Evangelical Christians in Brazil: Demographics, Consumerism and Politics

(AP June 26, 2004)

An Associated Press report on June 26, 2004 via CNN.com says:

Hundreds of thousands of evangelical Protestants marched Saturday in South America's largest city, illustrating their growing power in the world's largest Roman Catholic country.  Evangelical leaders who organized Brazil's 12th annual "March for Jesus" said it attracted 2 million people, but initial estimates by authorities put the crowd count at about 700,000.

Singing, smiling and dancing amid floats featuring gospel stars and preachers, the marchers walked kilometers to a park for an open air concert with 29 bands, shutting down traffic in a wide swath of northern Sao Paulo. Some wore orange-and-blue face paint, giving the event an atmosphere similar to Brazil's world famous Carnival.  "This is to declare our love of Jesus, and how he's changed our lives," said Vera Elias, a 49-year-old business event organizer who converted from Catholicism 22 years ago after feeling something was missing from her faith.

Brazil, with 178 million people, is the world's largest Catholic country. But the percentage of Brazilian Catholics fell from 84 percent of the population in 1991 to 74 percent in 2000, according to the government's census bureau. Evangelical Protestants increased their ranks from 9 percent to 15 percent during the same period. 

The country's dire poverty explains part of the shift, with Brazil's tens of millions of poor looking for help to ease their misery after 500 years of Roman Catholic domination in the country. Another part of the evangelical appeal is theatrical, which plays well in Brazil.  Adding excitement absent from Catholic rites, Brazilian evangelical Protestant rituals include faith healing and speaking in tongues. One church, The Universal Kingdom of God, issues frank appeals to God for personal wealth.  For the first time in history, Brazil's Roman Catholic Church is fighting for its turf, sending missionaries into slums amid a big push to graduate more priests from seminaries.

Police said last year's March for Jesus in Sao Paulo drew up to 1 million people, while organizers put the number at about 2 million.  Elias said there were so many people in this year's march that the real number didn't matter.  "It's packed, with everyone walking arm in arm," she said. "It's a show of force for God."

The purpose of this article is to make a comparison between the evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics.  The reference data will be from the 2003 TGI Brasil study.  This is a survey of 10,624 persons between the ages of 12 to 64 years old conducted during 2003.  Within this study, the survey respondents are asked about their religion.  60% of them identified themselves as Roman Catholics and 14% of them identified themselves as members of evangelical Christian churches such as the Assembly of God, God's Love Church, Foursquare Gospel, Grace International Church, Reborn in Christ Church, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and others.  

In the chart below, we show the incidences by socio-economic level and education achievement.  Without doubt, evangelical Christianity is having largest impact down the socio-economic scale at the expense of Roman Catholicism.  The same thing applies to educational achievement.

(Source:  2003 TGI Brasil)

In the next chart, we show the incidences by age/sex groups.  Roman Catholicism has the highest hold among older people who obviously have greater investments over their entire lives.  That much is obviously.  Conversely, evangelical Christianity is higher among the younger people.  The long-term demographic implications are that evangelical Christianity will continue to grow over time at the expense of Catholicism, as the old people decease and more young people come of age.

(Source:  2003 TGI Brasil)

A significant question for marketers is the lifestyle behavior of the evangelical Christians, who have the reputation of living ascetic lives.  In the next chart, we show the consumption incidences of alcohol and tobacco plus attendance at night clubs and bars.  For example, the overall incidence is 14% among all persons, 7% among evangelical Christians and 15% among Catholics.  For all four categories, the evangelicals have significantly lower incidences.  If the long trend of increasing evangelical Christian conversion holds, there will be fewer and fewer opportunities and prospects for the sin industries. 

(Source:  2003 TGI Brasil)

An even more significant question is whether evangelical Christianity will have an impact on the political landscape.  How will they vote?  Will they be a monolithic voting bloc?  An article in the Los Angeles Times reports the following situation:

Most of the books on Adelor Vieira's desk are what you'd expect for a congressman busy with the machinery of state: a copy of the civil code, a handy reference guide to laws on local governance. But tucked to one side, within easy reach, lies the book that, for Vieira, trumps all the others: the Bible.  Everything necessary for moral conduct is contained in the pages between Genesis and Revelation, Vieira believes. And as an evangelical Christian, he is determined to ensure that Brazil's statute books reflect the principles of the Good Book.  "I believe it's an obligation," he said. "You can't isolate church from society. The churches to which evangelicals belong have a mission, which is to promote the kingdom of God."

In countries throughout Latin America, evangelicals such as Vieira are stepping out from the shelter of their churches to enter the fractious world of secular politics. These Protestant Christians are increasingly speaking out, teaming up and getting elected in a region that remains overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.  Their influence extends from that of small-town mayors in the Brazilian interior to the governor of Mexico's Chiapas state. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, although a Catholic, meets regularly with an evangelical pastor to read the Bible and pray.  The sortie into politics follows years of growth among evangelical Christians, especially charismatic and neo-Pentecostal groups, in Latin America. In Guatemala, for example, up to 40% of the nation's 13.3 million people are evangelical Christians. In neighboring El Salvador, nearly a quarter of the 6.3 million people there describe themselves that way.

In Brazil, the region's largest country and an unshakable Catholic stronghold for centuries, census figures show 15% of the population to be evangelicals — about 27 million people. Many are attracted by dynamic worship services and the emphasis on a personal relationship with God.  For many here, faith remains a private affair, their devotion playing out at church and at home. But others are heeding what they believe is a divine calling to shine the light of Christian truth on "works of darkness," which encompass perceived evils as varied as abortion and the corruption rampant in Brazilian politics.

"We cannot be silent when those things happen," said Walter Pinheiro, an evangelical Christian deputy in Brazil's Congress. "We have to bring light to and condemn those practices."  By "we," Pinheiro means an evangelical contingent in Brazil's lower house that has grown over the last few years and, last September, formed an official lobby in Congress, the Evangelical Parliamentary Front.  The group, whose goal is to ensure that public policy falls "in line with God's purposes, and according to his Word," boasts 58 deputies and three senators out of nearly 600 legislators. Ten years ago, fewer than half that many evangelicals occupied the glass offices along the corridors of power here in the Brazilian capital.

Much of the evangelical bloc's agenda would be recognizable to conservative Christian brethren in the United States. The group opposes any liberalization of Brazil's already-strict abortion laws. Gay marriage is anathema. So are legalizing drugs, handing out clean needles to addicts as a public-health measure and distributing condoms in schools.  One of the group's biggest victories in Congress last year was amending a bio-safety bill to outlaw the cloning of human embryos to harvest stem cells for research. On the local level, the evangelical governor of Rio de Janeiro state, Rosinha Matheus, has outraged scientists by authorizing public schools to teach creationism.  Yet to view the evangelical front as a simple analogue of the religious right in the United States would be off the mark.

Whereas most conservative U.S. Christians vote Republican, the Brazilian deputies belong to a motley, squabbling bunch of rival groups that span the ideological spectrum. Pinheiro is one of the more militant members of the left-wing ruling Workers' Party; Vieira declares allegiance to the center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party.  As a result, "you can point to things they've done and said which have been very different, which would make the American Christian right's hair stand on end — policies regarding economics, policies regarding the attitude toward global capitalism," said Paul Freston, an expert on the political influence of evangelicals in Latin America and professor at Calvin College in Michigan.

Pinheiro is an ardent advocate of the welfare state, saying that Christian principles require the government to champion the poor, to take care of society's weakest. He wants a higher minimum wage, secure — and generous — pensions for workers and civil servants, and more money for public education and health. He leans toward radical socialist policies, while Vieira is more moderate.  And though most conservative U.S. Christians support President Bush's hawkish foreign policy, it meets stony silence here.  "I was struck by the way that just before the Iraq war was started, all these evangelical congressmen, however conservative the party they were in and however wild and woolly the charismatic church they were from, were all thoroughly against the war," Freston said. "I didn't hear a single word from anybody in favor of that."


Evangelical voters have become a coveted group. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a practicing Catholic, courted them during his election campaign in 2002, telling one group of enthusiastic evangelical leaders that he wanted to see a Bible placed in every public school.  One of Lula's chief rivals, Anthony Garotinho, an evangelical Christian, routinely invoked God at campaign rallies, offered quotations from the Bible and narrowly missed making the runoff that eventually produced Lula as the winner.

But given the profusion of political parties in Brazil, evangelical Christians spread out their loyalties and cannot be counted on to vote as one unthinking monolith. In many cases, fealty to party outweighs church affiliation, especially for those who remain hesitant about marrying religion to politics.  "The vote is not a zombie vote," said Freston of Calvin College. "There are all sorts of calculations going on here. The degree to which people actually obey the [political] exhortations of their pastors is variable."  

But with some estimates projecting that Brazil could be 50% Protestant by 2050, the influence of evangelicals in the political realm is likely to increase.  "To understand Brazilian politics today, it's necessary to understand the field of religion," Novaes said. "If you don't understand religion, you can't understand Brazilian politics."

It would be incorrect to regard party choice as being totally independent of religious faith.  Within the TGI Brasil study, there is a question about  political affiliation.  The results are shown in the following chart.  PFL is the center-right Partido da Frente Liberal, PMDB is the centrist Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, PSDB is the center-left Partido da Social Demoracia Brasileira and PT is the left Partido dos Trabalhadores.  It would be fair to say that the evangelical Christians lean towards the center-right and away from the left.

(Source:  2003 TGI Brasil)

(posted by Roland Soong, 7/1/2004)

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