10/14/2014 03:23 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2014

Pentecostal Titans Macedo and Malafaia Square Off in Brazilian Elections

Pentecostal presidential candidate Marina Silva didn't make it into the runoff against Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, but her charismatic faith remains a significant factor in the final round of voting. Brazil is home to the largest Pentecostal population on earth, and like the Evangelical right in the United States, the major denominations have become intensely involved in electoral politics at all levels. The first round of voting saw the country's two Pentecostal titans backing opposing candidates. Assembly of God star televangelist Silas Malafaia cast his lot, albeit at the eleventh hour, with fellow Assembleiana Silva while the billionaire head of the controversial Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, Bishop Edir Macedo supported President Rousseff.

Pastor Malafaia's influence on Silva was so great that she felt compelled to reverse her support of gay marriage and the criminalization of homophobia just twenty-four hours after the charismatic televangelist went on a Twitter rant against her. Some speculate that her sudden flip-flop cost her significant votes among the non-Protestant population. And among the Protestant population it's probably the case that her more liberal social views alienated some of the most conservative elements.
Pentecostal powerbroker Edir Macedo opted for a more discreet form of support for President Rousseff in her re-election bid. Instead of 140 character messages of praise, Macedo channeled support to Dilma, as she's known in Brazil, through his nephew, Marcelo Crivella, who is a bishop of the Universal Church and running for governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro. Despite differing political ideologies, President Rousseff campaigned alongside Crivella, who, like Dilma, won enough votes to qualify for the run-off. The president's attendance at the recent inauguration of the Universal Church's Solomon's Temple in Sao Paulo, which is of pharaonic proportions, is further evidence of the political clout that Brazil's wealthiest evangelist enjoys.

Beyond the presidential candidates themselves, the Brazilian elections are also a contest for political power and influence between the two Pentecostal titans, Macedo and Malafia, who belong to the country's two largest Protestant denominations. Macedo easily bested Malafaia in round one with Marina Silva's spectacular demise and failure to even make it into the runoff. In contrast, Dilma easily sailed on to the second round despite earlier speculation that the massive street protests had done her in politically.

Round two of Macedo vs. Malafaia features the billionaire bishop sticking with Dilma, in one of the oddest of alliances, and the ebullient evangelist, along with Marina Silva, backing the surprise runner-up in the first found of voting, the center-right candidate Aecio Neves, a scion of one of the country's most prominent political families. Although Neves is not a fellow Pentecostal, or even Protestant, his political views are somewhat to the right of Silva's and thus more in tune with those of Malafaia. A casual monitoring of the Twitter account of the Assembly of God evangelist finds him continuing his anti-Dilma tirades more than tweeting pro-Aecio messages. While Aecio might align more closely with Pentecostals on social issues his image as the candidate of the Brazilian elite could alienate some Pentecostals who tend to be concentrated among the less privileged sectors of society.

Most of the members of Bishop Macedo's denomination belong to the working and lower-middle classes who have benefitted not only from President Rousseff's term in office but also from the previous decade of Workers' Party rule led by charismatic former president Lula da Silva who made great strides in lifting millions of Brazilians out of poverty. Nonetheless the Rousseff-Macedo alliance is a strange one. Dilma cut her political teeth as a Marxist guerrilla who was captured and tortured by agents of the military dictatorship and has rarely incorporated Christian references into her political discourse.

In contrast, Bishop Macedo is the premier exponent of prosperity theology and the exorcism of evil spirits in Brazil. The Universal Church's laser focus on tithing is so intense that some Brazilians joke that the denomination raised it from 10% to 30% with each of the three persons of the Holy Trinity getting a third of the tithe. Malfaia's Assembly of God and most other Protestants in the country regard Macedo and his church as beyond the pale in terms of more standard Protestant forms of worship and belief. Ever the trailblazer, Macedo of late has taken to dressing as a rabbi and adorning his new Solomon's Temple with Jewish symbols, such as the menorah.

So far the Brazilian presidential contest has brought great surprises. Nobody predicted the spectacular rise and fall of Marina Silva, the impressive last minute surge of Aecio Neves or the unlikely political comeback of President Rousseff. What is not surprising, however, is the strong political influence of Pentecostal powerbrokers in the nation that is home to the world's largest population of charismatic Protestantism.