In 2016, as congressmen voted on whether to impeach then-President Dilma Rousseff, no fewer than 58 politicians dedicated their votes in favor of the move to their faith. Just a few months later, the country’s tourist capital – with its reputation for hedonistic Carnival displays – surprised international observers when it voted for the Evangelical bishop Marcelo Crivella as its mayor.
Despite being theoretically secular, the Brazilian state has a peculiar relationship to the Church – as shown by its consistent dedications and religious tributes wherever possible. God is written into Brazil’s Constitution and has his face emblazoned on Brazilian Real notes. A cross sits in the Supreme Court, where Brazilian justices meet, and there are official collective worship ceremonies held every Wednesday morning in the lower house.
While plenty of other countries have similar practices, the Lower House’s vote on Dilma’s impeachment shows that in Brazil, the line between religion and state becomes a little more blurred. During the Lower House impeachment vote, Congressman Marco Feliciano exclaimed: “With the help of God, for my family and for the Brazilian people, for Evangelicals across the nation, for the boys in the MBL, […] to say goodbye to this darling, bye to the Worker’s Party, the party of darkness, I vote yes!”
“The Evangelicals were very important actors in the national congress with regards to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff,” says Christina Vital, a professor at the Federal Fluminense University.
But Feliciano is no outlier in Brazilian politics or Brazilian society. The country’s evangelical population grew by 13.2 percentage points after re-democratization, from just nine percent of the country in 1990 to 22.2 percent in the 2010 census. Considering that in 1970, just four percent of Brazilians considered themselves Evangelical, the speed of the faith’s spread seems extraordinary. In reality, evangelicals adopted a well-established tactic for spreading religion in Brazil: the media.
“They already ended up dominating some ministries in the Dilma and Lula governments – such as putting Marcelo Crivella, a bishop of the Universal Church and nephew of its main leader, Edir Macedo, in charge of the Fishing Ministry,” says Janaina Aires, a communications professor at Campina Grande Federal University.
Making a megaphone
As early as the 1920s, the Catholic Church had radio programs on Brazil’s airwaves to promote popular literacy, according to Aires. Evangelicals, meanwhile, adopted broadcast media for mass communication from the 1940s onwards.
From the outset, Evangelicals coordinated their communications more tightly than the Catholic Church, which ran localized rural and urban programs throughout the country and rarely scheduled national programs. When neither the Catholic message nor the national media’s tone sat right with the population in the 1980s, the Evangelical media took advantage of the opportunity.
It was with the inauguration of the first Evangelical television station in 1982, along with a stronger radio presence, that Evangelicalism first began to truly spread in Brazil. By 1989, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God had accumulated enough wealth to launch Brazil’s first, nation-wide television station, Record. And as Universal Church’s presence in broadcast media grew, so did their presence in Congress. In 1987, the Universal Church elected its first congressman; today, it has 24.
Marcelo Crivella’s 2016 electoral success is a part of this story. The nephew of Edir Macedo, Record’s founder and Universal Church bishop, Crivella’s campaign for Rio mayor undoubtedly benefitted from an alternative media ready to defend him from mainstream media accusations. However, Crivella is not the only figure backed by an Evangelical media empire.
Aires, whose research concentrates on Record, says that the television shows aired by the channel amplify conservative perspectives. “When the presenters aren’t pastors, they often have a different relationship with the faith or with the party,” she says, explaining that the Republican Party (PRB) has strong ties to the Universal Church. “In today’s programming, there are a significant number of police shows, presented by police figures with links to the Church in some way or another.”
Police personalities on Record’s shows, like pastors, are likely to follow conservative political lines that involve a minimal state and heavy-handed public security tactics. “Inserting candidates with pro-human rights stances, for example, into these platforms is not a possibility,” said Aires.
Senior figures supported by Evangelical media
Edir Macedo, Universal Church of the Kingdom of God bishop and Record media network founder, most recently made headlines for biopic Nothing to Lose. Produced by his own media network (Record), the film sold out screenings – but cinemas were reportedly empty, with the Church buying the tickets.
Macedo is part of a business empire, with banking and construction firms in addition to media and the Church itself. His net worth is an estimated 950m USD, and he is already being sought out for endorsements by pre-candidates for this year’s elections, including Flavio Rocha. Crivella recently authorized the Church’s bank AJ Renner, of which Macedo has a 49 percent stake, to offer loans to public servants.
Macedo expelled Valdemir Santos from his operations, but that didn’t stop Santos from going on to build his own Evangelical empire. He founded the World Church of the Power of God, which has more than 900,000 followers and over 4,000 temples, and in 2013 had an estimated net worth of 220m USD.
Santos was one of the pastors sought out by President Michel Temer for support on the pension reform, along with Romildo Ribeiro Soares. Romildo is also the father of Rio de Janeiro congressman Marcos Soares (DEM-RJ), who is married to Edir Macedo’s sister, and while his private net worth remains unknown apart from a 5m USD private jet, his Church had an estimated net worth of 125m USD in 2013.
Temer is not the only senior politician to seek out Evangelical endorsement to salvage lurching public approval. In 2010, both Dilma and fellow pre-candidate José Serra went out of their way to appear at Churches and in Evangelical worship services as the elections approached, after abortion became a pivotal voter issue.
Although he doesn’t interact heavily with Macedo’s associates, Silas Malafaia is once again a personality worth mentioning when it comes to media and popular influence. The founder of the Assembly of God-Victory In Christ Church, he is credited with helping to elect more than 300 congressmen in his career as a televangelist that spans more than 3 decades.
He owns one of the four biggest record companies in Brazil’s gospel segment, according to Billboard Brasil, and the country’s second largest gospel publishing company, Central Gospel, with sales of a reported 25 million USD (50 million BRL) per year.
In addition to generating substantial popular and financial support for Church founders, media networks are efficient when it comes to passing legislation. Aires’s research shows that from 1983 to 2017, Evangelical parliamentarians exercised 726 mandates in total, with 221 of these coming directly from Record’s television network.
While the current argument is that the proportion of representatives should reflect Brazil’s Evangelical population, the numbers have not yet demonstrated a representation of popular Evangelical ideas.