'Prosperity Theology' Pulls on Purse Strings

Promises of Riches Entice Brazil's Poor

Washington Post Foreign Service/February 13, 2001
By Stephen Buckley

Rio De Janeiro -- Three years ago, Daisy dos Santos would spend all night on her knees before her television set, a small glass of water at her side, weeping and wailing to God. Her husband's adultery had all but crushed their marriage. Her dressmaking business teetered. Depression tormented her. She finally decided to visit a church whose broadcasts she had watched so avidly during those lonesome hours, the Universal Church of God's Kingdom, one of Brazil's most popular Protestant movements. Dos Santos, who lives in a Rio slum, said the pastor told worshipers, "The more you give, the more God will bless you." And she believed him. She started giving the church half her income.

Yet nearly a year later, her marriage was still in pieces. Her business remained feeble. And she was still depressed. Disillusioned and defeated, she left the Universal Church. "You think that if you give, everything in your life will be resolved," dos Santos said. "But it resolved nothing for me." Here in Latin America's largest and most populous country, the two-decade rise of evangelical Christianity has led millions to legitimate churches, where they have found spiritual sustenance and a sense of community. But dos Santos's bitterness is echoed more and more frequently throughout Brazil with the startling growth within the evangelical churches of a teaching known as prosperity theology.

Unlike some mainstream Protestant churches, which teach that righteousness brings rewards in this life and the next, prosperity churches emphasize the giving of money to God as a way to win those blessings. Prosperity theology holds that a wise and abundant giver will enjoy a life free of sickness, stress and vices, such as alcohol, and will be flush with material goods -- a new car, a fine house, a big bank account. "It's a spiritual version of Wall Street," said Hector Avalos, a former faith healer who now is an associate professor of religious studies at Iowa State University. "They're basically playing on people's greed."

Brazilian churches within the Pentecostal movement, which stresses the power of the Holy Spirit in Christian daily life, in particular have promoted the teaching, which also says that many types of earthly suffering result from disobedience to God or demonic oppression. The controversial view has found especially fertile ground among poor and lower-income Brazilians.

Prosperity churches still make up a relatively small portion of the evangelical churches that serve 18 million Brazilians. Yet numerous congregations that adhere to the prosperity doctrine boast a thousand members, and they continue to grow. "It's the most dangerous phenomenon in Brazilian Christianity today," said Ariovaldo Ramos, president of the Brazilian Evangelical Association, which has been a fierce critic of the doctrine.

The most popular of the prosperity churches is the Universal Church of God's Kingdom. It began 24 years ago, holding services in a funeral parlor. Today, it counts 3 million members in Brazil and another 3 million in 70 countries, including the United States. The church owns Brazil's third-most popular television network, dozens of radio stations, several newspapers, a bank and scores of other properties. The church is notoriously secretive about its finances, but published reports estimate that it takes in $1 billion annually. Universal Church founder Edir Macedo has been the target of several lawsuits and prosecutions on fraud and embezzlement charges, but courts repeatedly have exonerated him. Carlos Alberto Rodrigues, another Universal Church founder who remains a high-ranking leader, denied that the church pressures members to give money. "No one is excluded because they can't give," he said. He said the church touts economic security because, "When you have someone in the audience with four hungry children, it's hard to tell them to wait for their reward in the next life."

Even critics of such churches concede that they have broken through to a portion of Brazil's population that historically was ignored by the dominant Roman Catholic Church and mainstream politicians. Their pastors may be known for their smart clothes and sparkling, well-appointed cars, but the churches, especially Universal, have won a reputation for their work in Brazil's slums, donating food, providing health services and otherwise caring for the less fortunate. These churches generally also tend to have greater socioeconomic and racial diversity among their members and are quicker to elevate women to important positions. They draw in and engage young people. They encourage political involvement. They give classes on how to open small businesses. "They give people the feeling that they can contribute," said Brazilian sociologist Paul Freston. Jose Carlos de Souza, an unemployed Rio resident, credited the Universal Church with tugging him away from compulsive gambling and providing him a purpose in life. "It's as if I was drowning and they threw me a rope," he said. And their appeal goes beyond the poor. The Universal Church tends to focus on Brazil's lower economic classes, but numerous other prosperity churches have blossomed among the upper middle class and the wealthy. At those churches, members occasionally give thousands of dollars at a time in offerings. People turn over their cars as gifts to the Lord. Women drop gold necklaces into collection bags.

Law student Vivian Teixeira, 20, was a member of the Born Again in Christ Church -- another popular prosperity church -- and then the Universal Church for a total of four years. She abandoned them both a year ago, she said, weary of their emphasis on money. "They said whoever isn't prosperous is in sin," she said, adding that sometimes she gave everything in her wallet at offering time. Prosperity theology emerged during the early 1990s in Brazil, after a dismal decade marked by political instability, hyperinflation, stubborn unemployment and other economic ills. The message of empowerment, and the emphasis on "health and wealth" for Christians, allowed such churches to flourish in Brazil's poor communities.

Today those areas -- the jammed, fetid slums of Rio de Janeiro, the beaten-down, working-class neighborhoods of Sao Paulo -- remain the bedrock of churches like Universal. At a spartan Universal church in Rio's Vidigal slum, where Daisy dos Santos lives, 15 congregants gathered last Tuesday for a 3 p.m. service. There were old women and young men. Worshipers wore jeans and simple dresses. The women wore no makeup and little jewelry. A poster at the back of the church read, "Run after your prosperity."

Fans mounted high on the church's concrete walls worked in vain to cool the sweltering sanctuary during the hour-long service. Throughout that hour, the pastor urged his listeners to give their money to the Lord. A generous giver, he roared, would be able to say: "Goodbye pain! Goodbye suffering! Goodbye sickness! Goodbye devil!"

At offering time, the minister told worshipers that they were not obliged to give. He then spent 20 minutes exhorting, cajoling, pleading with his congregation to do just that. "Who has the courage and the faith to give 50 dollars or more?" he said. "What about 25 dollars? Fifteen dollars?" Down to 50 cents. Most worshipers gave coins. The next day, the pastor, who refused to identify himself, declined a request for an interview.

Maria da Penha dos Santos, 41, no relation to Daisy, attended the Universal church in Vidigal for three months last year but left because she felt it focused too much on money. Her $125 monthly salary for cleaning houses kept her from giving more than a few dollars at a time. But the church's pastor at the time told her that she "needed to have more faith. He said, 'If you believe, you have to give more.' " Maria dos Santos no longer goes to church. Neither does Daisy dos Santos, who long ago halted her practice of praying through the dawn hours in front of her TV set. "I still believe in God, but I don't believe in any church, and I don't believe in pastors," Daisy dos Santos said. "Now, when I have problems, I solve them myself."

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