Street vendors in São Paulo, Brazil

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2018 edition of New Humanist

"Your financial life will be healthy,” a preacher’s voice booms to a congregation of thousands in São Paulo’s crowded inner-city district of Brás. Inside the church, the crimson seats are comfortable, the air odourless and the vast marble floor immaculate. This is the Temple of Solomon, and today is Prosperity Monday.

Brazil’s newest and most spectacular Pentecostal church, the headquarters for the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), can hold 4,000 worshippers. There are six daily services, each with a different theme. Monday promises to help solve economic woes and celebrate the financial success of others. This means it can be “particularly busy”, an usher says as he attends to the Disneyland-sized line forming in front of the entrance.

Since the £185m church opened in 2014, Brazil has experienced one of the worst economic recessions in its history. Some 12.7 million people are out of work. Crime rates across six states teeter into civil war territory and homelessness in the biggest cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro is on the rise. This toxic mix of poverty and violence has left many of Brazil’s citizens desperate for hope.

The belief that faith can lead to riches is a form of Pentecostalism known as the prosperity gospel. The possession of material goods is seen as proof of a good dialogue with God. In a cash-strapped Brazil, these promises of personal wealth are drawing big crowds. At the Temple of Solomon, the clean bathrooms, free water fountains and safety provided by security guards add to the appeal.

The church, supposedly a replica of the ancient Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, is a symbol of the rising power of evangelical Christianity. Estimates suggest that 28 per cent of the population consider themselves evangelical. According to official statistics, back in 2000 that figure was barely 15 per cent, and in 1980, just six. These increases have gone hand in hand with a decline in Roman Catholic congregations. In 1970, 92 per cent of Brazil’s population considered themselves Catholic. That had dropped to under 65 per cent in 2010. Many who call themselves Catholic do not actively attend church.

The UCKG, a global evangelical church founded in Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s, has one of the largest congregations, at roughly seven million. Walk down any high street, even in remote parts of the country, and the church’s seal of red hearts with white doves adorns shop windows, lampposts and car bumpers. Evangelism has been rising in Brazil for at least two decades. But in recent years, its influence and reach have stepped up. “When the economy is doing badly, when there are no jobs, we respond to that,” says José Maria de Souza Junior, an international relations professor at Rio Branco University in São Paulo.

As evangelism has grown (from 22 million to 27 million congregants over the last five years), so has its political influence. Already, 93 of the 513 lower house representatives and three of Brazil’s 81 senators are aligned with evangelical churches, while famous footballers openly promote churches at international matches. Evangelical church officials tend to downplay their links to politics. But evangelicals are playing a key role in imposing regressive law changes – seeking to restrict access to abortion and introduce life sentences without parole. These are reminiscent of policies in place during the country’s decades-long military dictatorship, which ended in 1985.

As October’s general election approaches, evangelical churches are seeking a bigger role in politics, with plans to secure at least 150 seats in the lower house and an additional 12 senators. Although they posit themselves as an alternative to corrupt politicians, the churches are broadly unregulated and not transparent about their finances. Their play for greater influence raises serious questions about the future of South America’s biggest economy. So why are so many people in Brazil flocking to evangelism, and how could this change the country?

* * *

A few hundred metres from Rio de Janeiro’s palm-tree-lined sea front, Marcelo Crivella is holding a microphone. The newly appointed 60-year-old mayor of Rio is addressing and blessing a large group of residents.

“Crivella is different, he is pure,” shouts one member of the UCKG standing in the crowd. This sums up the appeal of evangelical politicians to many voters: they stand as an alternative to corrupt congressmen. Other politicians linked to the church are looking to Crivella’s success.

A former gospel singer with the UCKG, Crivella won control of Rio in November last year. His victory was a surprise: Rio is a broadly progressive city, famous for its annual carnival and gay pride march. But Rio has also been hit by a recent surge of gang violence and unemployment. Crivella may have condemned homosexuality, but he also promised to crack down on crime. His appointment solidified the rise of religious conservatism in national politics and showed that voters were willing to choose candidates from outside the mainstream.

The evangelical vote in this October’s presidential election is looking towards Jair “Messias” Bolsonaro. A firebrand former army captain, he was baptised live on television in 2016 by Pastor Everaldo, a prominent leader of the Pentecostal church of the Assembly of God (the second biggest evangelical church). Evangelical leaders are backing Bolsonaro, and he has garnered roughly 30 per cent of public support in early polls. However, he hasn’t secured support from a major political group: his attitudes and policies remain controversial in a country where the prevailing political mode is liberal conservatism. Bolsonaro has said he’d prefer “a dead son, over a gay son”. Without proper endorsement and funding for his campaign, some argue he will struggle when the race officially kicks off in August.

However in 2018 the power of social media and a notable shift in political, social, and religious attitudes could all play in Bolsonaro’s favour. His main campaign message is that he is incorruptible. Some 120 million voters are connected to the internet in Brazil. Bolsonaro commands by far the biggest number of followers across the most popular social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) with 8 million in total as of August 2018. That’s 3 million more than his main rival in online popularity, former president Lula da Silva, who plans to stand despite sitting out a 12-year prison sentence for

National politics today is extremely fragmented, and the evangelical bloc – already sizeable – can use this precise moment to their advantage. Spanning different parties, the group has an estimated strength of more than 10 per cent of the lower house of Congress, second only to the “ruralistas”, or large-scale farmers’ group. The more seats they secure, the easier it will be to exert influence over government financing, the media, tax reforms and legislation, particularly when few single groups currently dominate the political arena.

Their legislative priorities are conservative by Brazilian standards and could restrict liberties for ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. One priority is to lower the age at which youths can be tried as adults, in an attempt to curb escalating crime rates. Evangelical congressmen are pursuing an anti-gay, anti-abortion and, in some cases, pro-firearm agenda.

The political power of evangelism was first felt in the capital Brasilia in 2011 when the government of Dilma Rousseff, then president, sought to introduce an “anti-homophobia kit” in schools. Evangelical politicians threatened to withdraw support for the ruling coalition, made up of the left-wing Workers’ Party and centre-right Social Democrats. Rousseff’s plan was swiftly shelved. If evangelicals secure more seats in 2018, this blocking of new legislation could become a regular occurrence.

* * *

For nearly two decades, the socialist Workers’ Party dominated national politics with its palatable populist message. During the first half of the party’s administration, the Brazilian economy grew at its fastest rate in a quarter of a century. Credit was abundant, prices heavily subsidised by the state, and a new, confident middle-class was expanding. In the words of Lula, then president, they “took 36 million people out of extreme misery and allowed 40 million to join the middle class.” The church – both Catholic and evangelical – took a backseat in politics, as the state provided people with a level of security.

That optimism is barely recognisable today. Lula was convicted of masterminding the largest bribery scheme in the country’s history and since April this year has been in prison. Rousseff, his successor, was impeached in 2016 for fiddling with government accounts. Today, Brazil is consumed by a prolonged economic and political crisis and voters are tired of a political class seen as self-serving.

A vast anti-corruption investigation, operation Lava Jato (or Car Wash), has implicated dozens of politicians across the ideological spectrum. In a recent survey by Ipsos, 94 per cent of Brazilians said they do not feel represented by their politicians. Many are turning towards “clean” outsiders not embroiled in the bribery scandal.

This is where practising evangelicals and their virtuous image come in. These politicians have been given a boost by recent campaign financing reforms, which restrict donations from Brazilian companies, but allow churches to direct their congregations – and their TV and radio channels – towards favoured political contenders. Politicians who align themselves with the evangelicals can legally access the vast resources at the disposal of these churches, although most do not readily admit to church financing.

This is no small benefit. The founder of the UCKG and its bishop in Brazil, Edir Macedo, is widely considered one of the fathers of the modern Theology of Prosperity. He owns a major national television network, Record. Since he purchased it in 1989, Record’s audience has catapulted to 15 per cent of Brazil’s overall TV audience – second only to Globo. Macedo is Brazil’s richest pastor, with an estimated net worth of £708m. He also happens to be the uncle of Crivella, the newly appointed mayor of Rio.

* * *

Despite its massive wealth and influence, the evangelical church has successfully appealed to those who have suffered most from the prolonged economic downturn. Sitting at a kitchen table, Edneir Oliveira dos Santos, a woman in her mid-50s, is preparing to go to one of UCKG’s Thursday sermons. She was born to a large Catholic family in the poor north-eastern state of Bahia, and grew up illiterate. On moving south to São Paulo, she switched allegiances and learnt to write. “I’d been praying to all these saints at the Catholic services and felt I’d forgotten about Jesus. My church today is more accessible,” she says, adding that the pastor “really explains” the Bible.

Like many in Brazil, Santos associates Catholic congregations with “smart clothes, rich people”. She met her husband, a shoemaker, a few years ago through a UCKG church gathering and says that the church’s work with the homeless is addressing a very real present-day problem in Brazil. “I’ve seen [evangelicals] welcome very lost people in my area – by just giving them a cafezinho and talking,” she says. Pastors at her church attend to the dozens of addicts sleeping rough, whom she says the state has all but abandoned. Evangelism has long appealed to working-class communities, but the hardship of recession has strengthened its message.

The role of class differences in evangelism’s rise is reflected by Brazil’s most famous international celebrities: its footballers. Many of Brazil’s top footballers hail from working-class communities – and many are neo-Pentecostalists, committed to spreading the evangelical message at home and abroad.

AC Milan’s former midfielder Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, or “Kaká”, was anointed a Presbyterian priest. Current Cruzeiro Esporte striker Frederico “Fred” Chaves Guedes is a recent convert. Luís Antônio Corrêa da Costa, aka “Müller”, became a pastor, while both Rivaldo and Jorginho, part of the national team that brought Brazil to World Cup victory in 2002 and 1994 respectively, founded their own churches. Rather than discussing the technicalities of the game in post-match interviews, many thank Jesus and refer to their direct relationship with the Holy Spirit. “Through television images, photos in the press, but more currently through posts on social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), these symbolic gestures promote Neo-Pentecostals’ religious beliefs,” writes Professor Carmen Rial, a social anthropologist at the Federal University of Santa Catarina.

Links between sport and religion are nothing new to Brazil – all the great Brazilian clubs have their own Catholic chapels and patron saint. But shared financial interests make the relationship between evangelicals and football more powerful. The church gains more worshippers and thus more donations from footballers and their fans; the players build their fame among churchgoers and receive significant support to pursue their sporting careers. Together they are using this moment of political and economic fragility to influence national politics as they play together on a new stage in modern Brazil. The football players, especially those working in Europe, are major financial contributors to the evangelical churches now seeking greater
political influence. And Ronaldinho, who memorably scored the goal that knocked England out of the 2002 World Cup, joined the conservative Brazilian Republican Party (PRB) earlier this year, a party linked to the UCKG. He may even stand for Congress.

Brazil’s religious institutions operate without much scrutiny. Churches do not have to disclose their financial records to authorities, and worshippers rarely report their donations on tax forms. Last year, federal police uncovered a ring of evangelical pastors accused of running a Ponzi scheme in which 25,000 churchgoers were asked to invest at least £750 with pledges of high returns that never materialised. The UCKG founder Bishop Macedo has faced down a number of scandals and was briefly jailed in 1992 on fraud charges. In 2011, São Paulo federal prosecutors charged him and three other church leaders with money laundering, tax evasion and racketeering. Macedo is yet to be tried for the charge of money laundering, while the other charges have since expired or been rejected in court. Macedo brands the charges persecution.

Brazil has made huge efforts to crack down on corruption and clean up politics in recent years. The rise of the evangelical church seems at odds with this broader progress. If voted in, the evangelical candidates will command a significant slice of political power, and other parties will be forced to negotiate with the bloc. Perhaps the big question for Brazil is whether it is about to replace one establishment with another.