The Growing Protestant Presence in Latin America

Monday, January 16, 2017 - 08:00

For centuries, the dominant religion found in Latin America has been Catholicism. Having been ruled by the Spanish and Portuguese starting in the 1500s, both nations emphasized religiosity and incorporated the Church into government decisions and policies, from land distribution, to conversion and education. As a result, centuries of the Christian religion and in many cases hegemony over indigenous religions pushed Latin America to be 90 percent Catholic, as of 1910. But as of 2010, that statistic has dropped to 72 percent, with certain countries noting even lower levels of Catholicism (Pew Research Center, 2013).

For the last five decades, there have been two phenomena taking place: adherents leaving the Catholic faith, and many people joining Protestant congregations, especially Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal churches. To understand the reasons for this trend more concretely, we will look at the case of Brazil, a largely Catholic country that is progressively becoming more Protestant in some regions.

First, we need to understand one side of the coin: the mass exodus of people from the Catholic Church. When the Portuguese colonized and began to rule what is now Brazil in the 1500s, the Catholic Church supported conversion of natives there, but the conversion was only marginal. In other words, people started attending mass and learning how to read scripture, but were not compelled to give up other beliefs. Over centuries this lack of full conversion and adherence to Catholicism developed a kind of cultural religion, rather than personal faith. So, many Brazilians in the first two thirds of the 20th Century attended church and said their prayers, but did so out of social obligation, many times with pressure from parents. What we are seeing is that since the 1970s, more and more Brazilians are no longer going through the motions of Catholicism for various reasons, and so a drop in attendance has taken place in many regions (“Religion in Latin America”, 2014).

At the same time, Protestantism has slowly taken root since the early 1900s, when the first Presbyterian and Methodist (“Reformed”) missionaries from the United States came to spread their denomination of Christianity. Although slow, the planting of these churches developed another option for Brazilians interested in faith. This would give a base to the Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal movements that have exploded in popularity especially since the 1970s. These two denominations of Protestant Christianity emphasize the spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues, healing, and prophecy given to believers, among other characteristics. Not only that, they emphasize an individual relationship with God, and many are known for preaching the “Prosperity Gospel”, the idea that following God will lead to economic improvement. These trends can be clearly seen in Pentecostal denominations like Assembleia de Deus (Assembly of God) and Neo-Pentecostal churches such as the “Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus” (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God). There are denominational differences between Pentecostalism and Neo-Pentecostalism, but their basic format and beliefs are very similar, and will be used interchangeably for this specific context.

So with the second change, many former Catholics are attending these newer churches.

As of 2010, only 65 percent of Brazilians practice Roman Catholicism compared 92 percent in 1970, with 22 percent now practicing a Protestant denomination, up from 5 percent in 1970 (Pew Research Center, 2013). In addition, Pew Research Center found that 54 percent of Brazilians who were raised Catholic now identify as Protestant (2014). What makes these new Protestant churches more attractive than traditional Roman Catholic churches?

Here are some other factors that have been suggested based on both published scholarly sources and personal research :

  • Pentecostalism/Neo-Pentecostalism has become much more “Latin Americanized” with regard to service structure, worship music, etc.

  • Becoming a pastor in a Neo-Pentecostal church does not usually require formal seminary training and is much easier to join. Catholic priests must undergo much more official training, which has led to a shortage of native Brazilian priests and the use of foreigners from Europe or Spanish-speaking countries to fill vacancies. This can cause a disconnect between adherents and their priests.

  • Pentecostalism emphasizes the emotional, healing aspects of faith, which align with many Brazilians’ personal beliefs and preferences. This is also seen in more emotional, participatory services for those attending.

  • Pentecostal churches have many rehabilitation programs for drug addicts and garner followers through helping them and their families.

These factors vary depending on the specific country, but they show a drop in Catholic followers and a spike in Protestant followers, usually former Catholics. In Central American countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, over one third of the population participates in a Protestant church (Pew, 2014).

And these changes not only affect culture in Brazil and other countries, but also the political arena, much like evangelicals in the United States. In fact, recent regional elections have seen more Protestant candidates like Marcelo Crivella, a senator and bishop, who was elected mayor of Rio de Janeiro, do well (Prada, 2016). Perhaps in the coming decades, the plurality of religion (especially Christianity) in Latin America could change the face of the continent.


Bell, J., & Sahgal, N. (2014, November 13). Religion in Latin America. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from

Pew Research Center. (2013, February 13). The Global Catholic Population. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from

Masci, D. (2014, November 14). Why has Pentecostalism grown so dramatically in Latin America? Retrieved November 28, 2016, from

Pew Research Center. (2006, October 05). Historical Overview of Pentecostalism in Brazil. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from

Pew Research Center. (2013, July 18). Brazil’s Changing Religious Landscape. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from

Prada, P. (2016, October 30). As Brazil veers right, evangelical bishop elected Rio mayor. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from

About Author(s)

Daniel Snyder
Daniel Snyder is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh working as a Panoramas intern. He is studying Economics and Spanish, as well as earning a minor in Portuguese and a certificate in Latin American studies. During the summer of 2016 he conducted research in Fortaleza, Brazil through the CLAS Field Trip and also studied abroad in Lima, Peru.