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The inescapable advance of the gospel in Brazil

23 May 2023

Brazil is currently the country with the most Catholics in the world, but it is predicted that Protestants will have outnumbered Catholics by 2035. The Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal Churches are growing in particular. These churches are specifically part of the evangelical movement within the Protestant faith. Manoela Carpenedo, a new member of the Young Academy Groningen and researcher, studies the rise of this movement and its influence on identity, culture, and politics.

Text: Merel Weijer, Corporate Communication UG

Manuela Carpenedo Rodrigues (Photo: David Broom)
Manuela Carpenedo Rodrigues (Photo: David Vroom)

Religion and politics

How exactly it is that evangelicals have grown so much in number is of no interest to Carpenedo (anymore). The advance is a fact. What is more interesting is what it is doing to society. A quarter of the Brazilian electorate is now Pentecostal. Carpenedo wants to explore what this means, that is, how a movement can develop from the grassroots of the church into the spheres of politics and administration. According to Carpenedo, people still assume too much that religion and politics are kept separate, but the reality is different. While the Brazilian state is secular, its voters are not. Believers tend to vote for religious representatives who have a religious agenda that directly translates into a political agenda. 'One example,’ says Carpenedo, 'is the creation of anti-'gender ideology' rhetoric denouncing LGBTQIA+ demands'.

Good versus evil

The general public in Europe often thinks that not religious but rather economic factors are decisive in politics and elections. Carpenedo: 'The reality is different. That which lives under the surface of a society does determine politics.' Bolsonaro just fell short of re-election last year, with only three percent fewer votes than his opponent. His following among Pentecostals is enormous. They see the ex-president as a representative of the good—a politician with conservative morals and an agenda that suits them well. For a considerable part of Pentecostals, the elections are a spiritual battle between God and evil forces. During the last election, different Pentecostal networks showed their support for Bolsonaro through all kinds of religious actions, such as 15-day fasts or 'praying chains' initiated by online priests.

Conversion to Zionism

Some Protestants go so far in their evangelical beliefs that they adopt certain teachings with Zionist inclinations. Carpenedo wrote a book about this: 'Becoming Jewish, Believing in Jesus’. These believers adopt a pro-Israel sentiment as well as Jewish customs. They eat kosher food, wear yarmulkes, and women observe Jewish purity laws. The conviction to practice the faith as authentically as possible seems to play a role in their decision to convert.' In order to write her book, Carpenedo spent time living near the women who are part of this movement and participated in a variety of activities. She participated in traditional dances, ate with the women, and went with them to Israel. Carpenedo: 'It is difficult to start unbiased with this kind of topic. Many people find it totally incomprehensible why these women are doing this.' But for her, the challenge is precisely to learn to see the world as they see it. The empirical data needed for research can only be obtained in this way: not just by observing but by participating.

Orisha - Musée africain in Lyon (Source: Wikipedia)
Orisha - Musée africain in Lyon (Source: Wikipedia)

Christian extremism

Carpenedo is also interested in religious extremism, particularly its Christian forms. In Brazil, it manifests itself in violence against small Afro-Brazilian religious movements. These movements started emerging when many enslaved Africans were brought to Brazil to work on plantations. The slaves brought their own beliefs with them from Nigeria, Mozambique, Guinea, and Angola, and from this a syncretic religion eventually formed—a mix of their original faith and at the time compulsory Catholicism. Carpenedo: 'You have, for example, Candomblé and Umbanda in Brazil and Santeria in Cuba, in which the veneration of the saints from Catholicism is combined with the Orishas (supernatural beings) from traditional African religion. These religious minorities have faced racism and persecution for centuries and have therefore become a form of resistance. Today, these minorities are oppressed by some groups of Pentecostals; their temples are set on fire and priests are persecuted. Not all Pentecostals espouse these views; it is only a small portion. But this example shows that religious violence can come from Christian movements as well—something that many people do not give much thought to. Extremism is often associated with Islam, for example.'

A bridge between two worlds

For Carpenedo, conducting this research is sometimes a challenge. The topics are very sensitive in the countries where she studies them. Despite this, she continues the work because she believes it is important for people to learn to understand each other. She sees herself as a bridge between the Global South and the Global North and would like to share the knowledge she has in order to bring these distanced worlds closer together. 'You can't stop being yourself, but doing this research does change you. You can put on a different set of glasses that gives you a better understanding of what you see and why people do things.' With every research she does, she wants to find new glasses that she can put on. There's already so much polarization, rivalry, and misunderstanding, and it's important to gain more understanding. Carpenedo: 'For that, we need to suppress our prejudices and try to understand why people live the way they do and listen to each other.'

Young Academy Groningen

Carpenedo is thrilled to be joining the Young Academy Groningen, where she hopes to extend her research collaboration across faculties. She also looks forward to developing new approaches for connecting academia and society, particularly by bridging the realities of the Global South and the Global North.

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Manoela Carpenedo

Last modified:24 May 2023 10.27 a.m.
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