How the prosperity gospel is sparking a major change in the world’s most Catholic country

Fellows 2017

By Sarah Pulliam Bailey

October 30, 2017

Also published by The Washington Post

SAO PAULO — Speaking from a stage encircled by 12 large wooden crosses, Gabriel Camargo held up wads of fake Brazilian money, showing his flock what could be theirs.

“God will bless you if you give a lot more to the church,” said Camargo, a pastor with the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

Then he extended an arm and pointed a large black pouch toward his parishioners in the working-class neighborhood of Osasco.

Pick up your wallets and purses, he said, instructing his flock to look for Brazilian reais. About a dozen people hurried forward, dumping bills and change into the bag.

Those without cash didn’t have to worry: An usher held out a credit card machine. “You’ll have so much money,” by giving generously to the church, the pastor boomed, that “smoke is going to come out of the machine.”

In a country struggling with the worst economic crisis in its history, with long queues at unemployment offices and public health clinics, perhaps it’s not surprising that Brazilians are increasingly drawn to the promises of personal wealth.

The belief that faith can lead to riches — known as the prosperity gospel — is a form of Pentecostalism, a Protestant faith group which in a modern-day version of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago, is challenging the dominance of the Catholic Church in Latin America’s most populous country.

Brazil, which has the most Catholics per capita of any country in the world, is undergoing religious debates similar to those sparked in 1517 by a fiery German preacher named Martin Luther — over church riches and corruption, political power and the proper way to read the Bible. By 2030, Catholics, now the religious majority in Brazil, are projected to become a religious minority.

Pentecostalism, which is sweeping across Latin America and Africa, is also challenging Catholicism worldwide. The Catholic Church has 1.1 billion members worldwide, about half of all Christians, but much of the global growth in Christianity is found in Pentecostalism, with about 300 million followers, according to the Pew Research Center.

Known for charismatic practices such as the laying on of hands for healing, exorcism and speaking in tongues, and its emphasis on cultivating a personal relationship with Jesus, Pentecostalism has done a particularly good job of adapting itself to Brazilian culture, with pastors who tend to look and talk more like their flocks than Catholic priests do.

The prosperity gospel has spread quickly in poorer neighborhoods, as the unemployment rate has climbed to a record 13 percent. The movement’s promises of a better material life through actions such as giving and prayer, as well as its strict social rules in Brazil banning urban ills like drinking and smoking, give followers a sense of structure and agency over their lives, said Paul Freston, a sociologist and an expert in Pentecostalism in Latin America.

“You learn to see yourself as an agent who has possibilities, who has the ability with God’s help to achieve things, to get control of yourself,” Freston said. “It doesn’t mean you become rich, but it often means you rise from absolute destitution to dignified poverty.”

Money matters

Much as they do in the United States, prosperity gospel pastors also serve as role models for wealth attainment. Yet standing by the pool outside his $1.5 million house, Silas Malafaia, one of Brazil’s most famous prosperity preachers, insists he doesn’t live extravagantly.

Malafaia is one of the country’s most prominent and controversial preachers, wielding enormous political clout on behalf of the nation’s evangelical population. In Brazil, the term evangelical is used synonymously with Protestant, about 70 percent of whom are Pentecostal.

Many Brazilian pastors like Malafaia take their cues from prominent American prosperity gospel preachers, who have grown in influence as advisers to President Trump, even though only 3.6 percent of Americans are Pentecostal compared to about a quarter of Brazilians. Evangelicals in Brazil have harnessed a voting bloc in Congress that enables them to lobby against gay rights and abortion and for the death penalty and limited government.

“Pentecostals have been a decisive element in tilting the Brazilian agenda toward conservative views and policies,” said Joanildo Burity, who researches Brazilian evangelicals and politics.

Wearing a purple shirt, his hair slicked back, the 59-year-old Malafaia compared himself to evangelist Billy Graham, who was a friend of several U.S. presidents. There’s nothing wrong with ministers having wealth if they get their money through side projects, as he said he does through his spiritual bestsellers.

Pastors should also be compensated for the size of their ministries, Malafaia said.

“God wants me to be mediocre? The devil would give riches to everyone else,” he said.

Malafaia said he is like Martin Luther because he, too, wants the Bible in the hands of average parishioners instead of interpreted for them primarily by a religious elite.

“Have you ever seen the pope with a Bible in his hand?” Malafaia said. “The Catholic church doesn’t incentivize you to have the Bible in your hands. Catholics believe in leaders and the pope. Evangelicals believe in the Bible.”

Indeed, most of the 4,000 people who streamed into his Assembly of God Victory in Christ church in a lower-class neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro for a Thursday night service came bearing Bibles in their hands. But even many Protestants in Brazil find it laughable that Malafaia is leading a reformation because they believe that leaders like him who focus on prosperity are selling a false gospel.

They compare Pentecostalism’s promise of personal wealth in exchange for donations to the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences in exchange for the forgiveness of sins in the 16th century, a practice that was famously criticized by Martin Luther.

Augustus Nicodemus Lopes, a Presbyterian minister, called the churches that promote a prosperity gospel “cults” and criticized their pastors for distributing healing cloths anointed with oil while asking for donations. “They’re saying, your pocket needs religion,” Lopes said. He hopes for a reformation in Brazil — of Pentecostal churches.

The Catholic Church competes

Pope Francis took his first overseas trip to Brazil right before it hosted the World Cup and the Olympics, when the country was riding a global commodities boom to prosperity. Many people here at the time felt the papal visit confirmed Brazil’s position at the top of the world.

Manuel Jose da Penho, and his wife Maria, remember the exhilaration they felt when the pope showed up at their home. A framed photo of the visit hangs above a couch in their living room to remind them of that day.

The couple recalled how different things were before Francis’s 2013 visit. Their parish held Mass just once on Sunday. Its 100 seats were never filled up. Now the parish offers two Masses on Sunday and five more during the week.

“I have never seen the church as full as it has been since Pope Francis. After he came it was like a spiritual revival,” said da Penho, an electrician, who recently listed his two-bedroom house in a Rio de Janeiro slum for a premium price with the pitch “Pope Francis was here.”

Enthusiasm for the first Latin American pope prompted predictions of a Catholic revival in Brazil, but experts think it’s still too soon to tell whether the “Francis effect” can counteract the rise in Pentecostalism, which had been well underway before the pope’s visit.

The 2014 recession in Brazil attracted more Catholics to the prosperity gospel, complicating the Church’s challenge.

Now even with a popular pope, the church is desperately trying to keep young people like 28-year-old Marina Silva, who is unemployed, from leaving the faith. The prosperity gospel’s promises of riches, however, is just one front in the competition.

Sipping orange juice in a cafe before her next job interview, Silva explained that Brazilians are known for picking and choosing from different cultures and traditions in everything from food, art and music.

“We don’t have strict characteristics,” she said. “We mix things together to make them good. We are not like good little lambs.”

To win over Brazilians, the Catholic Church is attempting to appeal to people like Silva by mixing in charismatic components of Pentecostalism that have more emotional elements, including catchier music.

Catholic priests like Marcelo Rossi, who has sold millions of his own CDs, have become increasingly popular. Rossi’s Masses attract people from all over the city to his outdoor sanctuary with a sloping roof where white plastic chairs replace traditional pews and paintings on concrete walls replace stained-glass windows.

At a recent service Silva attended, teenagers took selfies, livestreamed the service on their Instagram accounts and swayed along with their hands waving back and forth as if they were at a rock concert.

“Glory, glory hallelujah.” Rossi sang as he stuck his mic into the crowd.

The competition for souls is so fierce in Brazil, that every church must try mightily to stand out from the rest, said Odilo Scherer, Archbishop of Sao Paulo.

“Today, people go by their personal subjective tastes and experiences,” said Scherer, who was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI. “In our Brazilian context, religion is presented as a product in a marketplace which seeks to please the customer and present a product that is appetizing.”

Showy churches and charges of corruption

To stand out in this marketplace and demonstrate their wealth and power, Pentecostal congregations have built enormous churches across the Brazilian landscape. Amid Sao Paulo’s landscape of high rises sprawls one compound that is perhaps the most lavish of all: a replica of the biblical Solomon’s Temple.

Inside, an auditorium that seats 12,000 is flanked on both sides by menorahs, a nod to the church leaders’ love for Jewish symbolism. Security guards in black suits buzz about as female ushers in white tunics and gold sashes hold large golden baskets in preparation for the offering. After services, members flock to a water fountain to fill up empty bottles with water that has been blessed.

The temple’s construction in 2014 carried obvious symbolism: The biblical story of Solomon suggests that when he was king of Israel, he asked God for wisdom and was granted wealth as well.

The massive church has also come to symbolize a challenge facing the Pentecostal Church in Brazil. Much like leaders of the Catholic Church in Europe during Martin Luther’s time, some prominent Pentecostals have become embroiled in high-profile political and financial scandals.

Edir Macedo, pastor of the temple and founder of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God denomination, has fought accusations of corruption, including allegations that his church siphoned billions of dollars set aside for charity. In 1992, Macedo spent 11 days in jail on charges of charlatanism, for being a faith healer and a fraud.

Still, Macedo maintains enormous reach through TV and social media and his political endorsements are hugely influential. A 2015 Datafolha poll shows that his church was considered the fifth most influential institution in Brazil, above the presidency. The mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Macedo’s nephew, is a bishop in the denomination, which has affiliated churches in the United States.

Other prominent Pentecostals have been involved in scandals splashed across Brazil’s front pages. Megachurch pastors Estevam and Sônia Hernandes were arrested in 2007 in Miami for illegally smuggling money into the United States. A prominent Pentecostal, Eduardo Cunha, was the first major politician sentenced to prison this year in a huge corruption scandal called Operation Car Wash that has ensnared many high profile politicians.

“What makes this scandalous of course is that the evangelicals set themselves apart rhetorically as a force for moral goodness and order,” said Eric Miller, a professor at Geneva College who grew up in Brazil and studies religion in the country.

Even so, many Brazilians are already jaded by kickbacks and bribes in the country in general, so it’s difficult to say if scandals are enough to turn people away from Pentecostalism, Miller said.

But the Catholic Church has at least one advantage over its Pentecostal counterparts in Brazil. While it doesn’t promise riches, it tends to do a better job of providing social services like food and shelter, said Celso Rudeck, a pastor in a small Catholic parish across the street from the Solomon’s Temple replica.

So sometimes when former Catholics tire of praying for money without result, they return to the flock for help in this world, he said.