No one is certain where the rumors that Brazil’s leader Michel Temer worshiped the devil came from, but last year, after taking over the presidency following Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, he knew where he could turn for help. Temer, a Maronite Catholic of Lebanese origin, met with the country’s leading evangelical pastors, many of them members of the Brazilian Congress. They encouraged him to tape a message. In that video, Temer stands next to Marco Feliciano, a congressman and Pentecostal pastor from São Paulo who says categorically that Temer has never been involved in any Satanic activities. The clip was later posted on the Facebook pages of the country’s largest evangelical churches, with the added testimonial that it is time to “disavow the evil defamation that Temer is a Satanist.” As a reward for this timely assistance, Temer appointed several evangelical leaders to his cabinet, including tapping a creationist to head the ministry of science.
Absurd as it was, the “devil-worshiping affair” underscored the rising political fortunes of Brazil’s rapidly growing evangelical community. Although the country remains the world’s largest Roman Catholic country, in recent decades a massive swelling in the ranks of Protestant evangelicals has challenged Catholic hegemony. In 1970, the percent of Brazilian Catholics stood at 90 percent; today, it barely clears 50 percent. During that same time span, the percentage of Protestant evangelicals has risen from 5 percent to roughly 30 percent. Across the country, evangelical leaders are struggling to keep up with the growth of their flock. Abandoned shopping centers, X-rated theaters, and strip clubs have all become unlikely places of worship.
Such a radical transformation in Brazil’s religious landscape has given rise to discussions about the emergence of a “Brazilian Christian right”—a movement similar to the American Christian right in its ability to reshape politics. Evangelical leaders already played a crucial role in Rousseff’s ouster, and their influence appears set to increase for years to come. It was Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of the Brazilian Congress) and one of Brazil’s most prominent evangelicals, who led the drive to impeach Rousseff for moving funds from several state accounts to conceal a budget deficit in the run up to the 2014 elections.
Although this was a violation of the law, the two previous presidents resorted to the same sort of budgetary tinkering without any consequences. “Cunha staged a constitutional coup,” according to Paulo Iotti, a constitutional expert at the Group of Lawyers for Sexual and Gender Diversity, a São Paulo–based NGO. But in an act of poetic justice, Cunha himself was found guilty of corruption, money laundering, and illegally sending money abroad. In March, a judge sentenced him to 15 years in prison, one of the stiffest sentences ever given to a public official in Brazil. Cunha was the first major casualty of “Operation Car Wash,” an anti-corruption dragnet that has so far ensnared some 60 percent of Brazil’s Congress as well as President Temer and the former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Cunha should be a cautionary tale for anyone harboring the illusion that the political rise of evangelicals will fix the ills of Brazilian politics.
The expansion of Protestant evangelism didn’t happen overnight. Protestants first landed in Brazil in the 19th century, with the establishment by European immigrants of mainline Protestant sects, like the Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Anglicans. Classic Pentecostal churches, such as the Assemblies of God, soon followed. A second wave of Protestants arrived in the 1940s with the advent of Igreija do Evangelho Quadrangular (Foursquare Church), imported from California by preachers Harold and Mary Williams. From its base in São Paulo, Foursquare quickly became one of the fastest growing churches in Brazil. Key to their appeal was revival events inspired by the evangelical campaigns of Billy Graham. Reminiscing about the early days of his evangelism in Brazil, Harold Williams noted that while attending a Graham crusade it dawned on him that “Brazilians love circuses. I think they would be drawn to a circus tent for a revival.”