Evangelical Christianity is a growing force inside Latin America’s prisons and is posing a serious threat to the traditional dominance of the Roman Catholic church. Pastors have bought structure, discipline, and purpose to inmates whose lives have often been marred by gang violence and poverty. Evangelicals are also keen to peddle a socially conservative political agenda – influencing the prison system boosts their congressional clout.
For many inmates, religion brings a renewed sense of purpose to their lives and a chance to repent. God is beginning to dull the attraction of gangs, especially in the ultraviolent prisons of Brazil. A professor at the University of Goiâs who specialises in religious influence in politics said, “Religion plays a very important role in violent societies such as Brazil where few inmates believe that they cannot progress in life without engaging in criminal activity. They are beginning to see that faith can replace the traditional mechanisms of progress based on education, meritocracy and professional opportunities.”
“Religion plays a very important role in violent societies such as Brazil.”
Professor, specialising in religion and politics, University of Goiâs, Brazil
This sounds promising given that prisons in Latin America are the most violent and corrupt anywhere in the world. Governments have never viewed them as a fiscal priority and society tends to be broadly of the view that criminals reap what they sow – let them rot, essentially. The problem with this approach is that underinvestment and low prison staff salaries has bred chronic corruption, intimidation and, ironically, energised gang recruitment.
It is therefore not surprising that prison policy has looked favourably on the creation of units effectively run by evangelical inmates.
A sociologist based in Argentina said, “Evangelism, despite criticism, emphasises non-violence. As it is preached in prisons in Argentina, especially the province of Santa Fe, which has chronic challenges associated with gang violence, it has helped to reduce reoffending and rates of drug violence.”
“Evangelism, despite criticism, emphasises non-violence […] it has helped to reduce reoffending and rates of drug violence.”
Evangelicals are emboldened by longer-term political opportunism by cementing their footprint across the penal system. It raises their national profile and allows evangelical blocs to portray themselves as providing a public service where the state is weak and afraid. And nowhere is the state weaker than in prisons. This plays well with the electorate and increases the bloc’s congressional stature.
The university professor explained, “Evangelicals have had a clear political agenda which they have significantly advanced in the last three decades. In Brazil, since the 1990s, the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus laid out a plan to expand its influence in the country through Record TV.” The channel, which broadcasts to millions, regularly highlights the work of prison pastors.
“Inmates treat evangelical pastors with respect and look at them as peers,” the sociologist remarked. It is hard to know whether inmates are truly buying into this new creed but what can be said for certain is that they know that without the presence and influence of the pastors, the prisons would soon resemble the lawless and violence-stricken streets from whence they came and to which they’d prefer not to return.