By Jeanne Marie Gagnebjn
Translation Louise Thunin
For someone from a European milieu, protestant, and politically on the left, the political disaster we see in Brazil raises numerous questions. I have lived and worked in this beautiful and terrifying country for forty years. I’d like to propose some information and some hypotheses to help in understanding.
At present, about seventy million Brazilians declare themselves evangelicals, nearly a third of the population. If the increase in the number of the faithful progresses, they will have surpassed the number of catholics in 2040. They therefore wield greater and greater political and social weight.
Following the criticism, indeed the forbidding of Liberation Theology, the catholic Church is deeply divided today. Nowadays we see a renewal of currents related to work with the poor and the very poor (work which has never ceased but was seriously kept undercover) and the training of laymen in the proliferation of « faith and politics » centers, who claim to be the heirs of Don Helder Camara (1909-1999). Commissions on justice and peace, issues of resistance to the military dictatorship, are equally present in many regions. All of these groups signed, at the end of April 2020, an important document, demanding the « the removal of the president in order to save lives and democracy. »
But these activities do not fill catholic churches, whereas new « evangelical » churches spring up every day with sometimes baroque names. The adjective « evangelical » covers a multitude of groups on the Brazilian scene : some currents are clearly from the Reformation, such as the Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians (a few Lutherans in the south of Brazil) ; they have ministerial training and are organized into synods, then a multitude of Pentecostals and Neopentecostals, which are frankly the majority. All these denominations were generally imported from the United States in the nineteenth century.
Let’s take a closer look at the Pentecostals and Neopentecostals, since it is chiefly they who supported and still support Jaïr Bolsonaro. The first Pentecostals came from the United States, yet were two Swedish missionaries, inspired by the Afro-American services that arose in Los Angeles (W.J. Seymour), services with a great deal of music, gesturing, extatic and emotional manifestations, miracles and glossolalia, services which today continue in « The Assembly of God » (founded in Belem in 1910, near the mouth of the Amazon River) and in all the Pentecostal and Neopentecostal ramifications. These services are far from the Calvinist austerity and the abstract pomp and circumstance of catholic liturgy. Here, the faithful come forward, speak, weep, sing and cry together with the encouragement of the pastor (self-proclaimed and recognized as such).
But these services have so caught on in Brazil that it is also and especially because they furnish a place of welcome to citizens totally left to themselves, without running water or sewers, schools or competent hospitals. It is estimated that half of Neopentecostals do not earn the minimum wage. As with drug trafficking, a number of these churches has been able to to take advantage of this abandonment to fill an empty space. They offer a place of communication and solidarity ; people are heard, indeed helped. This aspect is underlined by several leftist evangelicals such as the (Baptist) pastor Henrique Vieira in Rio.
This space is also a fertile terrain for the establishment of real financial empires that are based on tithing (obligatory) and the donations of the faithful, on conniving with political power (tax rebates and so on) and on a policy of communication (radio, TV and the internet), all very effective. Let’s take the example of the best-known : the head of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God », Edir Macedo, who possesses a fortune estimated at two billion reais, and who is the owner of an important tv channel and many radio stations ; he insures a constant presence in internet media. Without forgetting the gigantic « Solomon’s Temple », which he built in order to establish his bibilical genealogy, without forgetting the « Republican » party, either, which represents his church and already has a good number of deputies in Congress. Macedo is the prototype of « prosperity theology » which preaches social and financial success as a gift of God (in reply to the gifts of the faithful), who favors the struggle against Satan (author of the corona virus) and his demons in order to prepare for the return of the Messiah. Seduced by this perspective of struggle and survival, the faithful follow him and thus follow Bolsonaro, a president at war with democratic institutions, who goes along with their values : the war against evil and the acquisition of wealth. Earlier, Macedo supported Lula. Now he is faithful to himself, thus to the power in place.
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