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Forget Germanyfaith&ValuesThis is where Protestant Reformation debates are happening now

By: SARAH PULLIAM BAILEY The Washington Post
November 19, 2017 Updated: November 19, 2017 at 4:20 am
Caption +
A man prays at St. John the Baptist, a Catholic parish church across the street from the opulent Solomon's Temple, a Pentecostal church that practices the prosperity gospel. MUST CREDIT: Lianne Milton, Panos Pictures for The Washington Post.

SAO PAULO, Brazil - Speaking from a stage encircled by 12 large crosses, Gabriel Camargo held up wads of fake Brazilian money, showing his flock what could be theirs.

"God will bless you if you give a lot more to the church," said Camargo, a pastor with the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

Then he extended an arm and pointed a large black pouch toward his parishioners in the working-class neighborhood of Osasco.

About a dozen people hurried forward, dumping bills and change into the bag.

Those without cash didn't have to worry: An usher held out a credit card machine. "You'll have so much money," by giving generously to the church, the pastor boomed.

With Brazil in the worst economic crisis in its history, with long queues at unemployment offices and public health clinics, Brazilians increasingly are drawn to promises of personal wealth.

The idea that faith can lead to riches - known as the prosperity gospel - is a form of Pentecostalism, a Protestant faith group that, in a modern-day version of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago, is challenging the dominance of the Catholic Church in Latin America's most populous country.

Brazil, which has the most Catholics per capita in the world, is undergoing religious debates similar to those sparked in 1517 by a fiery German preacher named Martin Luther over church riches and corruption, political power and the proper way to read the Bible. Catholics, now Brazil's religious majority, are projected to become a religious minority by 2030.

Known for charismatic practices such as the laying on of hands for healing, exorcism and speaking in tongues, Pentecostalism has adapted itself well to Brazilian culture, with pastors who look and talk more like their flocks than Catholic priests do.

The prosperity gospel has spread quickly in poor neighborhoods, as the unemployment rate has climbed to a record 13 percent. The promises of a better material life through giving and prayer, as well as strict social rules banning drinking and smoking, give followers a sense of structure and agency over their lives, said Paul Freston, a sociologist and expert in Pentecostalism in Latin America.

"You learn to see yourself as an agent who has possibilities, who has the ability with God's help to achieve things, to get control of yourself," Freston said. "It doesn't mean you become rich, but it often means you rise from absolute destitution to dignified poverty."

Pastors tout their wealth

Prosperity gospel pastors are role models for wealth attainment. Yet standing by the pool outside his $1.5 million house, Silas Malafaia insists he doesn't live extravagantly.

Malafaia is one of Brazil's more prominent and controversial preachers, wielding enormous political clout on behalf of the evangelical population. In Brazil, "evangelical" is synonymous with Protestant, about 70 percent of whom are Pentecostal.

Many such Brazilian pastors take their cues from prominent American prosperity gospel preachers, even though only 3.6 percent of Americans are Pentecostal compared with about a quarter of Brazilians. Evangelicals in Brazil have harnessed a voting bloc that enables them to lobby against gay rights and abortion and for the death penalty and limited government.

"Pentecostals have been a decisive element in tilting the Brazilian agenda towards conservative views and policies," said Joanildo Burity, who researches Brazilian evangelicals and politics.

Wearing a purple shirt, his hair slicked back, the 59-year-old Malafaia compared himself to evangelist Billy Graham, who was a friend of several U.S. presidents. There's nothing wrong with ministers having wealth if they get their money through side projects, as he said he does through his spiritual best-sellers.

Pastors also should be compensated for the size of their ministries, Malafaia said.

"God wants me to be mediocre? The devil would give riches to everyone else," he said.

Malafaia said he is like Martin Luther because he, too, wants the Bible in the hands of average parishioners instead of interpreted for them by a religious elite.

"Have you ever seen the pope with a Bible in his hand?" he asked. "The Catholic Church doesn't incentivize you to have the Bible in your hands. Catholics believe in leaders and the pope. Evangelicals believe in the Bible."

Catholic Church competes

Pope Francis took his first overseas trip to Brazil right before it hosted the World Cup and the Olympics, when the country was riding a global commodities boom. Many felt the papal visit confirmed Brazil's position at the top of the world.

Manuel Jose da Penho and his wife, Maria, remember the exhilaration they felt when the pope showed up at their home. A framed photo of the visit hangs in their living room.

Things were different before Francis' 2013 visit, they said. Their parish held Mass once on Sunday. Its 100 seats never filled. Now the parish offers two Masses on Sunday and five more during the week.

"After he came, it was like a spiritual revival," said da Penho, an electrician, who recently listed his two-bedroom house in a Rio slum for a premium price with the pitch "Pope Francis was here."

Enthusiasm for the first Latin pope prompted predictions of a Catholic revival in Brazil, but experts say it's still too soon to tell whether the "Francis effect" can counteract the rise in Pentecostalism.

The 2014 recession in Brazil lured more Catholics to the prosperity gospel, complicating the church's challenge.

Now the Catholic Church is mixing in charismatic components of Pentecostalism, including catchier music. Catholic priests such as Marcelo Rossi, who has sold millions of his own CDs, have become increasingly popular. Rossi's Masses attract people from all over the city to his outdoor sanctuary with a sloping roof where white plastic chairs replace pews and paintings on concrete walls replace stained-glass windows.

The competition for souls is so fierce in Brazil that every church must try mightily to stand out, said Odilo Scherer, archbishop of Sao Paulo.

"Today, people go by their personal subjective tastes and experiences," said Scherer, who was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI.

"In our Brazilian context, religion is presented as a product in a marketplace which seeks to please the customer and present a product that is appetizing."

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