all Latin American countries. Without his identity as an evangelical, Jorge Serrano Elías might not have won Guatemala’s presidency in 1991, and nominally Catholic Alberto Fujimori openly courted the evangelical vote in Perú for his 1990 and 1995 victories.

In election years Brazil’s Pentecostal churches flex their public opinion muscle by turning their pulpits into political stumps. “This season you have something that is worth as much as money, something that you should also give to Jesus. It is your vote,” the Rio daily O Globo reported a minister of Macedo’s Universal Church as preaching prior to the 1996 general election. The votes commanded by the leaders of the Universal Church are impressive. Research following the 1996 election showed 50 percent of its members followed the church’s endorsements.

Brazil’s 1998 elections chose officials from the nation’s president to its state governors, and candidates from across the political spectrum courted evangelical endorsements. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, in prior years identified as an agnostic, increasingly invoked the name of God in speeches and interviews prior to his reelection, reported O Globo.

At an August 1999 dinner, socialist presidential contender Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva charmed leaders from 62 evangelical denominations to his social reform cause. “No one in this world was more socialist than Jesus Christ,” Lula argued. “No one wanted more to divide the bread than he, and for this he was persecuted.”

Throughout the region the new protestant politicians are not uniformly from either side of any aisle. Evangelical candidates like the socialist gubernatorial team of Anthony Garotinho and Senator Benedita da Silva in Rio attracted the support of evangelical elected officials from all parties, including conservative congressman Francisco Silva. Owner of the third-ranked radio station in Rio, Silva won the most votes of any congressman in the 1996 election.

As David Martin suggests, the growing congregations may be a route to political reform. “Pentecostals’ actual activity on the ground — running things, joining choirs, engaging in orchestras, learning to read and do Bible study — are the basic learning material of a democratic system,” he told the Boston Globe.

Please click here to proceed to image galleries.