Addressing his congregation from a stage adorned with a circle of twelve large wooden crosses, Gabriel Camargo brandished a stack of counterfeit Brazilian banknotes, enticing his flock with the possibility of wealth.
The Pentecostal pastor from the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God asserted, “If you donate generously to the church, God will shower you with blessings.” He then gestured with a black pouch towards his congregants in the lower-class locality of Osasco.
Camargo instructed them to retrieve their wallets and purses and search for Brazilian reais. Several individuals hastened to pour bills and coins into the pouch.
Those who lacked cash need not be anxious; an usher presented a credit card machine. The pastor thundered that, by contributing handsomely to the church, “You will have an abundance of riches that the machine will start emitting smoke.”
Given the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history, with extensive queues at job centers and public health clinics, it’s not surprising that Brazilians are increasingly lured by the promise of personal prosperity.
The notion that religious faith can lead to material wealth, commonly referred to as the prosperity gospel, is a facet of Pentecostalism, a Protestant movement that challenges the Catholic Church’s influence in Latin America’s most populous nation in a contemporary reformation. Brazil, home to the largest number of Catholics globally, is currently grappling with religious debates similar to those ignited by a fervent German preacher, Martin Luther, in 1517. These debates focus on church wealth and corruption, political power, and the appropriate approach to interpreting the Bible. By 2030, the Catholic population, which presently constitutes the religious majority in Brazil, is anticipated to become a minority.
Pentecostalism, which is sweeping through Latin America and Africa, poses a challenge to Catholicism globally. The Catholic Church, with over 1.1 billion adherents worldwide, represents approximately half of all Christians. However, much of Christianity’s growth worldwide is attributed to Pentecostalism, which has an estimated 300 million adherents, according to the Pew Research Center.
Pentecostalism is a Christian denomination that is known for its charismatic practices, which include laying on of hands for healing, exorcisms, and speaking in tongues. Moreover, this denomination emphasizes cultivating a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Pentecostalism has successfully adapted to Brazilian culture, with pastors who resemble their congregations more than Catholic priests do.
In Brazil’s poorer neighborhoods, the prosperity gospel has spread rapidly as the unemployment rate has hit an all-time high of 13 percent. This movement offers its followers the promise of a better material life through acts of giving and prayer. The prosperity gospel also enforces strict social rules that prohibit harmful behaviors such as drinking and smoking, which provide followers with a sense of structure and control over their lives. According to Paul Freston, a sociologist and an expert in Pentecostalism in Latin America, this sense of agency is essential for followers who often come from destitute backgrounds.
Freston explained that followers learn to see themselves as agents with possibilities, who, with God’s help, can achieve their goals and gain control over their lives. This mindset does not necessarily result in wealth, but it can elevate them from absolute destitution to dignified poverty.
Prosperity-gospel pastors in Brazil, much like in the United States, are viewed as examples of attaining wealth. Silas Malafaia, one of Brazil’s most well-known prosperity preachers, denies living an extravagant life while standing by his $1.5 million home’s pool.
Malafaia is a highly prominent and controversial preacher in Brazil, holding immense political power and advocating for the evangelical population. In Brazil, “evangelical” is a term used interchangeably with “Protestant,” and about 70% of the country’s Protestants are Pentecostal.
Many Brazilian pastors, including Malafaia, take inspiration from influential American prosperity-gospel preachers who have grown in influence as advisers to former President Trump. However, only 3.6% of Americans are Pentecostal, whereas about a quarter of Brazilians are. As a result, evangelicals in Brazil have formed a voting bloc in the National Congress, allowing them to lobby for limited government and against gay rights and abortion while advocating for the death penalty.
According to Joanildo Burity, a researcher of Brazilian evangelicals and politics, Pentecostals have played a significant role in pushing Brazil’s agenda towards conservative views and policies.
Silas Malafaia, a 59-year-old prosperity-gospel preacher, compared himself to renowned evangelist Billy Graham while wearing a purple shirt and slicked-back hair. Malafaia defended the wealth of ministers earned through side projects, such as his spiritual bestsellers, and argued that pastors should be compensated based on their ministry’s size.
Malafaia questioned why God would want him to be mediocre and argued that the devil would offer wealth to everyone else. He likened himself to Luther, who wanted average parishioners to have access to the Bible instead of relying solely on religious elites for interpretation.
Silas Malafaia, a prominent prosperity-gospel preacher, pointed out that the Catholic Church does not encourage its followers to read the Bible. In contrast, he stated that Evangelicals believe in the Bible and its teachings.
During a Thursday night service at his Assembly of God Victory in Christ church in a Rio de Janeiro lower-class neighborhood, many of the approximately 4,000 attendees held Bibles. However, some Protestants in Brazil find it difficult to accept Malafaia’s leadership in a reformation that focuses on prosperity, as they believe that such leaders are promoting a false gospel.
In fact, some Brazilians equate Pentecostalism’s promise of personal wealth in exchange for donations with the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences in the 16th century. This practice was famously criticized by Luther.
Augustus Nicodemus Lopes, a Presbyterian minister, has criticized the prosperity gospel churches as “cults” for promoting the idea of donating money in exchange for personal wealth and distributing healing cloths anointed with oil. He believes that there needs to be a reformation of Pentecostal churches in Brazil.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has been competing with the prosperity-gospel churches for followers in Brazil. Pope Francis visited Brazil in 2013, just before the country hosted the World Cup and the Olympics, when the country was experiencing an economic boom. Many Brazilians at the time felt that the papal visit confirmed their country’s position at the top of the world.
One couple, Manuel Jose da Penho and his wife Maria, were exhilarated by the Pope’s visit to their home. They recalled that their parish used to hold Mass only once on Sundays before the visit, but now it offers two Masses on Sundays and five on weekdays.
According to da Penho, who recently put up his two-bedroom house in a Rio de Janeiro slum for sale with the catchy tagline “Pope Francis was here”, the pope’s visit was nothing short of a spiritual awakening. However, despite the excitement for the first Latin American pope, experts are uncertain if it can offset the growing influence of Pentecostalism, which has been gaining traction even before the pope’s arrival.
The recession in Brazil in 2014 further complicated the Catholic Church’s challenge. Nowadays, despite having a popular pope, the Church is struggling to retain young people like Marina Silva, a 28-year-old unemployed woman, from abandoning the faith. The prosperity gospel’s allure of wealth is just one of the challenges that the Church faces in the battle for followers.
While sipping her orange juice at a café in Sao Paulo before her next job interview, Silva mentioned that Brazilians are renowned for cherry-picking from different traditions, whether it’s food, art, or music.
“There are no rigid traits in our approach,” she expressed. “We blend elements to create a harmonious experience. We’re not akin to well-behaved lambs.”
In an effort to captivate Brazilians, the Catholic Church seeks to resonate with individuals like Silva by incorporating the captivating aspects of Pentecostalism, which emphasize emotional connections and more engaging tunes.
Clergymen such as Marcelo Rossi, who has garnered millions of CD sales, are experiencing a surge in popularity. Rossi’s Masses draw attendees from across the city to his open-air sanctuary.
During a recent service attended by Silva, young people snapped selfies, broadcasted the event on Instagram, and swayed to the rhythm, their hands waving side to side as though they were at a lively concert.
“Glory, glory, hallelujah,” Rossi crooned, extending his microphone.
The struggle for spiritual allegiance in Brazil is so intense that every church must strive vigorously to distinguish itself, according to Odilo Scherer, the Archbishop of São Paulo.
“Presently, individuals are guided by their personal preferences and experiences,” Scherer remarked, who was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI. “In the Brazilian landscape, religion is offered as a commodity in a market that aims to satisfy the consumer and provide an appealing experience.”
In an effort to stand apart in this competitive environment and exhibit their prosperity and influence, Pentecostal congregations have constructed massive churches throughout Brazil. One particularly extravagant complex, nestled among São Paulo’s towering buildings, is a replica of the biblical Solomon’s Temple.
The interior features a 12,000-seat auditorium, with menorahs on either side as a testament to the church leaders’ affinity for Jewish iconography. Security personnel in sleek black suits patrol the area, while female attendants in white robes and golden sashes bear sizeable gold baskets, ready for offerings. After services, congregants gather around a water fountain to fill their empty bottles with blessed water.
The temple’s construction in 2014 bore distinct symbolism: The biblical narrative of Solomon implies that when he was the king of Israel, he requested wisdom from God and was subsequently granted wealth.
However, the grandiose church has also come to represent a challenge confronting Pentecostalism in Brazil. Similar to Catholic Church leaders in Europe during Luther’s era, some prominent Pentecostals have become entangled in high-profile political and financial controversies.
Edir Macedo, the temple’s pastor and founder of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God denomination, has faced allegations of corruption, including claims that his church diverted billions of dollars intended for charitable causes. In 1992, Macedo spent 11 days in jail on charges of charlatanism.
Despite the controversies, Macedo retains considerable influence through television and social media, and his political endorsements carry significant weight. A 2015 Datafolha poll ranked his church as the fifth most influential institution in Brazil, surpassing the presidency. The mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Macedo’s nephew, is a bishop within the denomination.
Various other prominent Pentecostals have been embroiled in scandals that have made headlines in Brazil. Megachurch pastors Estevam and Sônia Hernandes were arrested in Miami in 2007 and pleaded guilty to illegally smuggling money into the United States. Eduardo Cunha, a notable Pentecostal, became the first major politician to be imprisoned this year in a vast corruption case called Operation Car Wash, which has implicated numerous high-profile figures.
“The fact that these scandals are so shocking is due to evangelicals portraying themselves as the epitome of moral virtue and order,” said Eric Miller, a professor at Geneva College in Pennsylvania who researches Brazilian religion.
Nevertheless, many Brazilians have become disillusioned by widespread political corruption in the country, making it uncertain whether such scandals will deter people from embracing Pentecostalism, according to Miller.
However, the Catholic Church holds at least one advantage over its Pentecostal counterparts in Brazil. Although it does not promise material wealth, it generally excels in providing social services like food and shelter, stated Celso Rudeck, a pastor in a Catholic parish situated opposite the replica of Solomon’s Temple.
As a result, when former Catholics grow weary of praying for financial blessings without fruition, they often return to the fold seeking assistance in their earthly lives, he explained.