Born Again in Brazil: The Pentecostal Boom and the Pathogens of Poverty

  • R. Andrew Chesnut
  • Jan 1, 1998
  • Series: Volume 1 - 1998

Chesnut, R. Andrew. Born Again in Brazil: The Pentecostal Boom and the Pathogens of Poverty. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997. $19.95.Paperback. x + 203 pp. ISBN 0-8135-2406-7.

This ethnological study by Chesnut, assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Houston, tries to explore the possible reasons behind the growth of Pentecostalism among the poor classes in Latin America. Sometimes this growth has been phenomenal. In Brazil, where Chesnut did his field work, the Protestant population quadrupled between 1960 and 1985. Different researchers have proposed as primary causes, for example, the anomie experienced in the move by the poor from rural to urban areas (D'Epinay, Williams, Martin), the contributions of religious experience to cope with poverty (Mariz, Burdick), and the resolution of some social injustice (Stoll).This author, however, suggests that the crucial factor is the healing power of Pentecostal thought and ritual among the urban periphery - healing that is physical, emotional, and familial. Interestingly, Chesnut confesses that this was not his original hypothesis. Initially he had thought that millennarianism, the hope for a better world in the future, would be the best explanation to account for the `Pentecostal boom,' but his time in Brazil was to prove this idea wrong.

The primary locus for Chesnut's year of fieldwork were the poor shanty sectors of Belém, the capital city of the state of Pará in the Amazon, where a large percentage of the population is made up of immigrants from the interior of the state and whose jobs tend to be in some sort of manual labor or service fields. His research centered on the Assembly of God churches. According to Chesnut, the Brazilian Assembly of God church is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the Western Hemisphere.

Part One of the book (ch. 1) provides a history of Brazilian Pentecostalism, and particularly of the Assembly of God church, in relationship to several contextual realities, such as the role of the Roman Catholic Church vis-a-vis the military regimes and sociopolitical issues, and the rise of syncretistic religions (like Umbanda and Candomblé). Part Two (“Exorcizing the Demons of Poverty”, chs. 2-5) explains how he feels Pentecostalism responds to the various facets of the experience of abject poverty in this Two-Thirds World country. Part Three (“The Church as Institution”, chs. 6-7) explores the internal power structures of the Assembly of God churches and the recent forays into the political arena.

Many of Chesnut's descriptions of Latin American poverty and the impact of Pentecostalism will prove interesting to those unfamiliar with that part of the world. For instance, he points out how alcoholism is a serious problem among males. This vice, so strongly connected with masculine self-identity, yields domestic violence and ironically brings frustration at not being able to provide adequately for basic family needs because so much is spent on the consumption of liquor. The downward destructive spiral is then compounded by abandonment and marital infidelity. Within this cauldron of familial disasters, popular Roman Catholic religion has not proved itself religiously powerful enough to counteract the destructive tendencies; Liberation Theology, on the other hand, has tended to focus on macro socioeconomic issues and has not adequately addressed personal needs. Individuals thus reach a crisis point in their lives. At this juncture they are often contacted through friends or extended members who are Pentecostal. An encounter with God is highlighted by a cure (multidimensional, as mentioned above). In the testimonies of the Pentecostal believers, this healing (libertaçao) surprisingly has proved more significant for conversion and continued faith than other well-known Pentecostal experiences like speaking in tongues (86 % to 47%).

After conversion, this radical change is reinforced by the baptism of the Spirit, the emotive church services, and the encouragement of the congregation. Chesnut then echoes the observation that many researchers are now making about those converted to Pentecostalism (and Protestantism in general) in Latin America. The new religious affiliation is accompanied by a positive difference in personal morality. For men, for instance, conversion brings a renewed commitment to family; with the ceasing of drinking comes a more steady job, savings, and increased time at home. For those women and children who do not have a believing husband/father, the local congregation can serve as a refuge and support community.

The juxtaposition of this grassroots reality with the development of the institutional side of the Assembly of God Church is intriguing. Chesnut labels the ecclesiastical structure “participatory authoritarianism”. While, on the one hand, there is much space for involvement in a wide variety of church activities and offices at the local congregational level (and here women have quite a bit of freedom and leadership roles), on the other hand, power is concentrated in the pastor and, ultimately, in the chief pastor of the main church in the city. The Central Temple has also evolved into more of a middle class congregation, a striking contrast to the multiple smaller churches in Belém's barrios. Issues of power also surface in the denomination's relations with local and state governments: the apparent negotiations of electoral support for privilege and government money, and the promotion of the offspring of church leaders for political office. This often self-serving political agenda also tends to be limited to questions of social vices (such as drinking), and little thinking is done to process systemic problems in any significant manner.

Chesnut's study is a helpful investigation into the complex world of Brazilian (and, hence, in some degree, Latin American) Pentecostalism. He has offered a hypothesis which demonstrates that poverty in and of itself is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to explain the growth of this faith in the sprawling urban centers of Central and South America. Much of his research on the impact of Pentecostalism on family life echo, too, other studies and so reinforces their perception of its moral power and constructive influence upon the disenfranchised. At the same time, however, the closing chapters, which deal with the Church's move toward greater institutionalization and questionable political involvement, along with its meager theological and ideological reflection, are sober checks to the sometimes overly optimistic assessments of the potential of Pentecostalism to affect social change for the better of the masses.

There are moments when it is possible to say that Chesnut has overstated his case or perhaps misunderstood the data. For example, the coming of the Spirit upon women believers is linked to eroticism, as the Spirit is understood as primarily a male being (p. 95); glossalia is said to `sound remotely similar to Hebrew' (thus, `tongue speakers unconsciously transmogrify biblical words of Hebraic and Aramaic origin into ecstatic utterance', p. 100). His description of the institutional workings of the Assembly of God might be a bit more Machiavellian than actually is merited. Finally, his hypothesis fails to explicate Pentecostalism's growth among the middle and upper classes of the continent.

All in all, though, this work is another helpful contribution to the growing literature on Pentecostalism in Latin America.

M. Daniel Carroll R.
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary