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What Brazil's impeachment process says about its Christian faiths

Shifts in thought

The speaker of Brazil's lower house is Pentecostal, and he leads other Evangelical legislators in the charge to impeach Brazil's president, showing a coming-of-age for Evangelicals in a traditionally Catholic country.

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    A candomble priest known as a Babalorisha blesses an adherent by sprinkling rice over his head during Saint George's Day celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, April 23, 2015.
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The vote by Brazil's lower legislative house on April 17, did more than give the country's Senate the opportunity to impeach the president. As the country swirls with questions about corruption, economics, and the summer Olympics, the political move highlights a shift for global Christianity.

Brazil, the world's second-largest Christian country, is not as Catholic as it used to be. 

The impeachment was led by the speaker of Brazil's lower legislative house, Pentecostal Christian Eduardo Cunha, Reuters reported. The political move shows Evangelical influence is rising inside a Catholic country, which could prove a bellwether for a larger shift toward less traditional forms of Christianity.  

"During the last roll call vote for the continuation of the process of impeachment in the lower house ... several politicians dedicated their vote 'for God,' " says Karina Bellotti, professor of contemporary history at the Federal University of Paraná in Brazil. "Some of them were Catholic – but most were Evangelical, from the Pentecostal churches."

Evangelicals have maintained an increasingly significant presence in the Brazilian government since 1986, says Dr. Bellotti. 

If Brazil's left-learning President Dilma Rousseff is forced from office, the next in line would be Michel Temer, a Lebanese-Brazilian Maronite Christian, followed by Mr. Cunha.

As in the United States, many Brazilian Evangelicals support conservative politics on both the national and local level, but any political unity in Brazil is complicated by the very problems the impeachment process is highlighting for the world.

"People usually don't feel represented by these politicians once they take their positions, and there is the sensation that there's 'nothing we can do,' " Bellotti says. "But in the everyday life ... Evangelicals are on the rise (at least for now) in the society because of lay and clerical efforts of evangelization and social insertion."

The impeachment process does not necessarily mean a shift in how Evangelical Christians live and operate in Brazil, but it does illustrate is a coming-of-age for Evangelical Christians – and a rising Christian pluralism in South America.

"Brazil is arguably the epicenter of world Christianity, with the largest Pentecostal population," says R. Andrew Chesnut, the chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of "Born Again in Brazil: The Pentecostal Boom and the Pathogens of Poverty."

Three-quarters of Latin Americans are Catholic, making the region home to 40 percent of the world's 1 billion Catholics. 

In Brazil, roughly 60 percent of the population still identifies as Catholic, down from 74 percent in 2000 and 94 percent in 1950, according to the Pew Research Center. 

The loss in numbers does not immediately translate into loss of power, says Paul Freston, chair in religion and politics in global context, speaking by phone from Brazil. Catholicism still holds the majority in Brazil, along with centuries of history, institutional power, and valuable ties to the international Catholic community.

"It doesn’t mean that there’s no shift at all, it just means that the shift is slower and messier than the simple numerical shift," Dr. Freston says. "In the long run, it does make a difference."

Translating numerical power into political influence is especially challenging for Protestants because the shift is so fragmented. Brazil is home to the world's largest Pentecostal community, but Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) also boast a significant Brazilian membership, Chesnut says.

The changes do, however, illustrate the vigor of livelier, more healing-centered brands of Christianity in Brazil, where 60 percent of Catholics also belong to the charismatic movement – the Catholic version of Pentecostalism.

"Besides numbers, Brazil is at the vanguard of the global trend of the Pentecostalization of Christianity," Chesnut says. "Both Brazilian Catholics and Pentecostals are global leaders in Christian missionary work, sending thousands of young missionaries to Europe, Africa, and Asia to recruit lapsed Catholics and, in the case of Pentecostals, to convert both Catholics and Muslims."

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