Brazil may still have more Roman Catholics than any other country in the world, but they could soon be outnumbered by Pentecostals and members of other Protestant denominations whose communities more than tripled in size between 1980 and 2010 when, taken together, they accounted for over 20 percent of the population. According to most estimates, they have grown even faster since then; by 2030, Catholics will belong to a rapidly shrinking minority.
Evangelicals and Catholics do have some things in common, among them a determination to resist attempts by militant progressives, feminists, homosexuals and others to replace the traditional family with more flexible arrangements or to make it easier for pregnant women to get abortions. Even so, the Catholic hierarchy sees them not as prospective allies in the battle against secularism but as dangerous rivals who, like their European counterparts centuries ago, are depriving them of their spiritual authority.
No doubt Pope Francis and his followers are right to fear the rise of Protestantism in what until very recently they assumed was their own backyard. It was thanks in large measure to the evangelical vote and the support he received from a multitude of pastors, that Jair Messias Bolsonaro won such a comfortable victory in last Sunday’s presidential run-off in Brazil. Though the former Army officer says he remains a Catholic, two years ago he was baptised in the Jordan on the Israeli side of the river by a pastor of the Assembly of God, for a decade was among the worshippers in a Baptist church, and his wife is a devout evangelical. As in the United States, Brazil’s evangelicals are enthusiastic supporters of Israel which they admire not only for Biblical reasons but also for its many striking achievements; Bolsonaro says he wants to see the poverty-stricken Northeast undergo a transformation much like the one that made Israel what it is today.
More and more Brazilians are leaving Catholicism, not merely because they find the often rambunctious fervour that is typical of evangelical churches appealing, but also because they give them a sense of their own worth. As the historian Jorge Ossuna pointed out last Tuesday in a perceptive article in La Nación, evangelicals are averse to self-pity, whether collective or personal, and reject the notion that poverty is the result of a malign social order, let alone of “capitalism” as such. Instead, they believe in the traditional Protestant virtues of hard work, honesty and a willingness to give others a leg-up, as long as there is no backsliding.
This puts evangelicals at odds not just with leftists, who of late have taken to grievance-mongering in a big way, but also with many Catholics who, as Pope Francis and many Argentine ecclesiastics keep reminding us, like to blame “capitalism”, especially the “neoliberal” or “savage” variety, for most social ills, as well as going on about the selfishness of just about everyone they disapprove of. Their main gripe against Mauricio Macri is that – according to such churchmen as Hugo Moyano’s friend, bishop Jorge Lugones – he is an insensitive fellow who does not feel other people’s pain, a deficiency they say María Eugenia Vidal and others associated with him also suffer from.
For left-wingers and Catholics, before mass poverty can be overcome society will have to be subjected to some drastic changes that make it more egalitarian. They may disagree about just what governments should do, but in both cases their approach is top-down, with everything depending on who happens to be in power. In contrast, most evangelical pastors take it for granted that any worthwhile reforms must come from the bottom, with poor people acquiring the habits and cast of mind necessary for them to make the most of whatever talents they may have. They believe in self-reliance and think living on hand-outs is degrading, so they urge members of their congregations to stand on their own feet as soon as possible.
As far as most of the politicians and the progressive intellectuals who dominate public discourse in Argentina and other Western countries are concerned, evangelical pastors are committing what for them is the unforgivable sin of “blaming the victim” when they tell people to pull themselves together and strive to get on in life. The idea that nobody is really responsible for his or her own fate has become so entrenched that anyone who rejects it is liable to be dismissed as a troglodyte.
Unfair as “blaming the victim” may sometimes be, there can be no doubt that a systematic refusal to criticise the behaviour of people who make little effort to take charge of their own lives because they have been taught that nothing is their fault has helped entrench what, in the 1950s, the anthropologist Oscar Lewis called “the culture of poverty.” Efforts by governments and charitable organisations to combat poverty by doling out money in exchange for nothing much are counterproductive; they only benefit politicians and social justice warriors who (even if they refrain from pocketing some of the cash that passes through their hands) are fond of reminding their wards that they should repay the kindness of their patrons by voting for them or shouting slogans in the street rallies they like to stage.
Communities whose members are encouraged to contribute to the general welfare, rather than spend their time demanding a bigger share of what is said to be available, always outperform those in which it is assumed that everything depends on the generosity of the people in government. The success or otherwise of anti-poverty programmes in Latin America and other parts of the world will be determined by what the poor themselves do, not by the wisdom or kindness of whoever happens to be in office.
A belated awareness that this is so is behind the remarkable growth of evangelical churches not just in Brazil but also in many other countries in which dissatisfaction with the status quo is getting stronger by the day. Hard as it may be for leftists and those impressed by Pope Francis to understand, by calling for people to wrest power over their own lives from elites that are accustomed to treating them like pawns in a political, ideological or theological game, the evangelical pastors are leading a bloodless revolution that, unlike so many violent ones, really could turn out well.