When televangelist Silas Malafaia gathered 40,000 followers outside Brazil’s Congress this week, it wasn’t just to raise their arms to the sky and praise the Lord.
The rally was a show of support for lawmakers who oppose abortion and same-sex marriage and a message to other politicians that they should not ignore Brazil’s fast-growing evangelical churches if they want to stay in office.
“Gay activism is moral garbage,” Malafaia roared into the microphone to a cheering crowd on the grassy esplanade of the Brazilian capital. “Satan will not destroy our family values.”
The rise of evangelical Christians as a conservative political force in Latin America’s largest nation has put the ruling Workers’ Party on guard and led President Dilma Rousseff - who is seeking re-election in 2014 – to appoint an evangelical bishop to her cabinet.
The growing clout of evangelical churches is also bringing social and moral issues such as abortion to the center of the national agenda, some say at the expense of political and economic reforms needed to restore robust growth to the world’s seventh-largest economy.
Pentecostalism was introduced to Latin America by U.S. missionaries a century ago and has gained masses of followers in recent decades in countries like Brazil, especially among the urban poor who feel neglected by the dominant Catholic Church.
With their vibrant preaching, emotional prayer and singing, evangelical Protestant churches appeal to Brazilians more than the liturgical masses of the Catholic Church. They also use electronic and social media more effectively to proselytize.
Many Brazilians who join evangelical congregations say their new religion has brought meaning to their lives, that they no longer identified with the Catholic Church.
Brazil is the world’s largest Catholic nation and Pope Francis will travel to Rio de Janeiro next month on his first trip abroad as pontiff, in part to try to reverse the exodus away from Catholicism.
The Catholic Church is losing followers across Latin America – even among Hispanics in the United States – and opinion polls in Brazil point to the Church’s strict positions on sex and divorce as contributing factors.
A Datafolha survey in March found 58 percent of Brazilians believe the Catholic Church should accept divorce and 83 percent believe the use of condoms should be allowed, two issues where the Vatican has refused to budge and evangelical churches are more flexible, allowing followers to decide for themselves.
One in four Brazilians is an evangelical Christian today and their churches have multiplied and become wealthy institutions that own radio and television networks, finance political campaigns and even fund their own political parties.
While Catholic priests are banned from running for public office, evangelical churches actively encourage their pastors to engage in politics and often use the pulpit to persuade their followers who they should vote for.