Saturday, April 16, 2016

Brazil's Evangelicals Flex Political Power in Impeachment Drama

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April 16, 20167:57 AM ET
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The lower house of the Brazilian congress votes Sunday on whether to remove President Dilma Rousseff. The evangelical caucus, known as the "bible block," is helping to drive the effort.


Brazil is embroiled in economic and political scandals with President Dilma Rousseff accused of breaking the law to conceal a deficit. The lower house of the Brazilian Congress votes Sunday on whether to impeach the president and remove her from office. Catherine Osborne reports on one powerful and booming constituency in Brazil's Congress that's helping to drive the effort - the evangelical caucus.

CATHERINE OSBORNE, BYLINE: The impeachment case against President Dilma Rousseff is controversial. Opponents say she tampered with her budget, helped crash the economy and has to go. Supporters say that's not an impeachable offense and that the opposition is taking advantage of a bad economy to depose her. So it's come down to a battle for votes in Congress. And that's where the evangelical caucus comes in.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).

OSBORNE: Brazil remains predominantly Roman Catholic, but in recent decades, Pentecostal churches, like this one in Rio's poor outskirt of Penha, have boomed. At this Thursday night service at the Assemblies of God, Brazil's fastest-growing Pentecostal church, thousands of worshipers have both hands raised in the air as they sing along with their eyes closed.

ODILTON ANGELO: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORNE: Pastor Odilton Angelo talks explicitly about impeachment to his congregation. We should pray for a change in this country, he says, so prosperity can come to Brazil. This is the line being preached by Brazil's evangelical caucus. The caucus, or Bible block as it's also known, includes 87 congressmen and five senators from different parties who come together to vote on socially conservative issues, like restricting abortion and increasing incarceration for juvenile offenders. An evangelical is serving as speaker of the House, Eduardo Cunha.

MARIA DORES MACHADO: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORNE: He's extremely good at political games and negotiating, says Federal University of Rio anthropologist Maria Dores Machado. He's also the one overseeing impeachment charges against the president. So as the scramble began for the two-thirds of votes needed in the lower house for impeachment to go forward, it wasn't long before the head of the Bible block, congressman and pastor Joao Campos, announced members should vote for impeachment, quote, "to re-establish confidence and return to economic growth." This language fits well with the prosperity gospel style of preaching used by many Brazilian Pentecostal pastors.

ALFREDO CAMPOS: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORNE: At Thursday's service in Penha, Pastor Alfredo Campos prophesized a new car in the future of those who were listening. His colleague, Pastor Angelo, says he takes his inspiration from American Pentecostal preachers...

ANGELO: Pat Roberts, Jim Swaggart.

OSBORNE: ...Like Pat Robertson and Jimmy Swaggart. And straight from the American prosperity gospel tradition comes the idea, common in these sermons, that if you work hard and are faithful, you will be rich. Government intervention is not necessary. Pentecostalism arrived in Brazil via American-trained missionaries in 1910. And Brazilian Pentecostalism still today features elements of fire and brimstone preaching in the style of the American South, like faith healing and speaking in tongues.

The evangelical church has reached Brazil's poorest in a way that the Catholic Church and social movements have not in the past few decades. Most evangelical churches recruit their pastors from the predominately black working-class neighborhoods where they're based.

MACHADO: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORNE: "It's very symbolic," says anthropologist Maria Dores Machado, "that you don't see a lot of black Catholic priests in Brazil. But you see a lot of black pastors," she says. Tania Alves, who was at Thursday's service, is a clothing designer who lives in Penha.

TANIA ALVES: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORNE: She says she joined this church because she was treated so well here. She's proud there are evangelicals in Congress because they do what she cares about, opposing gay marriage. She's ready for Rousseff to go. Pastor Angelo is too.

ANGELO: (Foreign language spoken).

OSBORNE: "We used to think politics was the devil's work," he says. But he says Pentecostals now realize that the ones who show up are the ones who get to rule. For NPR News, I'm Catherine Osborne in Rio de Janeiro.

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