BY GUSTAVO FUCHS
PROTESTANTISM HAS BEEN ON THE RISE across Latin America for decades. Scholars have tackled this historic trend by examining the underlying social conditions that drive millions to adopt a different religion in a historically Catholic region. Studies have shown that Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal denominations are booming in large part due to complex local dynamics, including gender roles, gang violence, and racism.
Yet, a largely unexplored aspect of Protestant growth has been the influence of religious media (Semán 2018). Despite the institutional media apparatus built over the years by the Catholic Church, most religious media outlets in Latin America today are linked to Protestant churches. Just as Protestant growth is mainly driven by Pentecostalism and Neo-Pentecostalism, religious media tend to affiliate with these denominations.
Quentin Schultze and Robert Woods Jr. (2008) characterize religious media as “tribal” media, mainly geared toward communities, or subsets, within broader religious denominations. As such, these outlets produce content that seeks to reinforce community identity and shared values or beliefs. And just like secular outlets, religious media also provide content designed to reach a larger audience.
Thus, for example, alongside traditional ceremonies, both Catholic and Protestant television channels dedicate segments to children’s programming, most commonly with cartoons that depict the life of Jesus and the teachings of the Bible. They also produce shows geared specifically toward women, providing guidance on topics such as parenting, finances, and relationships. Radio mirrors this structure, featuring programs especially made for women and young adults.
A key strategy that these outlets have followed is to mimic the aesthetics of mainstream media, adopting formats already familiar to the general public. So, for example, most religious stations today offer programs centered around music. Other radio talk shows are light and engaging, employing humor, encouraging phone calls and social media interactions from listeners, and offering special prizes, just like most mainstream commercial radio stations have been doing for decades.
In television, Christian telenovelas have become a key feature in the programming of the leading evangelical networks such as Enlace TV. Dealing with morally charged topics, these soap operas revolve around parenting, or marriages struggling with gambling or other forms of addiction. Additionally, Enlace offers children’s programming, and through its channel EJTV (Enlace Juvenil TV), broadcasts content for young adults.
Politics has also become part of religious outlets’ offerings. While it is rare for political shows to be featured, political content is woven into existing programming. For example, during a recent episode (04-03-2023) of Enlace TV’s show Aquí entre Nos (Between Us), reflecting on the mass shooting at a Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee, pastor Alberto Delgado linked the shooting to the “thousands of children that are assassinated through abortion every year.” The show is structured as a talk show but also as a news program, which allows it to tackle current affairs while also dedicating episodes that provide thematic guidance on different social issues.
Religious media is playing a particularly significant role in three Latin American countries: Brazil, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. In Brazil, religious media has inspired the rest of the region, providing a successful example of how these outlets can eventually enter the mainstream. Costa Rica has become an international hub where different religious denominations have established media to broadcast throughout the region. In Guatemala, religious media outlets have been crucial to the sustained growth of Pentecostalism.
Brazil: From the Margins to the Mainstream
The trend toward emulating mainstream aesthetics was mainly developed by Protestant denominations in the United States and Brazil. While U.S. evangelicals delivered televangelism and the “electronic church” to the world, Brazilians adapted these new technologies and dynamics to produce content that reflected the taste of local audiences.
One of the most influential pioneers in modern evangelical media was Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) founder Pat Robertson, whose talk show The 700 Club was the first to introduce interviews in place of the standard pulpit preaching common in religious television at the time. But while the late Robertson pioneered the Christian talk show format, Brazil’s Edir Macedo would develop a paradigm shift for religious media as a business.
Macedo is the founder and leader of the United Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG, or Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus). His 1989 acquisition of Record TV marked a turning point in religious media. Before buying the television station, Macedo and UCKG—“the Universal”—operated like other emerging Pentecostal churches, paying for time slots in commercial television or through their own radio stations (Nascimento 2019). This strategy helped create clout and contributed to the growth of their churches (Oualalou 2018). However, everything changed after Macedo acquired Record, a formerly secular commercial television station that was in financial trouble.
A key to Macedo’s success was to keep religion on the sidelines. Thus, when he took over Record, he did not convert it to the electronic church model popular at the time. Instead of putting the station at the service of UCKG, Macedo kept its flagship news programming and its professional journalistic personnel, but gradually incorporated church members into other areas of the business as well as developing new productions (Nascimento 2019).
Through Record TV, the UCKG spearheaded the creation of evangelical telenovelas, children’s programs, and other religious content designed to attract larger audiences. Rather than turning the station into a completely religious venture, Record kept its flagship news show to compete with Globo, while canceling its Catholic shows and replacing them with other content (Nascimento 2019). Contrary to Robertson’s CBN, which created its own news show, CBN News, with an openly Christian perspective, Record focused on niche audiences through “good journalism, quality films and series, and biblical soap operas” (Nascimento 2019: 213).
In time, Record became one of the most popular networks in Brazil, amassing some 14 percent of national audiences (Bandeira 2018). The network has incorporated other television channels such as Rede Família, dedicated mainly to religious content. Another division of Macedo’s media empire, Rede Aleluia, is completely devoted to the UCKG, with radio stations across the country and the weekly print newspaper Folha Universal. This model has become an example for churches and religious media across the region, which have moved toward producing news content in an effort to blend into the mainstream as Rede Record has done.
As in the case of the U.S., Protestant leaders and media have taken an active role in politics, particularly notable in their support for far-right president Jair Bolsonaro. Record was at the forefront, providing a platform for the former president and his cabinet to promote their views (Davis and Straubhaar 2020), while Edir Macedo openly declared his support for Bolsonaro in both the 2018 and 2022 elections. Unsurprisingly, according to UOL, during the 2022 presidential election, the cities with most evangelicals were also where the Bolsonaro vote was strongest, which suggests that evangelical leaders and media may be more influential than previously thought.
Costa Rica: Transnational Operations and Local Impact
The Cold War played out on several fronts in Central America during the 1980s. The Reagan administration declared war on the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and backed repressive military dictatorships in El Salvador and Guatemala. The U.S. religious right joined forces with the Republican Party, becoming more active in supporting the administration’s global fight against communism. U.S. conservative evangelicals played a key role in legitimizing the Ríos Montt dictatorship in Guatemala (1982–1983), even as it carried out a genocide against Guatemala’s Indigenous population.
Amid these turbulent times, many evangelicals found a landing spot in Costa Rica, a country which had taken a position of neutrality, had no army, no civil war, democratic stability, and a long tradition of hosting foreign Protestant missionaries (Bastian 2001). It was in this context that, in 1988, U.S. evangelical leader Paul Crouch teamed up with Costa Rican businessman Jonás González to launch Enlace TV, an international Spanish-speaking television station affiliated with Crouch’s Trinity Broadcasting Network. The channel became a regional reference, featuring pastors and religious leaders from across Latin America and, of course, translating content from its North American partners.
Enlace also provided a platform for emerging evangelical political leaders who would later become elected officials in the country. For example, the founder of confessional party Restauración Nacional (National Restoration, PRN), pastor Carlos Avendaño, hosted the show Actualidad Espiritual (Spirituality Today) with his wife; former PRN lawmaker and pastor Guyón Massey hosted the show Mesa Redonda (Round Table) for years; and former PRN lawmaker-
turned-independent Ivonne Acuña was host of the show Aquí entre Nos on the same television station before being elected to Congress.
In the 1990s, Robertson’s CBN opened offices in San José, Costa Rica. Perhaps inspired by the success of Enlace, the U.S.-based network created its own Spanish news show with a religious slant, Mundo Cristiano, to be produced and distributed from the Central American nation. Today, the news show is transmitted on channels across the region, such as Canal 27 (Guatemala) and Enlace.
Mundo Cristiano follows the model of CBN News, with news content focusing on issues deemed relevant for evangelicals. But news content has also inspired local media outlets, such as the Neo-Pentecostal station Impact Radio, to venture into digital television, launching Impact Channel in 2021. Although short-lived, the incursion of a radio station into television illustrates the possibilities new technologies are opening for religious media to expand.
Beyond these examples, the local market shows a high degree of concentration and dominance by religious media outlets. According to official figures, out of the 102 radio frequencies available, 21 are registered to religious groups (Fournier, Jiménez, and Ochoa 2018). In television frequencies, out of the 70 national frequencies available, seven belong to Enlace TV alone, making it the second largest owner. Most notably, the Catholic Church and Enlace are among the five media groups that lead the trend toward an increasing concentration of the market (Jiménez and Voorend 2019).
Guatemala: Blending Religious and Secular Programming
Studying religious television in Guatemala and Brazil, scholars Dennis Smith and Leonildo Silveira Campos (2005) noted that the rise of televangelism and religious media networks had played a key role in legitimizing Protestantism, empowering media-savvy pastors and reducing the capacity of the Catholic Church to stigmatize Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal denominations.
Particularly in Guatemala, religious television stations owned by some of the largest Protestant churches have a national reach. Some denominations and religious leaders produce content for commercial television networks. For example, the UCKG hosts the show Problemas y Soluciones (Problems and Solutions) on the local affiliate of the Mexican giant TV Azteca, while content for children produced by CBN is transmitted via the commercial Guatevisión. Likewise, evangelical radio station Ilumina FM produces the show Vaya con Dios (Go with God), transmitted through Guatevisión.
These outlets have also played a political role in Guatemala. They became a crucial source of support for President Jimmy Morales (2016–2020), an evangelical, who was embroiled in corruption allegations and, in retaliation, expelled the International Commission against Impunity (CICIG) from the country. When Morales came under scrutiny, religious media outlets became a lifeline, downplaying the mounting evidence against him (Palacios 2018).
Guatemala is a highly concentrated media market in which religious media play an important role. As documented by Chávez (2018), 235 out of the country’s 726 radio frequencies belong to religious groups or pastors, as well as 84 television channels out of the 457 available, making religious television the second largest type of outlet. Some 40 of these television frequencies belong to Fundación Enlace, which represents Enlace TV in the country.
By adopting the aesthetics and entrepreneurial strategies employed by mainstream media, religious outlets in Latin America have become powerful actors in the regional media landscape. Protestant denominations, specifically Pentecostals and Neo-Pentecostals, have been particularly savvy in employing religious media to grow. Consistently, these outlets tend to be owned by megachurches and are functional to their growth strategy.
In Brazil, religious media has driven millions to join Edir Macedo’s UCKG: some 30 percent of the church’s congregants acknowledge they were encouraged to join by the religious television network, while 18 percent were drawn to the church through radio (Oualalou 2018).
While audience studies in Costa Rica show a downward trend (IPSOS 2018; 2022), the digital distribution of content through social media might be displacing traditional analog consumption. Religious media outlets are successfully engaging with Facebook users at rates competitive with some of the country’s most established media outlets. This might explain why new religious media outlets have emerged during the past few years, like Más Vida FM in December 2021, despite the apparent decline in audiences.
In Guatemala, data from the ratings firm Multivex Sigma Dos from 2019 and 2020 show that the evangelical radio station TGN Cultural grew from fourth to second in audience nationwide, competing with secular commercial radio stations.
The Internet has also boosted efforts to produce news content with a religious slant. For example, the Global News Alliance (GNA), a news platform created through the efforts of Protestant journalists from around the world, provides content for evangelical television stations, such as Enlace. This collaborative effort is also linked to the Association of Christian Communicators of Latin America (COICOM), which unites religious media outlets from across the region and provides news content to subscribers—religious media—in the same way that big international wire services, such as Reuters, provide content to secular news outlets worldwide.
While there is no definitive quantitative study that grasps the extent to which religious media are fueling the growth of Protestantism, scholars agree on the importance of these outlets as they legitimize the leadership and beliefs of religious groups. Marshall-Fratani contends that these media outlets play a central role in “the circulation of narratives,” particularly “for the imagination in the creation of new identities and communities” (2001: 89). Bastian observes that these outlets are transforming perceptions of Protestant denominations such as Pentecostalism, which is “acquiring a new legitimacy . . . coming out of its sectarian ghetto thanks to the transnationalisation process made possible by the media” (2001: 178).
Further research is needed to determine how religious media outlets are influencing the growth of Protestantism in Latin America. More importantly, we must ask how these outlets are impacting the daily lives of practitioners, their political views and preferences, and how much of the social media following they garner translates into church attendance. ✹
Gustavo Fuchs is PhD student at the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS). He holds a master’s degree in media studies from FLACSO (Ecuador) and an LLM in international law from the University of Nottingham (UK). His research interests are media, elections, religion, and human rights.
Special thanks to Liz Víquez and Cinthia Montalto from IPSOS Costa Rica for facilitating the audience studies mentioned in this article, and to Dr. Justin Doran, professor at Middlebury College, for sharing his insights on Brazil and Edir Macedo’s UCKG. All Facebook data cited in this article was obtained using CrowdTangle.
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