Religious Syncretism in Brazil: Catholicism, Evangelicalism and Candomblé

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2011

19 Pages, Grade: Fieldwork



What follows is an attempt to examine cultural factors, not by arranging abstracted entities into unified patterns but by taking into account the cultural forms by means of which Brazilians communicate, perpetuate and develop their attitudes toward life. As a result, this paper addresses the formations of social phenomenon as it relates to religion in Brazil but within the context of people living out their daily lives. Notwithstanding, it might be said that this work is unscientific in that it contains impressions, feelings and emotions expressed in a narrative form. For the social sciences have longed ago prohibited writing in the first person in scientific reporting and the insertion of my own direct experiences would only tend to corrupt any attempt at objectivity. However, I have chosen to incorporate a reflective, dialogic approach that proclaims an appreciation of the fieldwork experience rather than conduct formal interviews in controlled settings or use second hand materials as a primary source.

Religious Syncretism in Brazil:

Catholicism, Evangelicalism and Candomblé

Today in Brazil, there is a multiplicity of religions. Most of the population claims to be Roman Catholic, however, there are many other religious denominations. Some of these churches are the Protestant Pentecostal, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, and Baptist denominations. There are over a million and a half Spiritists in Brazil. Also, there are followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons); small minorities of Jews; Moslems, Buddhists and numerous followers of Candomblé and Macumba. Although the slaves were forbidden to practice their religions in early Brazil, they managed to maintain their beliefs and doctrines by hiding them in Roman Catholic symbolism. Candomblé is a religion that was brought to Brazil by slaves from Nigeria. 1 In Salvador, Bahia, where the Festa de Yemanjá takes place, you can see Baianas making Acaraje (a sandwich made with shrimp), vending food, and still practicing Candomblé, the ancient African religion of their enslaved ancestors. They are a colorful and distinguished element to the local scene and they are acknowledged as accurate fortune tellers who are also respected for their ability to both cast and break debilitating curses. Today, Catholicism and Candomblé both exist side by side in a very pluralistic form.

Since the 16th Century, Roman Catholicism has been Brazil’s main religion. Jesuit missionaries introduced the religion to the indigenous people of Brazil primarily through Portuguese settlers. During the colonial period, there was no freedom of religion and settlers and indigenous people alike were bound to the Catholic faith and paid taxes to the church. After independence, freedom of religion was introduced by the first constitution in 1824 but Catholicism remained the official religion.2 In 1891, the first Republican Constitution separated church and state, however, Roman Catholicism remained very influential until the 1970s. Historically, Catholic dominance in Brazil has always been entwined with politics. In fact, during the 1960s and 70s, a form of liberation theology took hold claiming that church leaders should be social activists, helping people "liberate" themselves from poverty and oppression -- even if that meant fighting against political systems. The military coup d’état of 1964 in Brazil is one example of the politically divergent interests that existed within the Catholic hierarchy, priests and laity. For example, when the bishop of Natal, Dom Eugenio de Araujo Sales was denounced as a communist in the state assembly of Rio Grande do Norte, the archbishop of Olinda-Recife, Dom Helder Pessoa Camara protested about the procedures used in making searches and mass arrests. However, at the same time, the archbishop of Rio de Janeiro, Dom Jaime Cardinal de Barros Camara asked the military government not to issue amnesty to the people that had been jailed. The troops that attempted to search the residence of Dom Helder Pessoa Camara were quickly removed when the Fourth Army commander, Justino Alves Bastos received a telephone call from archbishop Dom Jaime Cardinal de Barros Camara. Later, however, the government of President Goulart was later overthrown.3

The migration of Catholicism throughout Brazil has many different regional distinctions and aggregations. The largest portion of Catholics is located in the Northeast and Southern regions of Brazil; the smallest proportions of Catholics reside in the Central and West regions. The State of Piau has the largest proportion of Catholics and the State of Rio de Janeiro has the smallest proportion.4 In terms of state capitals, Teresina has the largest proportion followed by Aracaju, Fortaleza, Florianopolis and Joao Pessoa. Catholic traditions closer to those practiced in Europe have developed in the last century due to a large number of European immigrants. Today, Catholicism in Brazil is a very colorful religion filled with popular festivals deeply rooted in centuries of Portuguese traditions yet very heavily influenced by African and native Brazilian customs and practices.

Evangelicalism in Brazil

It is well know that Brazil has more Catholics than any other country in the world, however the Evangelical Christian Movement in Brazil is growing at a tremendous rate. When Brazilian Catholics think of evangelicals, they think of Protestant churches such as the Baptists, Pentecostals, the Assembly of God, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, and the Mormons. Many of these churches are expanding at an alarming rate causing the Catholic laity to search for new ways to reverse the erosion in a country where Catholicism has been the dominant religion for centuries. Many solidly traditional priests who retain the core beliefs of the Vatican are presenting services in an informal style aimed at connecting with middle and lower class Brazilians. As a result, this "charismatic" form of Catholic worship is becoming institutionalized. Antonio Flávio Pierucci, a sociologist at the University of Sao Paulo stated "the charismatic movement is now being institutionalized; just in the past two years or so…the bishops are now supporting it. They have found they can point to it as an alternative to those who want the church to be more politically liberal and leftist." 5 Another similar example is the Catholic holiday celebrating Sao José on March 19th that is comprised of day long services with singing, bands playing music, prayer and several masses. This particular festival lasts only one day and in the evening one can find bandstands set up with lights, PA systems, and electronic trios similar to those used during the Carnaval festival. This type of service has a tremendous appeal to young people and provides opportunities to highlight local talent in a venue that is accepted and respected throughout the community. Of course, older adults attend the day time services but the evening seems reserved mostly for the younger generation. Keeping all such services within the tradition of the Catholic Church, the day's services are concluded with an additional mass in the evening to close the activities for the day.

This new format has been increasingly adopted throughout the Catholic Church in Brazil yet in more recent years controversy has risen about this kind of service. On one hand, many of the Catholic laity believe that this type of service is far too secular and strays away from the traditional customs of the religion. While on the other hand, Catholic priests throughout Brazil have been admonished to find new ways to hold onto their diminishing numbers of Catholic followers. When Pope John Paul II visited Brazil in 1997, he urged Catholic Priests to find new ways to get more young people involved in the church. As a result, many Catholic Priests decided to use music, television, radio, movies, and the internet to appeal to a younger generation.6 The Rev. Euclydes Pizzamiglio, a Catholic priest at the Santo Antonio Catholic Church in Sao Paulo is decidedly uncomfortable with the looser style of ecclesiastical service but every fourth Sunday he gears up for a more charismatic type service. He acknowledges that the crowds are usually larger than for his traditional mass.7 The point here is that the Catholic Church is attempting to retain followers by appealing to components of the cultural environment.

The early foundation of evangelicalism in Brazil was initiated primarily by American missionaries. The Christian Congregation in Brazil, founded by an Italian-American Louis Francescon became one of the fastest growing evangelical movements in Brazil at that time. Together with the Brazilian Assemblies of God Pentecostal Movement, founded by Swedish-Americans Daniel Berg and Gunnar Vingren, there are more than 3 million followers. In Sao Paulo alone, there is an estimated 500,000 worshippers with over 17,000 temples throughout Brazil.8 One of the largest evangelical outreaches in the history of Brazil was sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in 2008 known as "Minha Esperanca" or "My Hope." This event consisted of a televised program which was watched by millions of Brazilians featuring the Brazilian soccer superstar Kaka who shared his testimony of faith. Organizers of the event estimated that more than 48,000 churches participated in getting the word out and over 850,000 homes watched the program that contained a message from evangelist Billy Graham dubbed in Portuguese.9 Nonetheless, evangelicalism in Brazil is different in that it does not qualitatively imitate the evangelical Christianity of the United States.

Typically, evangelical Protestant Christianity in Brazil is characterized by a strong opposition to Catholicism in terms of socio and political economics. Over the past two decades, it has successfully played an important role in modifying the lives of the educationally and economically disadvantaged. In fact, evangelical Christianity and Pentecostalism in particular have provided significant stability in the lives of many of its followers in terms of social and economic progress by penetrating lives at the cultural level. Significant changes at the social level has necessitated the development of political interests and incorporated followers into the democratic political process. As a result, evangelical Protestants have become an increasingly powerful segment of the voting bloc in which presidential, congressional and senatorial candidates are courting them for support. As more evangelical candidates are elected to office in the house and senate, many vow to oppose attempts to legalize issues such as abortion, the death penalty, or homo sexual unions which they consider a breach of their faith.10 While these issues are important, many evangelical voters are more concerned with social issues such as reducing poverty, crime and unemployment. At the same time, the Catholic Charismatic movement has become more politically active. It is well know that since the introduction of liberation theology of the 1970s when Brazil was governed by the rule of military dictatorships, Brazilian Catholicism was active in politics. However, since that time its influence has been declining rapidly primarily due to its weakening position as a religion of personal hope. Yet, the Catholic Charismatic movement has revived its political interests and activity within the formal structures of a democratic system. A tempting way of making sense of all this is to appreciate that Evangelicalism has motivated social and political transitions in Brazilian society.

The majority of Brazilians consider themselves Catholic however in increasingly larger numbers they are leaving the Catholic Church due to social and political conflict between the needs of its followers and the formal doctrines and processes of the church. As a result, a void has been created that has made it possible for other religious denominations to fill. Many feel that Evangelical Protestant Christianity offers solutions to immediate day-to-day problems faced by many Brazilians and provides them with an emotional connection for their spiritual aspirations. Many feel that Catholicism is too deeply rooted in centuries of tradition and does not address the contemporary needs of its followers. On the other hand, the Catholic Church has attempted to combat this problem by calling on its priesthood to develop creative ways of reconnecting with the people. However, this transition has caused an internal conflict within the ranks of the Catholic laity. Many think charismatic forms of worship stray from the traditional doctrines of the Catholic Church. The fallout from this controversy has enabled Evangelicals to change the dynamics of religion in Brazil. As a result, the Pentecostals along with the Universalists have managed to become very powerful segments and have increased their social and political positions in the religious landscape.

In spite of all of its attempts, the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil is struggling to maintain its religious dominance. Evangelicals are aggressively going after converts by filling a void that has been left by the Catholic Church - giving the poor and disenchanted hope. It seems that Evangelical churches are posturing themselves as more attentive to the needs of the people by providing assistance in housing, advice on resolving family, health, and personal problems, essentially making an emotional connection between daily life and divine worship. Over the past two decades, there has been growing controversy and rivalry between the Catholic Church and certain evangelicals. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, founded by Edir Macedo, was featured in news articles around the world concerning the kicking of a statue of a patron saint of the Catholic Church, Our Lady of Aparecida in a television broadcast in 1995.11 With at least six million followers worldwide and an estimated one billion dollars in annual income, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is one of Brazil's largest multinational companies. In 1990, it purchased the Record TV network making it the second biggest religious group. It seems that Evangelicals are providing the "call to worship" that helps people to make sense of the lives they are leading and many of the people responding to this call come from working and impoverished classes that are fed up with the disparities in Brazilian society.


1. Estagnação econômica explica recuo do catolicismo no Brazil. (2008). Retrieved December 12, 2008, from Folha Online:

2. Association, B. G. E. (2008). Brazil Churches Begin Massive Evangelistic Outreach. Christian Post. Available: [2009, 4-1-2009].

3. Paschalis, M. . Brazil - A Cultural Treasure Chest. Available: [2008, 12-12-08].

4. Christian Congregation of Brazil. (2009). Retrieved April 1, 2009 from Wikipedia:

5. Downie, A. (2002). Political influence growing for Evangelicals in Brazil. The Christian Science Monitor. Available: [2009, 4-1-2009].

6. Ibid., p. 7.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Lody, R. (2006). Atlas Afro-brasileiro: Cultura Popular. Salvador: Edicoes Maianga.

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Religious Syncretism in Brazil: Catholicism, Evangelicalism and Candomblé
Denver Institute of Urban Studies
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religious, syncretism, brazil, catholicism, evangelicalism, candomblé, fieldwork
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Prof. Dr. Neil Turner (Author), 2011, Religious Syncretism in Brazil: Catholicism, Evangelicalism and Candomblé, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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