La Nación on soccer and Protestantism in Brazil

Sitting in my “guilt file” of stories I should be covering — but have not yet gotten round to doing — is this fascinating piece from the sports section of La Nación, the Argentine daily. (With its larger rival Clarín, the two dailies make up almost half of the Buenos Aires newspaper market — as to their editorial stance, neither supports the government of President Cristina Kirchner).

The article “Historias mínimas sobre la selección de Brasil y la religión: de la peregrinación de Scolari al pastor visionario de Neymar” from the July 7 edition reports on the links between Christian faith and the members of Brazil’s world cup team.

The subtitle sets the theme of the story: “Es el país con mayor cantidad de cristianos del mundo y que atraviesa un fuerte crecimiento de los evangelistas; ¿cómo es la relación de los futbolistas con la Fe?”

[Brazil] has the largest number of Christians of any country in the world and that through a strong growth of evangelists. What is the relationship between soccer players and the faith?

The key sentence in this story: “Soccer and religion are twin pillars of Brazilian life.”

Yet in telling this story, La Nación makes an error found in American newspapers — confusing evangelist with evangelical — and further states Brazil has the largest Christian population in the world. (It does not.)

The article follows a traditional sports-human interest story line. It begins with a description of Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari’s visit to the Church of Our Lady of Caravoggio in Rio Grande do Sul a few days before the start of a World Cup, and notes he had made a similar pilgrimage in 2002 and 2013. The coach is quoted as saying his team counts on hard work and the blessings of faith to see them through to victory.

Also, Pope Francis’ farewell to Brazil following his visit last year is cited to underscore the links between faith and football.

In Brazil, as in other countries, football is a national passion. Well, what does a player when he is called to be part of a team? Must train and train a lot. So it is in our life as disciples of the Lord. St. Paul tells us: “Every athlete exercises all, and they do it to obtain a perishable wreath, but we do it for an imperishable crown” (1 Cor 9:25) Jesus offers us something bigger than the World Cup. He offers us the possibility of a fruitful and happy life, and a future with him without end, eternal life.

The scene shifts to the soccer pitch, where instances of prayer after key plays is recounted closing with a quote from one player following his game winning goal against Colombia: “I’ve been practicing a year at Chelsea. Knew that one day God would bless me.”

This story of the players’ religiosity is followed by the main news hook, which is the fact that six members of the Brazilian national team are evangelical Christians. The Protestant players — identified as Baptists, Pentecostals and members of independent congregations — are the face of a changing Brazil, La Nación says and a “reflection of the growth of religion in the country.”

Overall the story is well written and well-conceived. It melds Brazil’s keen interest in sport and the (then) forthcoming World Cup finals with the changes in the sociology of religion found in the country by reference to the faith composition of the national team. As we say around here, it “get’s religion.”

Yet the evangelist/evangelical error crops up in this piece. The sub-headline tells us the growth of evangelists is responsible for Brazil’s changing religious identity. This is a perfectly reasonable argument. Those who are proselytizing for the Christian faith, be they Baptist, Pentecostal, Anglican, Orthodox or Catholic evangelists, are likely driving the change in church membership.

Yet the article speaks not of evangelists or evangelism, but of evangelicals — of Brazil’s Protestant/Pentecostal minority — a group that has doubled in size in the past generation. Here we have a simple error of warped vocabulary.

And we also have the error of fact — the claim that Brazil has the most Christians of any country in the world and has held this title since the 1950s. Brazil has the most Catholics, but not the most Christians. That title is held by the United States according to research from the Pew Research Center. Again, this is not a fatal error. Perhaps a slip, perhaps an unconscious assumption (Catholic is interchangeable with Christian).

Save for these shortcomings, this story represents a good outing from La Nación.

Image courtesy of lazyllama / Shutterstock.com

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  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Considering the movements of religion in Brazil I am surprised the word “charismatic” didn’t come up. There was recently even a huge gathering with the pope in Rome of charismatics from around the Globe. Some claim it is the Catholic embrace of charismatic enthusiasm that is bringing many Brazilians back to the Catholic Church.
    I also found it interesting that almost every soccer player from a Latin American country, at one time or another, blessed themselves with the sign of the cross–a very Catholic-Orthodox devotion and rarely done by Evangelicals.


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