Neo-Pentecostalism and Ecstasy in Latin America

by    /  February 20, 2020  / Comments Off on Neo-Pentecostalism and Ecstasy in Latin America

Photo Credit: Halle Caccioppoli


Throughout history, churches have used the name of God to collaborate in the production of authoritarian violence. In the case of Latin America, this collaboration has a brutal and destructive history, beginning with the genocide of indigenous peoples by religious colonialism. And today, this pattern of religiously inspired structural violence continues and repeats, and it’s been made particularly evident with the coup d’état in Bolivia.  

Today, it is the Neo-Pentecostal churches that occupy the place that once belonged to Catholicism, where their oppression is veiled as an excuse to assist the poor and impoverished. In Latin America, Neo-Pentecostalism has filled a similar role to evangelism in America, worming its way into extreme right politics. In Brazil, it’s predicted that more than a third of the population will convert to Neo-Pentecostalism by 2032.

Neo-Pentecostal churches are corporations that don’t have to say their real names. The “bishops” of these churches are like CEOs and own immense fortunes. Edir Macedo, the Brazilian founder of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (IURD) — the most well-known Neo-Pentecostal institution — has made a fortune through his corporatized religion. In 2015, Forbes estimated his net worth to be more than a billion dollars. Much of this money is obtained through the extortion of impoverished people who are led to sell even their own house to meet the demands of their pastors.

For instance, in 2007, Carla Dalvitt of Rio Grande do Sul was coerced by the IURD to donate everything she had during a period of deep financial distress. She was brainwashed by the congregation, believing that her donations — as part of a ceremony known as the Holy Bonfire — would bring salvation to her family. After realizing what had actually happened, Dalvitt attempted to recover the donated goods with the help of her mother and husband; however, the church ultimately refused, leaving Dalvitt’s family even worse off than before. This experience isn’t uncommon: people often donate wages, inheritances, and all kinds of goods to the church in the hope of a better life, only to have their faith manipulated and abused by the institution.

The herd goes where its leader tells it to go. God is the universal signifier in whom every believer trusts, making Him the ideal guarantor for pastors to use in their business plans or power projects. There is nothing better than to use God to foster the bazaar in which the strangest goods are sold: miracles paid for with credit cards, exorcisms paid for with cash, spiritual cures in installments, prosperity in liquidations, and auctions on better futures. The preaching of Brazilian shepherds is performed in temples of all kinds: in garages, sumptuous palaces, or directly on the internet on platforms like YouTube. Anyone can watch, and pastors have no shame in the real repercussions, both economic and religious. Opening a church is not a crime in many countries, and, on the contrary, it has been an increasingly profitable business. In Brazil, a young man opened a play church to worship a video game character with no difficulty at all. 

As corporations that dare not call themselves corporations, the Neo-Pentecostal churches invest only in their own economic power projects. They know that economic power cannot be sustained without political power and, therefore, have become eager allies of authoritarian regimes. Throughout Latin America, there is a growing alliance between these political, economic, and religious forces.


The coup that took place in Bolivia a few months ago is proof of the ingrained alliance between the church and authoritarianism. The local white bourgeoisie removed the indigenous Evo Morales from his democratically elected position and put in his place Jainine Anyez, a senator of the extreme right. This deposition, however, could not have been sustained without a religious ritual to symbolically certify the coup. It is, therefore, a scene: Anyez, a woman with mixed-race features but blond-dyed hair, holds a thick Bible while proclaiming herself president in front of an almost empty Assembly. 

It’s purely semiotic allusion to the foreign bourgeoisie. The goal of this performance is to produce membership. And the adhesion is caused by the catharsis,  which can be achieved even when seen only by television. The catharsis at stake is no longer ancient purification, but a kind of Ecstasy. If the Greek tragedy was intended to provoke catharsis, the church wants to sell it. It is about going into a trance, feeling hypnotized, taking great pleasure in it, and accessing a “connection” with what is far and distant, be it power, be it money, be it God.

Ecstasy is what is achieved at the moment of an immediate emotional bond. It’s what makes people give themselves up. It is this Ecstasy that allows the “psycho-theological” bond and also the “theo-physiological” bond that makes people participate in religion with varying degrees of adherence. It is a kind of pleasure, but also a kind of bewitchment. It produces a feeling of belonging — the same emotion people find in collective events like marches and soccer matches. The church sells this feeling to the poor: the desire to be part of an audience, part of a flock.

Churches have long bet on Ecstasy as the owner of a playground bets on the joy that children find when using the merry-go-round. Ecstasy is a “state” occupied by those who feel theo-physiologically linked to God or to something transcendental. From the charismatic movement of the Catholic Church, to the exorcisms of Neo-Pentecostalism, what we see are actions aimed at Ecstasy. Neoliberalism promises Ecstasy for access to goods and narcissistic success. It is no accident that a synthetic drug called Ecstasy is so successful among young people in many countries. She allows herself to feel happy for no reason. It is an excellent metaphor for what happens to us today, in a world of such exploitation and injustice.

Marcia Tiburi is a Brazilian writer and activist, popular for her pro-democracy and pro-feminist work. She is well known for her prescient voice of warning against the rise of far-right authoritarianism and fascism. Since completing her three-month residency with the City of Asylum in 2019, she has gone on to continue her exile, living without a permanent address. To learn about Tiburi’s story of exile, read her interview with Maya Best

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