Amid Crisis in Brazil, the Evangelical Bloc Emerges as a Political Power

Amid Crisis in Brazil, the Evangelical Bloc Emerges as a Political Power

Amid Crisis in Brazil, the Evangelical Bloc Emerges as a Political Power

In the world’s largest Catholic country, a rival Christian movement could select Brazil’s next president.


No one is certain where the rumors that Brazil’s leader Michel Temer worshiped the devil came from, but last year, after taking over the presidency following Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, he knew where he could turn for help. Temer, a Maronite Catholic of Lebanese origin, met with the country’s leading evangelical pastors, many of them members of the Brazilian Congress. They encouraged him to tape a message. In that video, Temer stands next to Marco Feliciano, a congressman and Pentecostal pastor from São Paulo who says categorically that Temer has never been involved in any Satanic activities. The clip was later posted on the Facebook pages of the country’s largest evangelical churches, with the added testimonial that it is time to “disavow the evil defamation that Temer is a Satanist.” As a reward for this timely assistance, Temer appointed several evangelical leaders to his cabinet, including tapping a creationist to head the ministry of science.

Absurd as it was, the “devil-worshiping affair” underscored the rising political fortunes of Brazil’s rapidly growing evangelical community. Although the country remains the world’s largest Roman Catholic country, in recent decades a massive swelling in the ranks of Protestant evangelicals has challenged Catholic hegemony. In 1970, the percent of Brazilian Catholics stood at 90 percent; today, it barely clears 50 percent. During that same time span, the percentage of Protestant evangelicals has risen from 5 percent to roughly 30 percent. Across the country, evangelical leaders are struggling to keep up with the growth of their flock. Abandoned shopping centers, X-rated theaters, and strip clubs have all become unlikely places of worship.

Such a radical transformation in Brazil’s religious landscape has given rise to discussions about the emergence of a “Brazilian Christian right”—a movement similar to the American Christian right in its ability to reshape politics. Evangelical leaders already played a crucial role in Rousseff’s ouster, and their influence appears set to increase for years to come. It was Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of the Brazilian Congress) and one of Brazil’s most prominent evangelicals, who led the drive to impeach Rousseff for moving funds from several state accounts to conceal a budget deficit in the run up to the 2014 elections.

Although this was a violation of the law, the two previous presidents resorted to the same sort of budgetary tinkering without any consequences. “Cunha staged a constitutional coup,” according to Paulo Iotti, a constitutional expert at the Group of Lawyers for Sexual and Gender Diversity, a São Paulo–based NGO. But in an act of poetic justice, Cunha himself was found guilty of corruption, money laundering, and illegally sending money abroad. In March, a judge sentenced him to 15 years in prison, one of the stiffest sentences ever given to a public official in Brazil. Cunha was the first major casualty of “Operation Car Wash,” an anti-corruption dragnet that has so far ensnared some 60 percent of Brazil’s Congress as well as President Temer and the former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Cunha should be a cautionary tale for anyone harboring the illusion that the political rise of evangelicals will fix the ills of Brazilian politics.

The expansion of Protestant evangelism didn’t happen overnight. Protestants first landed in Brazil in the 19th century, with the establishment by European immigrants of mainline Protestant sects, like the Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Anglicans. Classic Pentecostal churches, such as the Assemblies of God, soon followed. A second wave of Protestants arrived in the 1940s with the advent of Igreija do Evangelho Quadrangular (Foursquare Church), imported from California by preachers Harold and Mary Williams. From its base in São Paulo, Foursquare quickly became one of the fastest growing churches in Brazil. Key to their appeal was revival events inspired by the evangelical campaigns of Billy Graham. Reminiscing about the early days of his evangelism in Brazil, Harold Williams noted that while attending a Graham crusade it dawned on him that “Brazilians love circuses. I think they would be drawn to a circus tent for a revival.”

A third and final wave came in 1977 with the rise of the “neo-Pentecostal” movement, led by the homegrown Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God or IURD). With branches in places like India, the US, and South Africa, the IURD is a global leader of prosperity theology, which asserts that devotion to God is rewarded with material gain. Founded by Edir Macedo, known throughout the world as “Bishop Macedo,” the IURD is a testament to excess. Forbes magazine estimates that Macedo is “the richest religious leader in Brazil, or perhaps in the world,” with a fortune estimated at $1.3 billion. The Church’s new São Paulo headquarters, built in 2014 at the cost of $300 million, is a 10,000-seat replica of Solomon’s Temple, the Bible’s most famous house of worship. Occupying over one million square feet, the building is Brazil’s largest religious space. It is also twice as tall as the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, the traditional symbol of Catholic Brazil.

Macedo’s influence on national politics cannot be overstated. The opening of IURD’s new temple was an obligatory appointment for the entire political class, with both Lula and Rousseff in attendance. At election time, Macedo’s political endorsements, which he dangles like pieces of candy and spreads around various political parties, are some of the most sought after in the country. The value of his endorsement resides not only in Macedo’s fame, but also in the reach of his vast media empire, which includes radio and television stations, newspapers, and a sophisticated social media operation.

There is no shortage of explanations for why Protestant evangelism is thriving. The polling data suggest “a more personal connection with God,” a more active worshiping experience, and a church with a greater emphasis on morality. Another school of thought emphasizes the more democratic structures of Protestant churches relative to those of the Catholic Church. Protestant churches are seen as affording more opportunities for attaining positions of leadership within the church, especially for women. This explains the link that some studies have found between the rise of the evangelical movement and female empowerment across Latin America. A surprisingly high number of evangelical churches in Latin America are led and/or founded by women, and more women than men in Brazil are converting to Protestantism.

Like the rise of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the early 1980s, which ushered in the emergence of the American Christian right, Brazilian evangelical leaders have entered the political fray motivated by a sense of moral outrage. These leaders point to the moral decay that has taken place in Brazil under Lula and Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT). They condemn the rise in secularism; the advent of gay marriage, imposed by the Federal Supreme Court in 2011; the growing acceptance of abortion (although illegal, an estimated 1 to 4 million abortions are performed every year); and the ubiquity of pornography. Their preferred venue for decrying Brazil’s descent into sin is the March for Jesus, an annual gathering that draws hundreds of thousands to downtown São Paulo. Held just ahead of São Paulo’s famed gay pride parade, the event showcases an evangelical agenda dominated by opposition to gay rights, abortion, and stem-cell research.

In crafting their advocacy against moral decline, Brazilian evangelicals take their cues directly from the American Christian right, a process facilitated by the many transnational ties linking the American and Brazilian evangelical communities. By the late 1980s, according to The New York Times, there were already 2,800 Protestant missionaries from the US in Brazil, and “dozens” of different US-based churches and missions. California-based Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN), the world’s largest religious broadcaster, reaches 220 Brazilian cities in 23 Brazilian states, covering 45 million people. TBN has helped popularize in Brazil some of the most important weapons in the American culture wars, such as Louis P. Sheldon’s The Agenda: The Homosexual Plan to Change America. That infamous 2005 book—which argues that since homosexuals do not reproduce, they have to recruit—was translated into Portuguese by the publishing company of the Assemblies of God and distributed freely among evangelical churches and members of the Brazilian Congress.

More significant, however, is that in the last two decades several American Christian groups, many of the veterans of the American culture wars, have set up shop in Brazil. Among the first to arrive was Exodus International—an organization that practices “reparative therapy,” a tactic also known as “pray away the gay.” A more recent and notable arrival is televangelist Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), with the establishment of a Brazilian subsidiary, the Brazilian Center for Law and Justice. The ACLJ, a right-wing alternative to the American Civil Liberties Union, is famous for upholding a “biblical” definition of marriage (it helped draft the Defense of Marriage Act) and for defending the First Amendment rights of Christians.

Despite their shared origins and mutual admiration, the Brazilian evangelical community is not a carbon copy of the American one. The American Christian right is remarkable for its success in connecting evangelism with other fundamentalist communities within Christianity and beyond. But this is hardly the case in Brazil, where evangelicals are at war with the Catholic Church over the issue of “Catholic privilege.” Evangelical churches want the government to grant them the same tax breaks and benefits traditionally given only to the Catholic Church, such as support for Catholic schools, monasteries, and seminaries. Many Brazilian evangelicals also aggressively target Catholics as their main source of converts.

Additionally, while evangelicals and Catholics are on the same page when it comes to homosexuality, they can differ on abortion. For the Catholic Church, abortion is an absolute abomination, regardless of the circumstances. For many Brazilian evangelicals, however, there’s some wiggle room. According to Bishop Macedo, pregnancy interruption is justified in the cases of rape, risk to the health of the mother, and “economic difficulties.”

The key vehicle for the evangelicals’ participation in politics is the Bancada Evangélica (evangelical bloc), arguably the most effective lobby in the Brazilian Congress. Its growth mirrors that of the evangelical movement. In 1985, the bloc had 17 members; by 2006, membership had grown to 57, or 12.5 percent of the 513-seat Chamber of Deputies. By 2014, 93 members or 15 percent of the Chamber of Deputies and five members of the Senate (a body with 81 members) belonged to the bloc. These percentages become more meaningful when considering the fragmentation of the Brazilian party system. The leading party usually commands less than 20 percent of the Congress. Most of the bloc’s members come from the three main Pentecostal sects—the IURD, the Assemblies of God, and Foursquare Gospel; and most of them, if not all, are “pastors” or “bishops” of their respective denominations. Research suggests that having the title of “pastor” attached to your name enhances the political fortunes of the candidates “by making the religious connection more visible.”

Together with the law-and-order lobby and the agrarian oligarchs, the evangelicals make up the formidable—and deeply conservative—“bullet, beef, and Bible” caucus. Collectively, the “BBB caucus” accounts for some 60 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Its members benefit from the chamber’s operating rules that require that consideration of any bill have the approval all the major voting blocs. This gives evangelicals de facto veto power, which they have used to block a ban on antigay discrimination. Evangelical leaders argue this bill would grant special rights to the gay community and inhibit religion freedom, such as the liberty of pastors to condemn homosexuality. The absence of such a law in Brazil makes the country something of an anomaly in Latin America. Even socially conservative administrations in countries like Mexico and Chile have supported anti–gay discrimination legislation.

With general elections scheduled for next year, a stampede of candidates is already jockeying for the presidency, and evangelical voters could end up crowning the winner. But this will hinge on the capacity of the evangelical community to rally around a single candidate. Unlike American evangelicals, Brazilian evangelicals are not wedded to any particular party. During the last election, for instance, the evangelical vote was split between the evangelical Marina Silva, a former environmental minister in the Lula administration running under the banner of the Brazilian Socialist Party, who came in third, and Rousseff of the PT. The PT’s antipoverty programs have traditionally held considerable appeal among economically less-advantaged evangelical voters and the so-called evangelical left, despite their disapproval of PT social policies, such as support for LGBT rights.

Silva will likely make another run, as will her old boss, Lula, assuming he can successfully appeal the graft conviction that could send him to jail for nearly 10 years. Another possible contender is Sergio Moro, the federal judge in charge of Operation Car Wash, who actually sentenced Lula. Yet another serious candidate is João Doria, the millionaire media mogul and former star of Brazil’s The Apprentice, who last year shocked the political world by getting himself elected mayor of São Paulo, South America’s largest city.

A dark-horse candidate is Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, referred to in some circles as the Brazilian Trump, a far-right politician who opposes homosexual rights and favors a hard stance on immigration and law-and-order issues. He has compared same-sex marriage to pedophilia, labeled Haitian refugees coming to Brazil “the scum of the earth,” and praised the military dictatorship that ended in 1985, a dictatorship notorious for torturing hundreds of Brazilians, including Rousseff. Bolsonaro is best known, however, for his overt misogyny. He once told a female colleague, on the floor of the Brazilian Congress, that she was “not worth raping,” after she condemned the military dictatorship for its violence toward women.

Whether Bolsonaro, a Catholic, could find support among evangelicals remains unclear. Although, if the American experience with Trump is any guide, holding patently offensive and even anti-Christian views is not necessarily a disqualifier for conservative politicians to receive evangelical support. But whatever happens, a clear paradox is already on display: A socially conservative religious community is now one of the most powerful actors in a country famous for its freewheeling sexuality and hedonistic culture.

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