Although Brazil is still home to the world’s largest number of Catholics, the Evangelical Church has made huge inroads over the past 20 years. The number of Brazilians identifying as Evangelical more than doubled from 9 percent in 1991 to 20 percent in 2010, according to a joint study by the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística and Fundação Getúlio Vargas. The survey also showed that the number of self-identified Catholics dropped from 83 percent to 68 percent over the same period.
Evangelicals’ political influence is on the rise. According to the Interunion Parliamentary Advisory Department, the Evangelical caucus in Congress has increased by 50 percent since the previous term, to 63 representatives and three senators. Although that is a small proportion of the 513 representatives and 81 senators, the unofficial Evangelical contingent is higher since the caucus accepts only those with direct church ties.
Neo-Pentecostals, the fastest-growing group among Brazil’s Evangelicals, aim to expand their political influence by electing fellow believers and by investing in entertainment.
The strength of Evangelical influence becomes apparent when issues that touch on their religious concerns—including abortion and same-sex marriage—are debated.
In May 2012, the Evangelical Parliamentary Front, working in coalition with the Catholics, tried to overturn an April 2012 Supreme Court ruling that broadened legal abortion to instances where the fetus is missing part of the brain and skull. Previously, abortion was limited to cases of rape or a threat to the mother’s life.
To this end, the Evangelical-Catholic coalition sponsored a bill to limit the power of the executive branch to enforce Supreme Court rulings and a second bill that calls on Congress to overturn the ruling.
Similarly, the coalition is expected to reject a proposal making its way through Congress that defines a civil union as between two people regardless of gender. In May, the human rights committee in Brazil’s Senate approved the change.
Outside Congress, political influence is bolstered by an extensive network of media holdings. The best example is the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.
Founded in 1977, the Universal Church has 5.2 million members and 13,000 temples across Brazil, as well as a presence in several other countries, including the United States. The church owns the second-largest TV station in Brazil, Rede Record, as well as newspapers and radio stations across 27 states. Recognizing the church’s influence, President Dilma Rousseff appointed one of its leaders, Senator Marcelo Crivella, as minister of fisheries and aquaculture in March 2012 to gain the group’s support in Congress.
Evangelicals use the entertainment industry to spread their message across Brazil. There are 128 Evangelical record labels, with a combined annual growth rate of 8 percent since 2007, much of it driven by the 600 radio stations dedicated exclusively to gospel programming. In 2010, this market had revenues of nearly $1 billion, meaning that its influential lyrics are becoming more prevalent nationwide. Gospel singer Damares’ latest album alone sold 400,000 copies.
As Evangelicalism grows, its strength will be seen more profoundly in certain areas. The north of Brazil has the smallest share of the country’s GDP (5.1 percent), but the largest percentage of Evangelicals. In the state of Amazonas, one in three inhabitants is a follower. In the south, which has a more equal income distribution, the phenomenon is reversed. In the state of Santa Catarina, only 17.9 percent of the population is Evangelical.
This illustrates another important point: in many countries, Evangelicalism is most popular among those who are starting to break out of poverty. In Brazil, however, many of the poor have discovered in Evangelicalism a sense of collective identity. For those Brazilians marginalized by society, Evangelicalism is a framework within which they can reassert their rights.