Evangelical Protestantism in Latin America is on the verge of usurping the traditional dominance of the Catholic Church. STEVEN CVIIC reports from Brazil on the ascent of pop Christianity LthATIN AMERICA is of vital importance to
the Catholic hurch. It is the only one of the world's poorer regions where Catholicism has been unquestionably the dominant religion. That is why it must be particularly worrying for the Church that its supremacy is now looking distinctly shaky, especially in the biggest country of the region Brazil.
On a recent trip to Brazil, I found plenty of evidence to show it is no longer the overwhelmingly Catholic country it once was. In one respect, this is not surprising. For all its defiantly tropical charm, poverty, friendliness and corruption, Brazil has most of the characteristics of a Western society. Its culture is individualistic and informal, its media relatively open, and its people mainly citydwellers. These things tend to promote a more secular society, as they have in Spain and Italy.
But there is a difference. Brazilians are more instinctively religious than Europeans. And many of those who have drifted away from Catholicism have marched confidently into other churches. These include African-based religions, brought to Brazil by black slaves, and Kardecist spiritism. But the real explosion has been in evangelical Protestantism.
THIS PHENOMENON is astonishingly visible. In Rio de Janeiro, evangelical churches are as much part of the landscape as beggars and beaches.
Walk around the city and you will see them in all their forms, from unprepossessing brick improvisations in the slums to giant concrete temples in the city centre. The picture is similar throughout the country. Even remote Amazonian towns that one might be tempted to describe as God-forsaken often have both a Catholic and an evangelical church. Protestants make their presence felt in other ways too: evangelical bookshops full of homely advice on family life and relationships, market stalls selling evangelical pop music, radio and television stations dedicated to spreading the word of God, and, of course, evangelical Christians themselves, quietly reading Bibles on buses.
Although the growth of Protestant churches is so apparent, it is harder to estimate just what their success has been in numerical terms, since it depends whose figures you look at. Evangelical churches themselves say that over 20 per cent of Brazilians pass through their doors at the weekend. Independent estimates usually put the figure at about 15 per cent. But this is still an astonishing number of people, and more than attend Mass. How has this situation arisen?
Protestantism in Brazil is not a wholly recent phenomenom. The Lutheran Church arrived along with 19th century immigrants from northern Europe. But most Brazilian Protestants belong to newer, Pentecostal churches which have made most of their gains in the last 20 years. The biggest grouping is the Assemblies of God, which originated in the United States. Other Pentecostal churches are entirely home-grown, such as Brazil for Christ and the controversial Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.
Catholic priests will give you a variety of explanations for the extraordinary success of these new churches: they have money some of it from the United States, they use the media brilliantly, they are small and flexible, they train their pastors quickly and they provide a fairly straightforward guide to living (the Bible) for poor people in a chaotic society. All of these explanations are valid in so far as they go.
But to understand further what attracts so many Brazilians into Protestant churches, there is no substitute for attending a Pentecostal meeting. This can be a frankly embarrassing experience. There is so much raw emotion, so much shouting, so much apparently banal advice from the pastor, like "Don't throw food away". On the other hand, the meeting is lively and immediate, the pastor's guide-lines may indeed be helpful, and the sense of community is strong.
AhCTUALLY ASKING evangelicals to explain their faith as its limits as a useful exercise. All have had personal experiences of conversion which do not lend themselves to journalistic analysis. However, they do not point to what they disliked about Catholicism. Many had been Catholics in name only, and attribute this lack of seriousness to the Church as a whole. Their other objections are rather like those of sixteenth-century Protestants: Catholics drink, Catholics don't read the Bible enough, there should be no intermediary between God and the believer.
It must be galling for the Brazilian Catholic Church to be deserted by the poor, the very people on whose behalf it has campaigned so energetically. And yet one wonders whether the Church's engagement with society and police since the 1960s partly under the influence of what became known as "liberation theology" has been slightly unhelpful to its religious purposes. It seems unfair to suggest this, especially as some priests feel their purpose is not to engage in a vulgar campaign to dragoon as many people as possible into church on Sunday. But
one Bishop told me that the Church is being seriously challenged by what he called "the return of the sacred". Catholicism's cultural and social baggage has not helped it among those who want what they see as religion, pure and simple.
And the evangelicals do seem to be strengthening their position in Brazil. Whereas in the past, they were often criticised for neglecting social issues, they now find this impossible because so many of their congregations are composed of poor people. In the slums of Rio there are now any number of evangelical-run education and daycare centres. And in the political arena, the evangelical vote is becoming increasingly influential, as the new churches promote their own generally fairly conservative candidates for local assemblies and the National congress.
Readers may be asking
themselves: is that it, then? Is Brazil destined to become a Protestant country? I think the answer is probably not. For one thing, evangelicals are beginning to face the same problem as the Catholic Church backsliding. The movement has also been harmed by a series of scandals involving the country's fastest -growing church,the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Its founder, Edir Macedo, is widely regarded as a charlatan and the church has attracted bad publicity because it commits its followers to giving it a tenth of their income. And the final factor which may put a brake on evangelical expansion is something quite different: the rapid growth of the Catholic charismatic movement. They are not popular with everyone inside the Brazilian Church, but with their militantly orthodox approach to doctrine, and their intense, Pentecostal style of worship, the charismatics are providing a strong counter-weight to the rise of Protestantism in an age when Brazilians are turning increasingly to religion with a capital "R".