|Pentecostalism and South America's Social Movements|
|Written by Raúl Zibechi|
|Wednesday, 15 October 2008 05:38|
Source: Americas Program
Latin American social movements a new reading is emerging of the role
being played by Pentecostal churches in poor urban neighborhoods and
their political consequences.
"Pentecostalism is the largest self-organized movement of urban poor
in the world," according to the U.S. urban specialist Mike Davis. His
opinions on this religious movement tend to be rejected outright by
many leftist intellectuals. However, Davis is convinced that "many
people on the left have made the mistake of assuming that
Pentecostalism is a reactionary force—and it's not."
Davis is not just being provocative. He is opening minds to conduct research without ideological prejudices and to view reality based on the people's needs. He explains that among the urban poor in Latin America, Pentecostalism is a religion of women that produces real material benefits. "Women who join the church, and who can get their husbands to join with them, often see significant increases in their standard of living: the men are less likely to drink, or whore, or gamble all their money away."
We should add that it also decreases domestic violence. Davis believes that one of the great attractions of Pentecostalism is that "it's a kind of para-medicine." The health of the poor is in permanent crisis and can destabilize their lives, wherever neoliberalism has devastated state health services, and the prices of medicines are sky high. He states that in peripheral areas Pentecostals have been successful in curing alcoholism, neuroses, and obsessions. With some irony, he defines it as a kind of "spiritual health delivery system."
Brazil, a Pentecostal Paradise
In mid-August 2008, a group of activists from urban social movements
called a meeting in Brazil titled "Course on Unorthodox Thoughts." For
three days, a hundred young people debated about social work in the
urban peripheries. Marco Fernandes, an historian and social
psychologist who participates in the Homeless Workers Movement
(Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto, MTST1), was interested in deeper research on the question of Pentecostal churches and arrived at conclusions similar to Davis's.
In Brazil, the Catholic religion is in crisis. In 1980, 89% of the
Brazilian population called itself Catholic; in the 2000 census, the
figure fell to 74%, and by 2007, when the Pope visited the country, to
64%. In 1980, John Paul II had crowds of two million people, but by
2007 Benedict XVI could draw only 800,000.
He was far from topping records for mass gatherings. Three million
showed up in São Paulo for the last gay pride day; 1.5 million attended
the Rolling Stones concert in Rio de Janeiro; and, to the Vatican's
shame, every year evangelical churches draw one or two million of the
faithful for their march for Jesus.
Brazil is at once the country with the most Catholics, but also with
the most Pentecostals in the world, with some 24 million faithful, in
comparison to only 5.8 million in the United States, where this branch
of Protestantism originated.
However, Pentecostals are a social and political force, not just
religious. In a historical irony, the largest left party on the
continent, the Workers Party (PT), created by the Catholic Church and
other entities, came into power with a Pentecostal vice president, José
Alencar. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God to which he belongs
controls 70 television and 50-plus radio stations, a bank, several
newspapers, and has 3,500 temples.2 Its Record TV Network vies for the largest audience against the legendary Globo Network and earns a billion dollars a year.
Of the 550 total legislative representatives, 61 are Pentecostals,
and 91 call themselves militant Catholics. The vice president's
Brazilian Republican Party (PRB), created in 2005 and linked to the
Universal Church, is the fastest growing political force in the
"Anyone living in the urban peripheries of today's Brazil, where I have lived for years, can confirm that this is an important phenomenon. Many participants in the Homeless Workers Movement are also members of the local Pentecostal church. We cannot forget that religion played an important role in the formation of our left," says Fernandes.3
To understand the challenge of Pentecostals to social movements,
Fernandes maintains that we have to reject ideological prejudices. He
says there is a reason why the PRB grew in less than a year "from a
thousand members to a hundred thousand," something no other party has
done. Fernandes's first goal is to understand why they can mobilize so
"A few months ago, the Universal Church organized an event at the Botafogo beach in Rio to raise funds to extend their radio network, and 650,000 people attended, in a city of 10 million. In São Paulo last year, the march for Jesus organized by the all Pentecostal churches working together drew 2.5 million."
An Alternative in the Slums
Fernandes states that in the slums, Pentecostals not only get many
people away from alcohol, but also occasionally get them to give up
drug trafficking and delinquency. And they do it without pressure.
"It's a question of giving people alternatives and hopes for a better
future. Last night, I listened to a Pentecostal radio station, one of
many. A guy called in who said he was out of work and drinking a lot.
The pastor told him: 'I want you to know that I had this problem too.'
The pastors put themselves in the other's place before giving advice."
This researcher-activist tells a personal story. A year ago, he
suffered a deep depression due to the death of one of his best friends,
who had been murdered in the slum, and this coincided with an accident
suffered by several members of the movement. "I was alone at home, and
I felt really bad and went outside, and some friends told me to go to
the nearby Pentecostal church. Since I didn't feel good, I went with
them. Usually in these cases, you sit to the side so as not to draw
attention to yourself. But a church woman came over and told us we were
special guests and sat us up in front of everyone. They introduced us,
called us by name, and greeted us with songs."
He felt direct, personal treatment and a warm welcome, which he had
not expected. "The service began with three pastors. First, a group of
young girls came in singing and thanking God. They sing very nicely,
because they rehearse a lot, clapping hands, dancing in rhythmic
movements. Next came a group of women around 40 years old along with
the church band, and they danced a samba rhythm but with Pentecostal
words. Finally came a duo of adolescent girls singing and dancing. All
that lasted about two hours, and then, the three pastors spoke, but
only for some 20 minutes, reading the Bible. So, it was a party among
the people, a club meeting, where the Pentecostal message was not
Fernandes, who is an atheist, confessed that he left church feeling
very good, his anxiety had disappeared, and he felt "lighter." "The
position of the chairs surprised me—not like in a traditional church,
but in a large circle, like we do in the movements. People look at each
other as they sing and do all that collective catharsis. And while I
was there, I thought, we can do those things in our movements."
When we began to micro-analyze relations between Pentecostal
churches and local residents, a few details appeared that explain these
religions' success. "People live monotonous lives in their
neighborhoods, where there is nothing to do on Sundays; the
neighborhood is ugly and has no services, no movie theater, or soccer
field. In those places, the only way to have an enjoyable experience is
to go to the Pentecostal church, where you are going to have an
impressive aesthetic experience, with music and dance, because they are
not just looking for the truth but may only want to spend a pleasant
moment, meet or make friends, feel part of a community."
Also, Pentecostal churches have childcare where mothers can leave
their children while they go to the service. We should not forget that
in movements in urban peripheries, as in the churches in those areas,
the most active people are always and in all cases the mothers.
Generally, they are young women, under 30, with several children and no
partner or only short-term partners. The survival of the family depends
on them, and they need entertainment too.
"In addition," says Fernandes, "the service is full of color and fragrances from incense that facilitate the catharsis. People dress in a very traditional way. The young women wear long skirts, not miniskirts, and the men often wear a suit to church. A bricklayer in a suit feels different." Catharsis is understood as an internal stirring that produces a sense of well-being, similar to what can be experienced at a rock concert or a football game.
In other Latin American countries, questions similar to Fernandes's arise among social activists. Among Argentina's piqueteros
(unemployed picketers), as among country farmers organized in
Guatemala, attempts have been made to understand why so many movement
activists attend Pentecostal churches. In fact, movements and churches
work among the same social sectors.
What is true is that the left's anticlerical discourses work only
for the intellectuals who traditionally resisted understanding the
symbolic function of religions and now, also, the positive material
benefits for their members. The Universal Church, for example, has
specialists in micro-enterprises who guide the faithful in establishing
their small businesses and help them get out of unemployment.
Fernandes explains the enormous differences among the popular
sectors between the current reality and that of the 1960s, the period
when Ecclesiastic Base Communities (EBCs) contributed to the birth of
several movements, including the landless movement, the central workers
union (CUT) and even the PT. "The EBCs had a very rational praxis,
appropriate for schooled persons. That's why they excluded from their
rituals the most cathartic popular sense of religions found in
African-based sects and others. They were prejudiced against what they
considered forms of alienation that distracted from the focus on
political consciousness-raising, in their opinion."
The reason-based matrix in the base communities called for collective Bible reading as a way to understand reality. "It was appropriate for a period when the norm was the more or less structured nuclear family, the worker in industry or services with a steady job, children in school, and a future on the horizon. Neoliberalism ended all that for the popular sectors, and those methods no longer work. Here, the main actor is no longer the skilled worker, but the woman and her children, and they have no future in this society," according to Fernandes.
Pentecostal religion allows everyone to have direct contact with the
holy spirit, without pastoral mediation. "That direct contact is the
catharsis, the celebration—what people want when they have no future in
a society that allows no place for them."
Most of the faithful in peripheral areas do not belong to large
churches, like the Universal Church, or the Assembly of God, but to
small churches with strong local identity. "One can think that the
smaller the church, the more direct the relations, face to face. People
living on the same block don't know one another, but they discover each
other at the Sunday service." In many peripheral neighborhoods, the
only painted building, pretty but not ostentatious, is the Pentecostal
church, often painted by the people themselves. The Pentecostal church
creates a sense of belonging, of community.
Many activists feel a certain pessimism about the compatibility of
the organizational work of social movements and Pentecostal churches.
They remember that the Ecclesiastic Base Communities of the Catholic
Church emerged in a very different political context and within the
framework of the Second Vatican Council that fomented social justice
and defended the "option for the poor."
"While Catholics never approved of riches, and this can be seen even
in a conservative Pope like Benedict XVI, and although this can be
considered a double discourse, the Pentecostals worship individual
enrichment. That is why I think it is unlikely they will join social
movements, although a few small groups do," says Fernandes.
What's interesting is that ideology-based reflection is being left
behind. The desire for beauty, for communion through music and dance,
is part of the praxis of Brazil's Landless Movement (MST), where it is
called "mysticism" and plays a relevant role in the consolidation of
collectives occupying lands. But by and large, it has not been
incorporated into social movements, especially in urban peripheries.
Fernandes adds, "I am ever more convinced that if those of us in social
movements are incapable of understanding that people feel a hunger for
beauty, for joy, we will not grow, nor will we reach the population
that needs change the most."
Crudely materialist discourse has made economic problems an almost
exclusive concern for most groups on the left, which come from
university-educated middle classes and are convinced that Pentecostal
pastors exploit people's ignorance through money contributed by the
faithful. From his experience as a psychologist, Fernandes views it
differently: "They forget that when people begin to go to the churches,
they begin to feel better; they put their life back together, and, of
course, who wouldn't pay money for that? Middle-class people don't
think it absurd to pay a lot of money for a session of psychoanalysis,
for just 50 minutes with a man who hardly speaks to you or looks at
you. That seems correct, because it is a recognized 'scientific'
practice. But that doesn't work for the popular classes."
Translated for the Americas Policy Program by Danielle Youngblood and María Roof.
Raúl Zibechi is international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and investigator on social movements at the Multiversidad, and adviser to several social groups. He is a monthly collaborator with the Americas Policy Program (www.americaspolicy.org).