Religious Colonizing in Brazil

After Bolsonaro was elected President of Brazil, I sort of lost the desire to write anything more about the country.

As a gringo living in Brazil for more than twelve years, I had the opportunity to witness the changes the Lula administration brought to Brazil, the impeachment of Dilma Rouseff and the openly corrupt Temer administration, the Petrobras fiasco and the rise of the silent but powerful Evangelical right that put Bolosonaro in office, and the effect these changes had on the people of Brazil.

In a recent book, I mentioned how the Evangelical right was gaining in political power and clout but never imagined that the conversion of the “sacred to secular” or the “secular to the sacred” would take on violent dimensions. Then, on the other hand, the use of religion as an excuse to perpetrate violence is not something new to the world.

It is a well-known fact that Brazil has more Catholics than any other country in the world, however, the Evangelical Christian Movement in Brazil is growing at a tremendous rate. When Brazilian Catholics think of evangelicals, they think of Protestant churches such as the Baptists, Pentecostals, the Assembly of God, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, and the Mormons. Many of these churches are expanding at an alarming rate causing the Catholic laity to search for new ways to reverse the erosion in a country where Catholicism has been the dominant religion since the sixteenth century. It is also important to understand that the early foundation of evangelicalism in Brazil was initiated primarily by American missionaries. The Christian Congregation in Brazil, founded by an Italian-American Louis Francescon became one of the fastest-growing Evangelical movements in Brazil at that time. Together with the Brazilian Assemblies of God Pentecostal Movement, founded by Swedish- Americans Daniel Berg and Gunnar Vingren, there are more than 3 million followers. In São Paulo alone, there are an estimated 500,000 worshippers with over 17,000 temples throughout Brazil.

Typically, Evangelical Protestant Christianity in Brazil is characterized by a strong opposition to Catholicism in terms of socio and political economics. Over the past two decades, it successfully played an important role in modifying the lives of the educationally and economically disadvantaged. In fact, Evangelical Christianity and Pentecostalism, in particular, provided significant stability in the lives of many of its followers in terms of social and economic progress by penetrating lives at the cultural level. Some critics believe that these fast-growing denominations are preaching what they call the “prosperity doctrine” – that is, promising salvation and financial success to people that trust God, work hard, and follow their specific doctrine. This type of doctrine has been met with huge success especially among the poor and disadvantaged.

In addition, significant changes at the social level has necessitated the development of political interests and incorporated followers into the democratic political process. As a result, Evangelical Protestants have become an increasingly powerful segment of the voting bloc in which presidential, senatorial and congressional candidates are courting them for support. As more evangelical candidates are elected to office in the house and senate, many vow to oppose attempts to legalize issues they consider a breach of their faith. Currently, evangelical lawmakers in Brazil hold 195 of the 513 seats in the Congress.

However, of greater immediate concern are reports about a sharp increase in religiously motivated crimes in Rio de Janeiro since 2013.  For example, the Washington Post reported recently that practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions are being harassed and murdered for the faith. Also, many are afraid to leave their homes and their churches (called “Terreiros”) are closed due to death threats. Apparently, evangelical converted drug kingpins that control certain neighborhoods prohibit adherents of Afro-Brazilian religions from practicing their faith. One such neighborhood is Baixada Fluminense which is also one of Rio’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

In order to get a better understanding of all this, we must examine the relationship between politicized religion, historical fascism, and nationalism. The research of Sergio Calderón Harker (Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona), and his Politicized Religion: Symbolism and the instrumentation of the sacred does an excellent job describing the process by which things that we hold sacred can become secularized and secularized things can be made sacred. He cites the work of Habermas, Beaman, Bellah, Cristi, Durkheim, Gentile, Mosse and a few references to Rousseau.  In describing the development of civil and political religion, he makes the point that civil religion can be used as a “deeply political device” that can be used to captivate, galvanize, and mobilize by exerting strong control over citizens. Even more striking, he states it is used deliberately during crises and “unsettled political times.” He uses, for example, how German fascism took a disfranchised, traumatized people (the state of Germany after World War I), nationalized the masses and molded them into a cohesive national body with a new political worldview (i.e., Weltanschaung). Harker goes on to describe how German society was integrated by a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals thereby creating a sense of national community and solidarity.

Perhaps, the most notable premise of Harker’s research is the importance of symbolic content as the common thread that takes priority in these processes.  Harker points out how symbolism creates an expression and sense of belonging with collective rites, mass ceremonies, public festivals, and “communal hours of worship” that create the realization of a new political religion. In the case of Italian fascism, he states that political religion was used as a way to integrate the masses into the state based on the notion that by stirring up “faith, enthusiasm, and action” the masses could be mobilized. However, a symbolic dimension was necessary in order to support political religion with the object of this faith actually representing the nation. 

Similiarly, Brazilian Evangelicals are aggressively going after converts and are posturing themselves as more attentive to the needs of the people essentially making an emotional and symbolic connection between daily life and divine worship. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has at least six million followers worldwide and an estimated one billion dollars in annual income. Also, it is one of Brazil’s largest multinational companies. It seems that Brazilian Evangelicals are providing a call that many people are responding to particularly from the working and impoverished classes.

There are a number of more specific reasons that make this research interesting but suffice it to say that this is a deeply insightful piece of work.  In terms of the cultural, political and religious hegemony that is taking place in the religious landscape in Brazil today, this is an important, well-thought analysis.


Evangelical Gangs in Rio De Janeiro Wage ‘Holy War’ on Afro-Brazilians, 12/16/2019,; Brazil Tries to Combat Religious Intolerance of Minority Faiths, 10 Oct. 2013,; Afro-Brazilian religions struggle against Evangelical hostility, 2/6/2015,; Evangelical gangs in Rio de Janeiro wage ‘holy war’ on Afro-Brazilians, Muggah, R. , 12/16/2019.; Harker, S.C., Politicized religion Symbolism and the instrumentalization of the sacred. Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona: 6/12/2018.

2 thoughts on “Religious Colonizing in Brazil

  1. Religion or rather religious “influence” has always preyed on the poor and disenfranchised, as you stated. My hope is that Brazil will look back at history and see what’s happening, however history has proven that this will not happen.


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