On the Brazilian crisis, Pentecostalism and thinking out of the bubble

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 26 April 2016


Pentecostal service in the Brazilian field site. Photo by: Juliano Spyer

Brazil is in the midst of a heated national debate between people in favour of, and those contrary to, the impeachment of the president. Because of social media, the sharing of different political views is also causing divisions in the private domain among friends and among family members. But a glimpse at the Facebook timelines of low-wage Brazilians demonstrates how millions of Brazilians are actually not interested in this debate.

A text written by a dweller of Morro do Viradouro, a shantytown in Rio, explains why the low-income population is not concerned with the national political debate. The idea that the impeachment is a coup d’état does not convince favelados, he argues,  as for them the institutional killing and torture of the military regime (1964-85) never ended. Another low-income group is also not using social media to learn about or share points of view about politics: the evangelical Christians.

The lack of interest displayed by affluent Brazilians for this group appears in a piece by The Economist that circulated broadly in Brazil. It presents how Brazilian congressmen and women justified their vote during the session about the impeachment, highlighting the stereotypical carnivalesque aspect of the event and missing the opportunity to note that many of the reasons for the vote for impeachment referred to family, religion and God. These are relevant topics to 25% of Brazilians who are evangelical Christians.

Market analysts use the expression to ‘think out of the box’ to refer to creativity. An ethnographic version of this expression could be to ‘think out of the bubble’; in the case of Brazil, the bubble is social class.

Among the educated middle-class, evangelical Christians are seen, at best, as religious fanatics, but more commonly as backward, ignorant, and even evil conservatives. Having lived for 15 months conducting anthropological research in a working class settlement in the state of Bahia, I had a more nuanced experience of this group.

Firstly, I saw that although they are morally conservative, evangelical Christians are not stupid or intrinsically dishonest as the stereotypes dictate. Their broad ambition to achieve financial success is, in most cases, a desire to be part of the same world of consumption that the affluent have access to. But beyond that, their contributions to society are almost completely unacknowledged.

Their religious organisations are often more present and active in the lives of socially vulnerable people than the government. Let us not talk of spiritual support to avoid discussing faith and religion. Pentecostal organisations actively promote literacy and also intermediate the contact of church members with specialised services including doctors and lawyers. And by ‘recycling the souls’ of drug addicts and criminals, they provide an unrecognised but priceless service to society – much better than the police could ever hope to offer.

I am not denying that they possess conservative views regarding themes such as abortion or gay rights, but I am offering a more ethnographically-grounded view. There are 100 million Brazilians (half of the country’s population) that belong to the deemed ‘new middle class’ (actually, an emerging working class), and Pentecostalism has an undervalued contribution to this process of socioeconomic change.

The difficulty that more affluent Brazilians have in relating to evangelical Christians is maybe because this group, though generally struggling financially, do not identify themselves with the clichéd and victimised image of poor people. They are improving in spite of social stigmas and the legacy tied to the historical inequalities of Brazil. They are often depicted as fanatics in the media and yet their embracing of education is not mentioned. They are seen as morally conservative but nobody points to the reduction of domestic violence and of alcoholism in evangelical Christian families.

In this regard, affluent Brazilians need to step outside of the class bubble and look at evangelicals with more generosity and interest, and with less prejudice. Then they might be better equipped to understand why evangelical Christians are missing from the debate about politics on social media.

The ‘true meaning’ of Christmas

By Tom McDonald, on 24 December 2012

The sacred and the profane double juxtaposed in a Facebook post (Source: GodVine/Unknown)

Complaining about the excessive consumerism of Christmas seems to have become as traditional a past-time as putting up one’s christmas tree, or stuffing the turkey. Christmas and materialism have always seemed somehow opposed to each other, Christmas was supposed to be a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, which somehow seemed diluted by the fact that people in Western societies appeared more concerned with rounds of shopping and what appeared to be excessive consumption on gifts, crackers, and shiny sparkly things.

And yet, it cannot be ignored that this is how people actually seem to be concerned with experiencing Christmas. In his essay on the rituals of Christmas giving, James Carrier (1993: 55-74) looked at how people wrapped and gifted presents. He argues that the wrapping of the present was an act that appropriated an otherwise commercial gift, and made it something of the gift-giver’s own. This transformed the gift from a material good to something with a capacity to express love and care between human beings, and thus appropriate for a fundamental aspect of human behaviour: gift exchange (see Mauss 1967).

On the face of it, God and social networking appear to have similarly little in common. The rituals and rites associated with the former are anthropology’s bread-and-butter; whilst the latter is frequently derided as being mundane and of little consequence, inherently unsuitable for anthropological research. And yet, we similarly cannot ignore the fact that this is, for many, an important space where connections with the sacred are contemplated, enacted and observed. And in this sense I do not necessarily mean those events that gain mass-media coverage, such as Pope Benedict’s twitter feed.

Instead, I am more interested in something like religious memes, religious messages that normal people themselves encounter and share through their online networks (see the example above). These are occasions where user-generated religious themed messages might be created, posted or shared. At the moment, I have little idea what these things mean. But when we start our 15 month period of fieldwork researching the effect social networking is having in seven different countries next year, I think it would be reasonable to expect that this phenomena (either from Christianity or other forms of religious expressions) is something we might encounter and want to understand more deeply.

I think anthropology carries with it a pledge: that we take people’s opinions, expressions and beliefs seriously, regardless of what these may be, try to live inside these opinions and understand them for what they are. We do this by living closely with people, and sharing their life for a prolonged period of time. This is not just in order to execute an act of scientific analysis, but is also, first and foremost, a duty that we owe to our research participants.

Whatever your beliefs, I hope you have a very happy Christmas, New Year and holiday period.


Carrier, J (1993) The rituals of Christmas giving In: Miller, D (ed.) Unwrapping Christmas. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mauss, M. (1967 [1928]). The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (I. Cunnison, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.