At the time of writing the outcome of a national election in Brazil is still undecided. The candidate of the left-of-center party, endorsed by the enormously popular President Lula (prevented by the constitution from running for another term) was way ahead of her right-of-center opponent in the polls. She was expected to win easily in the first round. But she failed to get a majority of the votes by the intrusion into the race by a third party candidate and was thus forced into a runoff with her major opponent. She is expected to win, but the interesting news has been that she was forced into a runoff at all. This blog is not routinely concerned with Brazilian politics (which will hardly come as a surprise to its readers). What brings the election into the blog’s purview is the character of the intruder who has messed up the expected outcome. It is one Marina Silva, candidate of the Green Party (which until now has not been a major factor in Brazilian politics).
Marina Silva was born in 1958 in one of the states located in the vast region of the Amazonian rainforest. She was one of eleven children in a bitterly poor family of mixed black and Portuguese descent. Her father worked as a rubber tapper. Silva herself moved into town, where she worked as a maid while getting a Catholic education. She made it to university, where she studied history. Early on she became politically active as an environmentalist, affiliated with Lula’s Workers Party. She was associated with Chico Mendes, a defender of the rainforest against illegal deforestation—an activity which led to his assassination, presumably by some engaged in the deforestation. Silva became minister for the environment in Lula’s cabinet. She resigned from this position in 2008 in protest against what she perceived as Lula’s capitulation to business interests in matters of the environment. She became the Green Party’s candidate for the presidency in 2010. In the recent election she won about 19% of the votes—a result that amazed political observers.
Silva said that she intended to be “the first African-Brazilian women of poor origin” to become president. It is newsworthy that she made it to this point. What I find equally noteworthy is that Silva is a Pentecostal. She became a member of the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination in Brazil and, after the Catholic Church, the second-largest religion. Silva’s role in this election marks another important milestone in the astounding story of Pentecostalism in Brazil and indeed in Latin America as a whole.
According to the data base of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (one of the best sources of information on global religious developments), the first Pentecostal congregation in Brazil was founded in 1910 by American missionaries among Italian immigrants in Sao Paulo. This was just four years after the so-called Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, which is usually regarded as the start of the worldwide explosion of Pentecostalism in the twentieth century. In 1911 the Assemblies of God were founded by (of all people) Swedish missionaries in Belem, the city at the mouth of the Amazon River. The new church was handed over to indigenous Brazilian pastors in 1921. Missionaries spread out across the country, founding various Pentecostal denominations, although to this day the new faith is often carried by unaffiliated local groups, many meeting in makeshift churches, storefronts and private homes. By 1930 the total number of Pentecostals in Brazil was estimated at 40,000. The phenomenal explosion set in after World War II, and it has continued unabated. In 1977 was founded the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, arguably the most dynamic Pentecostal denomination, which owns a number of radio and TV stations, and which has become very active politically.
Everyone agrees that Pentecostalism has grown phenomenally in Brazil in the last half-century. It is very difficult to arrive at reliable numbers, in Brazil as in other countries. For various reasons—the ever-changing number of denominations, the many local and unorganized Pentecostal groups, and in traditionally Catholic populations the practice of the Catholic Church to count as members all people baptized as Catholics (even if some of them may in the meantime have become Pentecostal preachers). There is an important additional reason—the phenomenon that has been called “Pentecostalization.” The key characteristics of Pentecostalism—speaking in tongues, faith healing and other miracles, exorcisms, prophecy—have spilled over into groups that do not call themselves Pentecostal, into most Protestant churches, and indeed into the Catholic Church (in Brazil, as many as 20% of Catholics engage in Pentecostal practices). In other words, the boundaries of the Pentecostal phenomenon are fluid and ipso facto hard to draw. Different terminologies have been suggested to embrace the phenomenon as a whole: “Charismatic Christianity” (my favorite), “Revivalistic Christianity” (preferred by the Pew Forum), or differentiating between successive “waves” of Pentecostalism (“old”, “new”, whatever). For my purpose here, I’ll just speak of Pentecostals.
The Brazilian census does ask about religion, though the results are based on unreliable self-identifications. The 2000 census listed over 15% of the population as Protestants—about 26 millions. This is almost certainly an understatement. It is estimated that some 68% of Protestants are in fact Pentecostal, whether they call themselves so or not. According to the Atlas of Global Christianity, edited by Todd Johnson and Kenneth Ross with estimated figures up to 2010, its year of publication, there are 82 million “Revivalist” Christians in Brazil (in a total population of about 199 million). Take all of these figures with a grain of salt—but clearly the phenomenon is huge. Everyone agrees that it has become increasingly relevant politically, in part deliberately, since the 1980s. There is a Protestant caucus in the federal parliament, most of it Pentecostal, pushing various ”values issues” dear to this constituency. Brazil is a democracy. Inevitably, the religious demography has political implications.
David Martin, the British sociologist who has pioneered the study of Pentecostalism, has called it a “school for democracy”—because of its grassroots, self-administered, anti-hierarchical character. Paul Freston, another British scholar (who has lived in Brazil for many years), is more cautious—certainly Pentecostals cannot be neatly labeled “right-wing” or “left-wing,” and in party terms they vote differently in different countries. Be this as it may, look at these features: Latin American Pentecostalism, in so far as it promulgates a “Protestant ethic,” is entrepreneurial, egalitarian (especially in terms of gender), education-friendly, arguably modernizing. Its religious style (including its music) has a distinctively American flavor. Its origins are in the United States—while it no longer relies on US missionaries (indeed, Brazilian Pentecostal churches are sending missionaries to Hispanics in North America), Pentecostals everywhere are conscious of being part of a global movement which still has intimate ties with Evangelicals in the United States—if you will, they belong to an Evangelical internationale. I would, cautiously, suggest that these facts are relevant to the fate of democratic capitalism in the contemporary world and thus to the foreign policy interests of the United States.