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Did Brazil’s evangelicals put Jair Bolsonaro into office?

Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, far-right lawmaker and presidential candidate of the Social Liberal Party (PSL), react after Bolsonaro wins the presidential race, in Brasilia, Brazil October 28, 2018. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

Frustration with the status quo is not confined to Brazil’s dominant political parties, which collapsed in the presidential election to make way for Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right Partido Social Liberal. Discontent has also been playing out among the country’s traditional religious affiliations.

Brazil – once known as the largest Catholic country in the world – has witnessed a massive growth of Evangelicalism over the last decades. A third of Brazilians now identify as evangelicals; just 40 years ago, 90 per cent of Brazil was Catholic.

According to a poll from Datafolha, nearly 70 per cent of Brazilian Evangelicals cast their vote for Bolsonaro, contrasting with a more divided Catholic electorate, with 51 per cent of Catholic Brazilians choosing Bolsonaro to be their next president. This growing demographic has captured a huge amount of influence in Brazilian society and politics.

‘This shift is not particular to Brazil. It is a worldwide trend in the Catholic Church,’ says Dr Christopher Longhurst from the Catholic Institute of Aotearoa. ‘Many faithful feel disillusioned.’ says Longhurst, people crave a genuine spiritual connection. Catholicism has been failing to offer that and losing out, in turn, to more ‘authentic’ religious groups such as Evangelicals; particularly in the Pentecostal communities whose language and ceremonies are highly emotive and passionate.

The progressive changes that happened in Brazil under the Worker’s Party (PT) clashed with the conservatism of Evangelicals. These communities saw little political representation during the 13 years PT was in power, from 2003 to 2016, and have become eager to find a candidate who would prioritize their ‘traditional family’ values.

Conservative evangelicals are fundamentally averse to PT politics. The years when PT was in power under the tenure of presidents Luiz Lula da Silva and his successor Dilma Rousseff were marked by the implementation of social policies, lowering of inequality indexes and steady progress in the realm of minorities’ rights. In Brazil, this meant challenging traditional Christian views of society.

In the 2018 elections, identity politics was the decisive factor in winning popular support – an element which most centre and rightwing parties failed to realize. In effect, identity politics polarized the presidential bid. On one side, the Left, led by the Workers Party promised to continue the advancement of rights to women, LGBTQ+, black and indigenous people; and on the other, the extreme Bolsonaro, whose middle name ‘Messiah’ worked as the perfect bait for inveterate Christians, portrayed himself as the only politician who could save Brazil from becoming a diverse and inclusive society – values which many Evangelicals believed to be sinful. The introduction of the debate on decriminalization of abortion in the lower house and plans to approach gender diversity education at schools, for example, were some factors which made Evangelicals frown upon PT policies.

Evangelical infiltration into politics has been rising steadily. The impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in 2016 was orchestrated by Eduardo Cunha, an influential Evangelical figure. Rousseff was thrown out of office on charges of economic mismanagement and alleged involvement in bribery scandals, claims which were never truly proven in court. The narrative could have made a hero out of Cunha – but who is now also in jail for involvement in bribery and money laundering.

Figures such as Cunha have help from influential players: ‘Media outlets controlled by evangelical churches play a significant role in mobilizing voters,’ says Dr. Marieke Riethof, Lecturer in Latin American Politics at the University of Liverpool.

Bishop Marcello Crivella, who was elected mayor of Rio de Janeiro in 2016, is the nephew of Edir Macedo, founder of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and owner of the second largest broadcast network in Brazil, Rede Record. Two years later, Bolsonaro’s turn to become Record’s protégée . Edir Macedo himself, publicly announced his candidate was Bolsonaro.

Despite refusing to attend any live debates with the other candidates, Bolsonaro conducted an exclusive interview with Rede Record and chose the Evangelical network to give his first interview as president-elect – an interview which gave Record its highest viewing ratings in two years.

During the interview, Bolsonaro said that Brazil is going through a deep ‘ethical and moral crisis’ and attacked PT supporters, whom he called ‘red criminals’, saying they will be ‘banished from Brazil’. At the end of the interview, the president-elect thanked Record reporters for doing ‘impartial’ journalism.

Throughout his campaign, Bolsonaro showed contempt towards mainstream journalism. He accused virtually all media outlets in Brazil, apart from Record, of producing ‘fake news’ and ‘propagating communism’, which contributed to greater alienation of the electorate.

The alliance between Bolsonaro and the second largest media network in Brazil continues to strengthen the influence of his extreme views within Brazilian society. And in the eyes of his voters, the election of Bolsonaro means the validation of homophobia, sexism and racism.

‘The conservatives reject what they refer to – as “gender ideology” : women’s and LGBTQ+ rights – for example. This view threatens to reverse whatever progress the women’s movement has made across Latin America,’ worries Riethof.

But for Evangelical Christian Ana Maria Batista, Bolsonaro is a ‘blessing’ for Brazilian society. He is going to ‘clean the mess’ made by years of PT government, and above all, he is a man who can be trusted: ‘He will be good for Brazil, he is a family man,’ she says.



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