Chapter 4: Pentecostalism and Confrontation with Poverty in Brazil, by Cecilia Loreto Mariz

In the Power of the Spirit
by Dennis A. Smith and B.F. Gutierrez (eds.)

Chapter 4: Pentecostalism and Confrontation with Poverty in Brazil, by Cecilia Loreto Mariz

Cecilia Loreto Mariz received her Ph.D. in the sociology of religion from Boston University. She is a researcher and professor of sociology at Fluminense Federal University in Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro. Dr. Mariz is the author of Pentecostals and Christian Base Communities in Brazil: Coping with Poverty and of numerous articles on Pentecostalism. This document first appeared in THE POWER OF THE SPIRIT, Edited by Benjamin F. Gutierrez & Dennis A. Smith, published in 1996 by PC(USA)WMD AIPRAL/CELEP, pp. 129-146.



Pentecostal churches are multiplying in Brazil, especially in the poorest neighborhoods in the largest cities, attracting the people with fewest economic resources and least education.[1] Since Pentecostals are the poorest, the media and members of the more intellectualized social classes tend to conclude that ignorance explains the rapid growth of these churches, which they think exploit the good will of a poor and ignorant people. They criticize the Pentecostal churches for asking the poor for high contributions and for promoting cures and all kinds of miracles. Due to the political positions they take, Pentecostal churches are also accused of distancing the working class from the struggle for its own interests. Critics of Pentecostalism aver that poor people don't recognize where their own interests lie; they argue that the Pentecostal churches have grown more than the (Catholic) Base Ecclesial Communities (CEBs) --groups that propose to defend popular interest, inspired by liberation theology-- because the poor have been fooled by false promises.

This kind of accusation and the explanation that Pentecostalism grows because of the intellectual poverty of the people assume a cognitive inferiority of the least favored classes. By inferring that the poor people who adhere to this faith do not know what is good for them, such arguments take an authoritarian point of view. They presuppose that the intellectual classes are competent to choose what beliefs are better for the poorer and less cultured part of the population.

I begin with the contrary presupposition: If a person chooses something it is because it is good for him. In this article I try to identify the elements which can have positive effects on the lives of poor people and which explain the attraction of Pentecostal churches.[2] I pose the following questions: "What attracts poor people to Pentecostal churches?" and "How are these churches capable of creating a sense of commitment that persuades individuals to adopt a rigid personal morality and to tithe?" I argue that Pentecostalism offers certain experiences and values to poor people which help them confront difficulties in their daily lives. In other words, these churches help people survive and are, among other things, tools for confronting poverty. In affirming this I do not wish to imply that anyone adopts a religion only in order to survive better or obtain material advantages. Religious sensibility, which motivates the faith of the individual-- what she felt and thought when she decided to join the church or when she held up her hand and "accepted Jesus"-- must be distinguished from the non-intentional consequences, or the "collateral effects" of this adherence. I am not questioning individual religious motivations, but merely analyzing the non-intentional consequences of their conversion. As I am concerned with understanding the attraction of Pentecostal conversion and to search for positive results, my analysis consequently results, as will be seen later, in a criticism of the accusations made against Pentecostalism.

The diversity of Pentecostalism in Brazil

Pentecostalism was brought to Brazil at the beginning of the century by missionaries, some coming from Europe via the United States, and others coming directly from the United States. Brazilian Pentecostalism derived from three churches: The Assemblies of God, the Christian Congregation of Brazil, and the Foursquare Gospel Church (Rolim, 1985). There is presently no way of knowing how many Pentecostal churches exist, but it is known that they make up 60% of the Protestant population of Brazil.

The largest Pentecostal church in Brazil is the Assemblies of God. Founded in 1911, it grew significantly only after the 1960s. From that moment the Assemblies of God in particular and Pentecostalism in general have not only grown rapidly but have divided into various denominations. The new denominations which emerged were created in Brazil by Brazilians. In this way, as Rubem Cesar Fernandes has shown, Protestantism, or better yet, Pentecostalism, is no longer a foreign religion. Brazil has even become an exporter of missionaries,[3]-- not only does Brazil receive missionaries from the United States, it also sends missionaries there.

The fragmentation of Pentecostal churches created wide diversity in Pentecostalism. This diversity can best be demonstrated by a comparison between two kinds of churches: the Assemblies of God and Christian Congregation of Brazil on one hand, and the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, the House of Blessing, and the International Church of Divine Grace on the other. The first group, which in itself is quite diverse, is distinct from the second group not only in the customs and the emphasis placed on some gifts of the Spirit, but also in forms of administration and the way pastors and leaders are recruited.

In order to understand this diversity, some writers have tried to classify the Pentecostal churches, distinguishing the traditional churches from the autonomous (Bittencourt Filho, 1991), or differentiating classic Pentecostalism from neo-Pentecostalism (Oro, 1992). Another attempt to account for the diversity among Pentecostal churches is the proposal of Paul Freston (1993) which identifies three waves of Brazilian Pentecostalism. The first wave is characterized by greater emphasis on the gift of speaking in tongues, the second wave on the gift of healing, and the third on the gift of liberation. Although useful in making some important distinctions in Brazilian Pentecostalism, these classifications are not broad enough. They have difficulty, for example, including middle-class Pentecostal churches in general, and distinguishing between middle-class churches and churches born of the charismatic renovation in the historic churches. They also fail to include small churches that cannot be considered classically Pentecostal and at the same time are quite different from neo-Pentecostal churches.

Despite the recognized diversity in the Pentecostal universe, my principal concern in this article is its homogeneity. A great part of the Pentecostal experiences that we analyze here as tools for facing poverty are common to all Pentecostal churches. And besides, almost all these churches are objects of the same kinds of accusations, although most recent criticism of Pentecostalism in the media has focused on the so-called neo-Pentecostal or autonomous churches, and specifically on the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

In fact, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, the second largest Pentecostal church in metropolitan Rio de Janeiro, and perhaps the second largest in Brazil in terms of church membership, has identifying characteristics, such as the size of its temples, its relation with a television network, its controversial bishop, its emphasis on fighting Afro-Brazilian religions, its emphasis on exorcism, the theology of prosperity, and asking for contributions. It also has a notably lower level of biblical education among both pastors and the faithful (Pereira, 1995). Nevertheless, even in this case it is possible to speak of specific, central, basic elements of the Pentecostal experience that are common to members of an Assemblies of God church and members of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. The similarities in their experiences tend to increase, since there is a lot of communication between Pentecostals of different denominations. Research indicates a permeability in the borders between the different Pentecostal churches. This is revealed by the frequent transit among the faithful who share the same identity and experience (Mariz and Machado, 1994). It is about this identity and experience that I wish to speak.

Pentecostalism and politics

The Pentecostal churches have always been criticized for the political indifference of their members or the political conservativism and adventurism of their leadership. Until the 1970s, the Pentecostals, as well as the evangelicals in general, were absent from the political sphere in Brazil. Since the New Republic (1985), which began when the military regime ended, this panorama has changed. The evangelicals, as Paul Freston (1993) has shown, are transforming themselves into political pressure groups and electing their own candidates. Autonomous Pentecostalism and the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God are not backward in this respect. On the contrary, as Father Jesus Hortal (1994) has observed, "in 1990, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God was the only Protestant denomination to save itself from the defeat of the evangelical group in Congress."

Unlike the traditional Pentecostals criticized at the beginning of the 1970s for separating religion from politics, the autonomous Pentecostals are criticized for mixing the two, and for using their churches to get votes. The enchanted or magical view of the world of these Pentecostals does not distance them from politics, yet the political behavior of the leaders of these churches is interpreted as "political adventurism" (Hortal, 1994).

Despite all this political involvement, Pentecostals generally declare themselves politically neutral and deny, in principle, a religious motivation behind any activity related to politics. Most Pentecostal discourse demonstrates a concern for maintaining the appearance of neutrality of the religious group. Despite this discourse, the majority of churches tend to accept the slogan, "brother votes for brother," using their religious identity to promote their programs and justify votes and political action on behalf of the group's interests. In this case, political opinion is clearly tied to group interests and the exchange of favors. When this happens, the Pentecostals are criticized for patronage, yet political patronage isn't limited to autonomous Pentecostalism or to evangelicals but characterizes the political vision of popular culture, as well as the dominant political culture in our society. The political behavior of the Pentecostals, then, does not differ from that of traditional religiosity, which also rejects politics and employs a patronage-based model.

The critics of Pentecostalism tend not to question whether the political model-- be it conservative, patronage-based or indifferent-- was created by this religious group or if it was pre-existing. These critics see this kind of political behavior as bad for the poor because they assume that the root of poverty and, consequently, the struggle against it, can be reduced to the political context. Since Pentecostal experience emphasizes personal morality and the search for individual transformation instead of political struggle, these critics accuse it of being alienating and consider it an obstacle to social change. This criticism begins with the false assumption that social change happens only in the realm of politics, and that the stage of history is set exclusively in the political world.

In order to understand the role of Pentecostalism in the lives of poor people, it is important to perceive that, despite its roots in the international political and economic context and in class relationships, poverty is above all experienced as a daily problem in the lives of individuals. In fact, the fight against poverty takes place primarily on the microsocial level of the actions of individuals, alone or organized in groups, and only secondarily on a macrosocial level of political and social struggles. When individuals confront serious personal crises and find it difficult to survive, they usually lack the conditions necessary to develop social consciousness or to become politically involved.

A significant number of Pentecostals have serious personal problems when they join the church. By giving them the means to overcome these personal difficulties, the Pentecostal churches help poor people on a microsocial level, that is, in the daily life of the individual, his family, and organizations. Thus, the political path is not the only one which permits social transformation. Changing individual lives not only does not impede social change, but it can even be an instrument for this change. It is important not to reduce individuals to mere consequences of the social structure.

The analysis of the role of Pentecostalism in the daily struggle for survival can contribute to understanding the process of cultural and social change among the poorer classes. Although this daily struggle may always have intermediate goals, sometimes it has unintentional effects that go beyond its limited goals. These activities have potential for making macro-structural change. Recognizing this helps us to avoid the reification of the social structure and social determinism, and helps us to be attentive to the relative autonomy of individuals and small groups.

As I have already stated in other works, I think that the belief that since poverty is the fruit of the social structure it cannot be changed is almost as damaging to poor people as the idea that they are responsible for their poverty (Mariz, 1994). The poor are not passive and powerless victims of society. They know what they want and how to get it. In order to help them, we have to respect their ways of acting. We must try to discern what strategies they adopt to confront and overcome the privation in which they live. Thus, in this article I do not adopt the concept of false consciousness or alienation because, besides being authoritarian, as I argued above, these concepts do not help us understand the growth of Pentecostalism and its meaning.

To understand the Pentecostal phenomenon it is more useful to identify the meaning and the practical consequences of the religious beliefs and experiences in the daily lives of the faithful than to discuss the degree of political conservativism of their ideology. By concentrating on the analysis of ideology, criticisms of Pentecostal political behavior do not take into account the changes in the culture promoted by this religious experience. In the following sections, 1 will consider how churches help individuals to overcome their crises, and will try to identify the experiences which transform them in personal terms, even those experiences which question the dominant political culture.

Experiences which transform the individual

The extreme material privation and the consequent problems of this privation create a sense of powerlessness, low esteem, exclusion, insecurity, fear, fatalism, and anomie. In situations of extreme poverty and cultural and material marginalization, sometimes aggravated by racism, one's sense of personal dignity becomes impoverished. Other problems, such as alcoholism, unemployment, or the abandonment of women, reinforce this self- hate. Other religions also offer experiences which help people to overcome these feelings and shore up personal dignity. These experiences, which are common to almost all groups which develop strong social ties, religious or not, are: the sense of belonging to a group, the experience of power, and the creation of a new identity.

Pentecostal churches help the poor to regain their dignity in different ways. The stories of Pentecostals attest to the fact that their first contact with the church contributes to enhancing their self-esteem. The warm welcome they receive when they first visit the church helps them to see things differently. Many interviewees explained that the concern their problems awoke in others contributed to the increase in their self-esteem.

The emphasis on spiritual gifts, as opposed to material riches, is another strategy to fortify the dignity of the poor (Bobsin, 1984). The direct experience of the sacred, the belief in direct contact with God, also opposes the feeling of impotence and increases the self-esteem of those who feel weak.

Another strategy to strengthen personal dignity can be seen in the eagerness of the Pentecostals to build a new identity involved with keeping up a good appearance as decent or "cultured" people. Care given to dress and personal appearance has this function. Men must wear jacket and tie to worship every day. Pentecostal women must also wear clothes that distinguish them from the rest of the poor population. This kind of behavior is common to all Pentecostal churches, though it is most evident in the classic Pentecostal churches. The search for distinction, though it may seem to the poor as a negation of class origin, appears to be more a rejection of the negative stereotypes associated with poverty.

A criticism commonly made of classic Pentecostalism focuses on the rigidity of the customs, or the "doctrine," as they call it, which prohibits people from dressing fashionably and participating in popular forms of entertainment. Nevertheless, some of the faithful cited precisely this strict style of dress as something which attracted them. The dress code protects a poor person from being mistaken for a marginalized one. The men do not want to be taken as thieves or the women as prostitutes, as some researchers have noted (Gilkes, 1985). Part of the Pentecostal project involves constructing a prosperous, "cultured" image.

In addition to self-esteem, the churches sustain the poor person by offering her a mutual support network, an alternative to family and neighborhood ties. Having access to a wider social network makes a person feel more supported, and she begins to feel that she can make something of her life. This also contributes to overcoming what social psychologists call "the syndrome of powerlessness."

This syndrome has been identified as a characteristic of poor populations (Cavalcante, 1987). Those most lacking in economic resources have the fewest possibilities to change their destinies. They have fewer options and are more easily overwhelmed by misfortune or caught by the social structures. To the degree that they offer a supernatural power which compensates for lack of power in this world, religion and the belief in miracles generally attract the weakest of our number. Through religious or magic power, individuals can overcome the syndrome of powerlessness and stop feeling that it is impossible to determine their own destiny. Nevertheless it does not seem to be the belief in a supernatural power or the experience of miracles that most helps an individual to gain a feeling of control over his own life. Belief in magical power is not always enough. In the life histories of Pentecostals, as well as of other religions, we can note that as much as they believe in supernatural power or magic, they confront miracles which do not happen in everyday life. The sense of power and control over one's life remains, however, when they also are endowed with something Antonovski (1979) calls "lawfulness," that is, when meaning is attributed as much to a miracle as to the absence of one, and people believe that "things will be how they should be."

The experience of "lawfulness" seems more important than direct experience with miracles, and in principle, is found in all religions which accept the idea of divine providence. Faith in divine providence and the idea that God has a specific plan for each person is strongly emphasized in Pentecostalism. It encourages people to feel that irrational events and the suffering of life have meaning and obey a superior logic in which Good will always win. This belief also helps to overcome the fear and insecurity which are inevitable for those who know they have no power.

Before they were converted, many Pentecostals that I interviewed felt they were at the mercy of spirits and spells put on them by personal enemies. Pentecostalism functions as a protection from spells, evil spirits, and black magic. Faith in divine providence, as Weber shows (1972, p. 143), is already constitutive of primitive Christianity for the important role it plays in neutralizing black magic and hexes.

In fact, the poorest people are entirely right to be afraid, since they are the most vulnerable in many aspects of life. The slum dwellers in Rio live daily with the danger of stray bullets, threats, and all kinds of violence from the police, from organized crime, and from the almost constant struggle between the two. In a visit to a church of the Assemblies of God on the edge of a favela in Rio de Janeiro, I heard a preacher clearly express the promise of protection that faith offers. This pastor, black, toothless, dressed in a jacket and tie, preached with emotion about how, when he comes every day to the favela where he lives, he can pass by all the drug traffickers with their AR15 rifles and have no fear. Against their rifles he carries the Bible. A believer can feel strong and have the courage to confront not only evil spirits but also the threats of this world. It is common to find mothers or wives of drug traffickers who are converted by the Pentecostal churches and try to bring their sons and husbands with them.

Pentecostalism transforms the individual not only through the experience of belonging to a community and through direct contact with the sacred-- experiences which other religions offer that are capable of restoring dignity to an individual, offering him power, courage, and "lawfulness"-- but also through experiences that help poor people adapt better to modern society. In this way Pentecostalism is distinguished from most popular Brazilian religions by exposing the faithful to "modernizing" experiences. These experiences occur when Pentecostalism requires an individual option for the faith and the adoption of a new ethic in daily life, and when it emphasizes the use of the word, reading and studying the Bible, and the intellectual systemization of the faith. The new ethic reinforces rational option over tradition and cultural inheritance. Emphasis on the word and the study and systemization of the faith encourage attitudes and abilities that are useful to poor people in modern capitalist societies.

Pentecostalism breaks with traditional religiosity by emphasizing "rebirth" and conversion as an individual option. In traditional religiosity, there is no conversion. Religion is innate, not the result of personal choice. To be a "medium," for example, is not a destiny that one chooses, and in the Afro-Brazilian religions, each person is born with his or her "saint, which cannot be chosen. Involvement with Pentecostal churches thus represents a rupture with the dominant traditions and their way of living and seeing the world. This view of life is non-fatalist because it recognizes the capacity of the individual to be different and/or to act differently from the norms.

In order to explain a religious option that breaks with tradition, the Pentecostals elaborate a rationalization or a series of ideas which justifies their faith. Contrary to traditional groups, the Pentecostals emphasize the intellectual aspects of faith. To read the Bible and interpret it is fundamental to Pentecostalism. According to some of the Pentecostals who were illiterate before their conversion, the emphasis on the written word and the theoretical elaboration of faith motivated them to learn how to read. It also seems to encourage verbal competence and an ability to argue, fundamental skills in democracy and modern societies.

Another modernizing element is the transformation of the daily life of the believer toward a new ethic proposed by the religious group. The fusion of faith and life defended by the theology of liberation and the CEBs is also practiced by the Pentecostals. According to James Hunter (1989), the rejection of the modern division between public and private lives is characteristic of fundamentalist religions. Paradoxically, in the Pentecostal groups this rejection has modernizing and transforming consequences.

In relation to these modernizing experiences which reinforce individuality, some Pentecostal churches, with their congregational style, offer their members a relationship to power that is innovative compared to the dominant political style of the traditional religions and of our society in general. Although Pentecostal ideology is conservative, Pentecostalism fosters a new political culture that is more egalitarian and participative, and therefore more compatible with the interests of those less favored socially.

Experiences of a new relationship to power

Three aspects of Pentecostal group experience redefine elements of the dominant political culture, especially among the poor. They are: a) participation; b) depersonalization of power by attributing a greater power to the "word" and the law than to people; c) less distance between the leadership and the base.

As Fernandes (1994) pointed out, "to adhere to Protestantism is to participate intensely." Fernandes argues that Protestantism breaks with the model of Brazilian behavior of little social commitment and involvement, observed by W. Guilherme dos Santos. Contrary to the dominant model-- where the poorest are the least committed --in the evangelical milieu, the poorest are those who most participate.

The participation of the Pentecostal believer is broader than merely singing, preaching, praying out loud, or helping in missionary or social works. In some churches, members participate in administrative meetings when practical decisions are taken about where to use the money collected in the offering, or whether to invite a pastor. The participation of church members in this kind of meeting, however, is not common to all churches. It doesn't occur, for example, in the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. This kind of meeting happens in Assemblies of God churches, as one of our interviewees from the Baixada Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro told us who was very impressed that the leaders accounted for all the money received from the community. In that particular month, our interviewee told us, part of the money went to help two church women who were having trouble, and another part went to repairing the temple.

Pentecostalism is authoritarian in the sense that it strongly emphasizes obedience, but it is a different kind of authoritarianism than is practiced by the Afro-Brazilian religions, the carnival clubs, and other popular Brazilian associations, which depend on a single leader. Pentecostal authoritarianism is based on the law. The leader must submit to law, to the Bible, and to doctrine. The word has more authority than the person. In this way, Pentecostals are breaking with popular culture. The authority of a pastor is legitimated not only by his personal charisma, but also by the institution to which he belongs. Furthermore, the pastors are required to obey a code of ethics that is referred to in some churches as "doctrine." It is legitimate--one can almost say it is common--for a Pentecostal believer to oppose a pastor who has disobeyed the doctrine.

Generally, Pentecostalism is criticized for its lack of theology or for its simplified theologies, such as the theology of the "spiritual war" focused on the struggle against demons, or the "theology of prosperity." It is more correct to say that these criticisms point to an absence of elements of erudite culture in this religiosity and to the lack of intellectual sophistication of its leaders. The pastors are less educated in erudite culture and therefore less distant from the church members. Although they can take authoritarian postures with regard to the members the relationship in cognitive terms between believer from the popular classes and his unsophisticated Pentecostal pastor is closer and less asymmetrical than that in the Catholic Church or the historic Protestant churches, whose pastors have university and post-graduate degrees. Thus, the distance between the producers of the sacred and the consumers is less than in the traditional religions, as others have also pointed out (Canales, Palma and Vilela, 1994; p. 99). Through their participation and their experience of an egalitarian religion, the faithful have their sense of dignity and power reinforced even more.

Improving the material life and the "theology of prosperity"

Despite the fact that many Pentecostal believers experience a new form of political organization in their churches, this does not occur in all churches, and the search for a renewal of political life and culture is not part of the discourse of Pentecostalism. Its discourse commonly refers to changes in the life of the individual and her family, emphasizing the improvement of the material conditions of life after conversion. Pentecostal preaching, testimonies, and the stories of conversions or answered prayers frequently mention solutions to material problems in daily life. Although the emphasis on material life with the acceptance of some kind of "theology of prosperity" varies from one church to another, and is more evident in some churches than in others, the belief that the new faith will bring material benefits is generalized among almost all Pentecostals. In the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, for example, this theology dominates its discourse. The importance of money in autonomous Pentecostalism, and in the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in particular, is evident as much in its theology of prosperity as in the request for contributions, which takes up a large part of the worship service (Hortal, 1994). Freston (1993; p. 105) thinks the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God "is the principal port of entry to Brazil" for the North American stream of Pentecostalism known as the "health and wealth Gospel." In other churches, such as the Assemblies of God, they also spend much time speaking about the solution to material and health problems, but in the preaching and in the testimonies they mention other, non-material improvements. In all the churches, however, it is affirmed that the believer always overcomes the crises of life, and that survival will not be threatened when one has faith.

Insofar as it is a set of values and beliefs, any religion can be useful to the material survival of the poor, whether it provides the individual with experiences, such as those we have described above, which strengthen the dignity and self-esteem of the poor, or because it creates motivations and proposes new values and a new economic culture which lead to new, more productive economic behavior. In its values and world view, Pentecostalism does not seem to create a new attitude or motivation regarding work. As several anthropologists have noted (among them C. Flora, 1976, and J. Hoffnagel, 1978), Pentecostalism places value not on producing or working more, but on consuming less. Through its rigid doctrine opposing the "vanities," drink, and worldly distractions, Pentecostalism-- and especially classical Pentecostalism-- motivates people to save. Although saving is valued by poor Brazilians of other religions, only the Pentecostals attribute a religious meaning to the restriction of superfluous consumption.

Different religious communities or groups can also contribute to the struggle for survival by poor people in other, more direct, ways, such as (1) the donation of goods, or "charity," (2) the creation of remunerated positions for church leaders, or (3) the creation of a network of mutual support. As religious groups, the Pentecostal churches tend to differ from the dominant religions of Brazil by giving less emphasis to charity, which is central to Catholic and Spiritists religiosity. The poorest Pentecostal churches, especially, de-emphasize charity, particularly when it is for the non-evangelical poor. Although some churches, such as the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, use a missionary strategy of giving material aid to beggars and street people, most Pentecostal churches take only the Bible to their missionary work.

Since the majority of Pentecostal churches are poor, their members don't receive or hope to receive any material aid from them; on the contrary, they contribute to maintain their churches. Nevertheless, in a moment of crisis they know that they can count on help from the mutual support network and the support of the church. This happened in the above-mentioned case in the Baixada Fluminense which gave part of its monthly income to two sisters in the faith who were living in penury. It is also frequent in the popular neighborhoods that believers who are temporarily without shelter live in a room next to the sanctuary (Pereira, 1995).

Although they do not contribute in a regular and direct way to the daily survival of their members, the churches sometimes provide the only source of income for their leaders. Thus, they become an alternative source of employment, usually for men, though there are cases of Pentecostal churches accepting women as pastors.

The network of mutual support can be seen as another kind of strategy for material advancement developed by different religious groups, including the Pentecostals. These networks, as we have noted above, do not substitute for, but combine the traditional kinship and neighborhood networks which form spontaneously in poor neighborhoods. The religious networks have the advantage of wider social and geographical reach. Through their churches, evangelicals enter into contact with people from other neighborhoods, cities, and even distant reaches of the country.

Another kind of support which the church offers the poor is exemplified by the story of a plumber from an Assembly of God church in a favela in Rio de Janeiro. He told about the festivities commemorating the birthday of an elderly pastor who for many years taught music to the members of the church, especially young people, so that they could play instruments in the worship services. Many former brothers in the faith who had turned aside from the gospel and left the church showed up at the festivities. They were ex-students of this pastor who had become professional musicians in the "world." In this way, the church had offered them a profession.

Although poor people who convert generally tell about the improvements in their lives after adhering to the Pentecostal faith, many people, including the media, see the Pentecostal churches as exploiters of the poor because they emphasize the importance of tithing and other contributions. The harshest and most frequent criticism-- which is made especially of the neo-Pentecostal churches and specifically of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God-- is that they exploit the poor and enrich the pastors by asking for too much money. In fact, it is shocking to see poor people who are skinny, toothless, and poorly dressed give money to young pastors who are well-dressed, healthy, own cars, and look like the upper classes. Still, to say that people give money because they are ignorant is not sufficient.

Many anthropologists ask themselves why poor people give away such a large part of the little they have. Ari P. Oro (1992) argues that with their donations they are trying to make a pact with the divine. To give is to be a patron, to become a creditor. To be God's creditor is to have power. In a magical world view, or a non-secular one, much value is placed on spending for the sacred and for the supernatural world. It is a logical and legitimate expense. Popular religiosity in Brazil in its different expressions is always characterized by donations. In the Afro-Brazilian religions, there are rituals, "cults," and donations to the spiritist counselors. In Catholicism there are promises to be paid for prayers that have been answered. In this view of the world, the believer does not care how the money will be used. What is important is the material sacrifice that the believer has made for the saints or for God. The concern for the destination of these donations --whether they are robbed or used for non-religious purposes-- is a secular concern, that is, characteristic of those who do not share the "enchanted" vision of the world. In this symbolic vision, donations as well as sacrifices make sense and are useful in themselves.

There are other reasons and motivations than the value of sacrifice, the magical vision of the world, and the desire to make a pact with God which can explain why poor people make such proportionally large donations. In the act of tithing and making donations the poor discover the capacity to give. Whoever gives has power, whoever receives has no power. Poverty, weakness, and submission are reinforced symbolically when one receives. In potlatch, as in Carnaval, whoever spends the most and gives the most is the most powerful. To receive is to be dependent. With alms comes humiliation. Everyone yearns to be one who does charity. Since Pentecostalism generally doesn't give to the poor, but asks them to give, it makes the poor cease to be poor, subjectively.

The faithful who tithe and contribute donations say that they receive double what they give, and that after they began to give their economic life improved. We can suppose that these persons changed their self-image, and even, as Freston (1993; p. 109) suggests, that these donations represent a commitment to a new lifestyle and substitute for former spending on drugs and medicines. Further, there are indications that members give less than they are asked for, and that they do not wholly accept the discourse of some pastors and churches (Freston, 1993; p. 109) on unchecked donations.

The theology of prosperity and the emphasis on tithing link material riches to faith and adopting a Christian life. Although this discourse is open to criticism, it is important to recognize the instrumental role it plays in the survival of the poor by rejecting the theodicy that the poor are redeemed through suffering.

Pentecostal support for the family

The Pentecostal churches are also strategic in combating poverty when they motivate members, especially men, to give up alcoholism and other vices for family life. In fact, a large part of masculine conversions to Pentecostalism are related to alcoholism. These conversions are frequently preceded by the conversion of their wives and mothers. In this way, Pentecostal churches provide support for the families of problem drinkers as well as for the problem drinkers.

Feminists have criticized Pentecostal discourse on the family for adopting a patriarchal model and defending the predominance of masculine power. Nevertheless, Pentecostalism notoriously attracts more women than men and it is less macho than the rest of Latin American society. Some anthropologists even suggest that Pentecostalism could be reform Latin American machismo (Brusco, 1994).

Through its sexually rigid morality and defense of ascetic behaviors, Pentecostalism changes the attitude of men in relation to family and alcohol, playing an important role in reinforcing family relations and preserving domestic unity. In this way, it not only protects women, but allows an economic improvement in the family unit. As R. Parry Scott (1988) showed, the presence of the couple in the domestic unit tends to avoid a greater deterioration in the conditions of life of the poor family.

Although Pentecostalism does not overcome the subordinate feminine condition, it protects women in their daily lives, helping them to obtain advantages in specific day-to-day questions. In fact, Pentecostal churches attract men to the domestic world and redefine the macho role, proposing new values for masculine behavior. Pentecostalism, then, seems to redefine the masculine and feminine roles in the public and private spheres by opening space outside of the home for women and by "domesticating" the masculine sex.

Some writers argue that Pentecostalism helps women, then, by creating a new model for men, especially in Latin American societies where the machista model is widely adopted. Salvatore Cucchiari (1990) points out the differences between characteristics of Latin masculinity and the image of God in Pentecostalism. For Cucchiari, the fact that among the Pentecostals God has qualities held to be feminine in the machista world, means that it can bring about a new relationship between the sexes.

The redefinition of the masculine role is accompanied by a redefinition of the way of conceiving the individual, who is now seen as a fragile prisoner of the demons. With their conversion, women "discover" that when their husbands drink or abuse them they don't do it of their own free will, but because they are possessed by demons. Someone who acts negatively or in error is seen with tolerance by the Pentecostals since, as a 26-year-old woman we interviewed says, "they don't do evil because they want to, it's because they're being used (...) These people are being used and they're unhappy." In this way, all the oppressors are seen as oppressed by the demons.

Oppressors are thus considered victims for whom one should pray to God. On seeing her spouse also as a victim, the woman feels stronger; she tends to adopt a more tolerant attitude toward her spouse and tries to deal with marital conflicts more peacefully (Machado, 1994). Symbolically inverting the relation between power and oppression, Pentecostal women don't interpret marital conflicts as the result of the opposition between masculine and feminine interests, but as a result of the man being possessed by evil. Unlike feminist discourse, the discourse of the Pentecostal woman does not oppose the man and his interests, but the demons. Since liberation from demons only occurs through the Holy Spirit and the individual option for Jesus, the evangelical, although always hoping for the conversion of a family member, must respect him and wait until "Jesus touches his heart," as they say.

This attitude of tolerance reflects a new way of understanding the individual that is well described by a 63-year-old Pentecostal domestic worker as she tells about how her behavior toward her children changed. "In the church, we learn that we have to accept people how they are. Even to convert someone we have to know how to talk about God, but not to insist (...) if he doesn't want to go on. If his heart is hard, no one can do anything." The new concept of the individual and his relation with evil implies changing the strategies for conversion as well as the way of reacting to conflicts and aggression. It redefines family relations without necessarily redefining the discourse about the family.


The struggle for survival is the principal daily concern of the poor person. It affects his life style, values, and the organization of his groups. His religious option cannot escape this concern and is also immersed in this struggle.

Pentecostalism is efficient in supporting individuals in situations of extreme privation or family crisis. When the believer who used to confront precarious material conditions joins the church, he overcomes crisis and misery, and experiences an improvement in the material standards of his existence. Pentecostalism

For Pentecostals, poverty is not a political question, but a personal or supernatural one. Thus, we find no Pentecostal innovations in political life. Pentecostal innovations are found at a personal level when they motivate the believers to adopt an ascetic lifestyle and dedicate themselves to the family. Besides showing men how to be more concerned for their families, Pentecostalism engenders in women, through its vision of the individual as a victim of evil, a critical but compassionate and tolerant opposition to their irresponsible or aggressive spouses. Pentecostalism smoothes out family conflicts. By perceiving that their spouses are also victims of evil and not responsible for it, women try to convert them without attacking them, which contributes to the preservation of the family. Strengthening the domestic group and asceticism have proven to be instrumental for the survival of the poor.

Pentecostalism also helps the poor by offering a mutual support network and the subjective experiences of power and dignity and of belonging to a community --experiences shared by members of traditional religious groups. Unlike these other groups, the Pentecostal churches encourage experiences which tend to modernize behavior. Since the modernizing aspect is Pentecostalism's novelty and what also makes the motivational strategies for confronting poverty of the Pentecostal groups more adequate and useful in modern capitalist societies, it can be concluded that perhaps these elements are the strongest attraction for the poor.


[I] For a socioeconomic profile of Pentecostals in Brazil, see the data of Prandi and Pierucci, 1994.

[2] The present article summarizes ideas developed from data which I collected while doing research on Pentecostals in Brazil. The methodology and general conclusions of this research have previously been published.

3] Brazilian Pentecostal churches, especially neo-Pentecostal churches, also send missionaries to other countries in the southern cone of South America. (Frigerio, 1994).