Brazil story tip: More than one recent election has some interesting religion angles

It doesn’t rank up there with America’s political earthquake, but there was a significant Oct. 30 election in Brazil that’s full of religious interest.

Senator Marcelo Crivella, the candidate of the young Republican Party who formerly worked as a bishop and gospel singer in a highly controversial church, was elected mayor of Rio de Janeiro, the city of 6.5 million that just hosted the Olympics.

He beat a socialist party opponent by a commanding margin of just under 20 points at the same time other conservative upstarts scored wins in local races across the nation. According to Britain’s The Guardian, the voting pattern “underscored the rise of religious conservatism” and the “demise” of the leftist Workers’ Party that dominated Brazilian politics over the past decade.

Crivella’s victory demonstrates the growing socio-political importance of evangelical Protestants. They now claim a fifth of the population in Latin America’s largest nation, which contains the world’s largest Catholic flock. Crivella won despite his past denunciations of Catholicism, homosexuality and popular Afro-Brazilian sects such as Candoble and Umbanda.

The mayor-elect is a follower of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), a sizable “independent” body (not tied to “first world” Protestantism) founded and led by his uncle Edir Macedo, a major radio-TV mogul. His denomination claims 5,000 churches and millions of adherents in Brazil and has expanded across Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe.

A story hook? Many U.S. cities also have UCKG congregations that could be the basis for articles. The faith’s chief landmark, opened in 2014, is a $300 million replica of Solomon’s temple in Brazil’s other major city, Sao Paolo.

The UCKG grew out of the work of Canadian missionary Robert McAlister and was founded in 1977 when his disciple Mecedo opened his first church in a former funeral parlor. On paper, the UCKG offers standard-brand Pentecostalism, with a statement of faith that upholds orthodox Christian doctrines alongside belief in “the baptism of the Holy Spirit” with “accompanying supernatural gifts” and an emphasis on “divine healing” as “an integral part of the Gospel.”

That’s only the beginning. Media accounts all over the Internet portray a church body enmeshed in incessant controversy over sensational healing and exorcism events, “prosperity gospel” preaching said to exploit destitute followers, Macedo’s reported lifestyle and billionaire status, and charges of suspect financial dealings.

The turmoil afflicting Brazilian politics led to this year’s impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff and a corruption indictment against the founder of her Worker’s Party, former President Luiz Lula da Silva, in the so-called “car wash” scandal involving the state oil corporation. Both leaders deny the charges.

The entanglement of religion with politics in these scandals received a partisan U.S. interpretation in the liberal Christian Century by Union Theological Seminary’s Claudio Carvalhaes and Raimundo Barreto of Princeton Seminary. In their view the scandal is a “farce” perpetrated by those evangelicals and sinister foes of Lula’s success in lifting “36 million people out of poverty.” Meanwhile more liberal Protestants and Catholics are said to be working against Brazil's “torture, racism, sexism, misogyny and human rights violations.”

With the complexities of a nasty political and judicial conflict, the religious conflict, and the disputes over the Macedo-ite church, reporters should be careful to check everything through careful legwork rather than merely recycling past coverage.

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