Religious Conflict in Brazil

Protestants, Catholics, and the Rise of Religious Pluralism in the Early Twentieth Century

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Erika Helgen
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , June
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Religious Conflict in Brazil, Erika Helgen “calls for a new religious history of modern Latin America that puts religious pluralism at the center” by focusing on “ways in which religious competition and conflict redefined traditional relationships between church and state, lay and clergy, popular and official religion, and local and national interests” (19). Her detailed archival work looks at Catholic anti-Protestantism in the Brazilian Northeast, roughly from 1916 until 1945. The first date marks the year of the Panama Congress, which brought together Latin and North American Protestants to plan for evangelization, leading to greater Protestant organization in Brazil. The Brazilian Catholic Church had begun strengthening itself institutionally during this period. The second date marks the end of the dictatorial “New State” regime (1937–1945) of Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas, a period of alliance between the Catholic Church and the federal government.

The main narrative arc concerns the rise of Catholic Restorationism—associated with “the emergence of a northeastern Catholic identity . . . and growth of anti-Protestant sentiment in the Northeast” (22)—and its decline, the latter filled out in an epilogue that takes events into the 1960s. Catholic Restorationism was a nationalist, socially conservative movement that framed Protestants, from the 1920s and 1930s, as a threat to both the Catholic Church and to national unity, stability, and identity. The book’s geographical focus is justified because, to a large extent, “the Northeast was the point at which all of the Catholic Restoration’s greatest anxieties converged” )242). During these same decades, Protestants increasingly framed Catholics—seen as backward, colonialist-rooted, and anti-liberal—as the true threat to the nation. Helgen points to two effects of Catholic anti-Protestantism in the Northeast: it stopped Protestant growth in some areas; but many Protestants depicted “their survival in the face of adversity as proof of both God’s support and the resilience of their faith” (244).

The “fracturing” and “decline” of Restorationism after 1945 reflected three key developments (227): the death of influential Cardinal and Vargas ally Dom Leme; the stirring of theological changes foreshadowing Vatican II; and a related shift in focus toward progressive social action, primarily among younger lay Catholics. Brazilian Protestantism also experienced increasing division during the 1950s and 1960s, reflecting growing theological and social/political conservatism in many groups. At the same time, the rapid growth of Pentecostalism came to be seen as a threat by both Catholic and historical Protestant churches.

The book is organized around two sites of conflict: Catholic anti-Protestantism; and tensions between top-down Catholic institutional authority—a key driver of Restorationism— and the tendency for anti-Protestant campaigns to allegedly descend to religious fanaticism. Both Catholics and Protestants feared the latter, especially in the Northeast, a region prone to popular religious movements that escaped ecclesiastical control. The book first describes changes to Protestantism in the Northeast, including the growth of Pentecostalism in rural areas. It offers a series of portraits of local Catholic clergy who saw anti-Protestantism as a key part of their duties. It relates rising tensions to discourses of fanaticism and millennialism. This leads to one of the most interesting of Helgen’s findings.

Looking at two legal cases where priests were punished for inciting anti-Protestant violence, she concludes that these prosecutions “were motivated less by the desire to protect the rights of Protestant Brazilians than by the need to assert control over unauthorized and uncontrolled expressions of northeastern religiosity” (27). She then looks at Protestant relations with rural Catholic santas missões (holy missions), focusing on understudied aspects of a well-known figure, Frei Damião de Bozzano. Frei Damião was “uniquely able to translate Restorationist goals, particularly anti-Protestant goals, into a ritual language that was legible to the supposedly backward populations of the [northeastern] interior” (197). Frei Damião became a potential threat to church authority when his growing status as a popular saint became associated with perceived fanaticism. Helgen argues that he escaped the church persecution that comparable figures experienced because of his obedience to authority, his missionary identity and his useful role as an agent of Restorationism.

Religious Conflict in Brazil draws on valuable archival research to present a welcome emphasis on conflict in the history of religious pluralism in Brazil. But it is possible to ask what might be gained by moving further past interdenominational Christian contexts in writing “new religious history . . . [with] religious pluralism at the center” (19). The focus on Catholic-Protestant relations leads to a narrow interpretive frame: “moments of violence, intimidation, and confrontation . . . [are] flashpoints that reveal the internal contradiction of the broader Catholic Restorationist project” (19). The frame, research, and conclusions focus narrowly on Christian discourses and practices. The book has little to say about how these developments reflected broader social, cultural, and historical factors: for example, the prominence of hierarchical patron-client social relations and the roles of local strongmen; millennial movements (examples are mentioned, but not interpretive findings from the sophisticated scholarship in the area); religious persecutions under the Vargas regime, which shaped many aspects of the mid-20th-century Brazilian religious landscape (control of Catholic excesses is mentioned); and related faces of religious pluralism, including the intersection between freemasonry, along with Kardecist spiritism, and positivist, liberal and republican ideas (Catholic anti-masonry and anti-spiritism are mentioned in passing). The potential relevance of such issues is not assessed. This does not detract from Helgen’s valuable, admirably researched and well-written book. It challenges others to push further.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Engler is a professor of religious studies at Mount Royal University.

Date of Review: 
August 3, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Erika Helgen is assistant professor of Latin American Christianity at Yale University. She is the recipient of the Arthur and Mary Wright Yale Dissertation Prize, the Robert M. Leylan Fellowship for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, and a Fulbright Fellowship.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.