The Bible Belt has moved south -- all the way to Brazil.
A religious awakening in South America's biggest country in the past decade, the rapid advance of evangelical churches, and smart business planning by publishers have made Brazil a leading world publisher of Bibles.
"All 136 country-chapters of the World Bible Society taken together published 21 million Bibles last year. Our share was 4.2 million," said Erni Seibert, marketing director of the Brazilian Bible Society. According to Roy Lloyd, a spokesman for the society's U.S. chapter, "more Bibles are produced in Brazil than in any of the other Bible societies around the world."
Brazil's other publishers printed an additional 1.5 million Bibles in 2003, according to Marino Lobello, vice president of the Brazilian Book Publishers Association. "There is no way to know for certain whether Brazil is the world leader," Lobello said. "But we sure put out a lot of Bibles!"
One reason is a decade-long religious revival led by evangelical churches, which increased their numbers from 9 percent of Brazil's population in 1991 to 15 percent in 2000, according to the Brazilian Census Bureau. About 180 million people now live in Brazil.
"We base our religion on the Bible," said Roberto dos Santos, an Assembly of God pastor who preaches daily in a dusty square in front of Sao Paulo's Roman Catholic cathedral. "We want to get people back to Jesus directly, and the way to do that is for everyone to pack a Bible."
The Bible craze is not limited to Protestants. Seibert said the charismatic movement among Roman Catholics is also strong in Brazil, generating even more demand. The World Bible Society, although rooted in Protestantism, does not hesitate to print Roman Catholic Bibles.
Brazil's tradition of piety has also made the Bible into a kind of status symbol, and Lobello said nearly every family owns one.
In addition, the cost of producing Bibles has dropped dramatically because of the society's huge printing plant, employing just-in-time management techniques in a Sao Paulo suburb.
"I can print a full-text Bible in imitation leather with a binding that will last through 20 years of daily readings for the equivalent of [U.S.] $3," he said.
The price is so low that the society is able to produce -- using a hi-tech computer imported from Norway -- a full-text Portuguese-language Bible in Braille, which is distributed free, one book at a time, in 38 volumes. So far, 2,000 people have signed up for the edition. And in a lesson taken from the corporate world, the society focuses only on its core business, printing Bibles, and does not plan to branch out.
But even when every Brazilian has a Bible, the society will have other markets to conquer.
More than a third of Brazil's annual output of Bibles goes overseas. The society alone publishes versions in 14 languages.
"We don't do the translations," Seibert said. "Our sister Bible societies, recognizing the cost-effectiveness of our printing operation, give us the templates and we print them."
Since its founding in 1948, the Brazilian chapter has translated the Bible into 35 of the 180 known Indian tongues in Brazil, including language communities with as few as 450 members and as many as 35,000.
Such languages rarely exist in written form. It takes at least 20 years of day-to-day work with villagers for linguists to develop a written form of a language such as Guarani-mbya, the latest Bible translation released by the society. It takes decades more to complete a Bible translation. The Guarani-mbya version, for example, took 46 years.
Critics such as University of Sao Paulo linguist Eduardo de Almeida Navarro call the society's work a form of cultural intrusion. In an article in Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper in June, Navarro wrote that the Guarani-mbya translation "created a hybrid symbolic sphere" for the Indians, one which was "neither wholly theirs nor wholly that of the missionaries."
But Seibert gently rebuts the critique, saying, "We only get involved when a tribe comes to us. The end product is a written language that helps the Indians become literate in their own tongue so they can write and preserve their own history and culture."