Evangelicals, Stressing `Cures' for Masses' Misery, Make Inroads in Roman Catholic Latin America

The Wall Street Journal/October 16, 1991
By Thomas Kamm

NOVA IGUACU, Brazil -- It's 7 p.m on a Thursday evening, and the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is rocking. The organist hits the first note, the pastor starts to sing, and soon the hangar-like church resounds with praise of Jesus.

Some close their eyes, raise their arms, cry, mumble as if in a trance. Some even hit the floor. But mostly, the several hundred people attending service in this working-class suburb of Rio de Janeiro clap and dance as they sing, "You changed me, you gave me reason to live."

Jesus, it seems, is changing more and more Brazilians and other South Americans. The scene, repeated five times a day in this and other churches of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, is taking place throughout Protestant temples of South America, underscoring the growing success of evangelical Protestantism in a bastion of Roman Catholicism. "Catholicism is being shaken," says Ruben Cesar Fernandes, research coordinator of the Institute for the Study of Religion in Rio de Janeiro.

Analysts of religion diverge about the trend's significance. Some refer derisively to evangelical movements as sects and, pointing to recent financial scandals, say their leaders are exploiting the growing economic misery of many South Americans. But others, noting the growing involvement of Pentecostalists in politics and the broadcast media in places such as Brazil and Peru, say they could help to imbue the region with a new work ethic as it embarks on broad free-market reforms.

Whatever the case, the movement is a big enough challenge to the Catholic Church that Pope John Paul II is now on his second pastoral visit to Brazil, seeking to counter the evangelical surge. Speaking Sunday in Natal, the Pope decried the "worrying growth" of "sects and new religious groups" and urged bishops to "occupy the spaces in which they operate."

That's a tall order, because the space they occupy is growing rapidly, making inroads even in such redoubts of Brazilian culture as samba schools. Managers of the Mangueira samba school complained just before the last Rio carnival that they were being decimated by a Baptist church that opened up next door and prohibits its members from joining in the Carnival-time licentiousness. Evangelicals have made especially strong gains in Brazil's slums, suggesting they've had more success in bringing their message to the poor than Liberation Theology, the doctrine that endorses the Catholic clergy's activism on behalf of the poor.

Long called the world's biggest Catholic country, Brazil is becoming less and less Catholic. In a poll taken last week, only 72% of Brazilians described themselves as Roman Catholics, down from 89% in the 1980 census. Meanwhile, the number describing themselves as Pentecostalists surged to 6% from 3.2%, and traditional Protestants to 4% from 3.4%. This year alone, the Catholic Church estimates 600,000 people will desert it.

"We're a consumer society, and consumerism has entered religion too," says Father Jesus Hortal, head of the theology department at Rio's Catholic University. "There are disposable diapers, disposable pens and now, disposable churches too."

Pragmatism largely explains the spread of evangelical movements, analysts say. While the Catholic Church focuses on saving souls, many of the evangelical movements tackle day-to-day problems while making just enough doctrinary demands to satisfy the Brazilian rage for mysticism. The emphasis of many of these movements on demonology, exorcism and miraculous cures offers relief to the masses of people living in misery and faced with a health system in collapse.

"They offer a diagnosis, that demons are at work, and a solution, that Jesus cures, can resolve problems in your family and bring you financial prosperity if you give donations," says Ricardo Mariano, a sociologist studying Pentecostalism in Brazil. "In a country where half the population is illiterate and the health system doesn't function, it's a plausible response to their needs."

At the service in Nova Iguacu, for instance, the pastor dwells on how the Devil is at work everywhere. As he speaks, a group of clean-cut aides, wearing ties and white shirts, patrol the aisles and occasionally scream at followers to help them rid themselves of the Devil. Then come calls for donations. The bigger the donation, followers are told, the greater Jesus' help.

Many dismiss as charlatanism claims by leaders of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God that they've cured people of AIDS, cancer, blindness and other ailments. "Ten people with cancer enter the Universal Church and 11 come out cured," scoffs Paulo Lockmann, a Methodist bishop. But followers claim otherwise. "I had an epileptic attack," says 15-year-old Claudia da Silva, a former Catholic. "I heard that the {evangelical} Church cured so I went there. I got up and felt better. Only God could do this because I went to see many doctors and I never got better." Though only one of dozens of evangelical movements to have sprung up here, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has received the most attention because of its stunning growth. Started in 1977 by the self-appointed Bishop Edir Macedo, the Universal Church today is a multinational empire with about 800 temples and 2,000 pastors in Brazil, branches in five U. S. cities, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Uruguay, Portugal and Angola, and control of a TV network and several radio stations in Brazil.

Last Saturday, the Universal Church gave a spectacular display of its strength, filling a 200,000-seat stadium for a morning of prayer on the day of the Pope's arrival. Banners with messages like "Jesus Christ is the solution" floated from the rafters, people cried as a group of yuppie-like pastors took turns leading the stadium in prayers and songs. There was only one conspicuous absence: Bishop Macedo. He was threatened with arrest if he showed up, in connection with a variety of charges over how he financed the $45 million purchase of his TV network -- including allegations by a dissident pastor that it was partly financed by drug money -- and of tax evasion. Yesterday, Mr. Macedo reappeared for questioning by federal police in Sao Paulo.

While Mr. Macedo denies the accusations, analysts say this sort of scandal could stunt the evangelical movement. But members of the Universal Church note that Christianity has survived persecution before. "Jesus Christ wasn't understood either," says Odenir Laprovita Vieira, president of the Universal Church and a federal legislator.


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