Abusing the Earth a sin for Brazilian Evangelicals. But will they fight for the Amazon?

. Nov 27, 2019
evangelicals Trees that survived a forest fire stand in the Vila Nova Samuel region of Brazil. Photo: Eraldo Peres Trees that survived a forest fire stand in the Vila Nova Samuel region of Brazil. Photo: Eraldo Peres

When the Brazilian city of São Paulo abruptly went dark in the afternoon on August 19, there was talk of an impending rapture—not all of it in jest. Meteorologists explained that unusual wind patterns had carried smoke hundreds of miles from the burning Amazon rainforest. The smoky fog blanketing São Paulo in darkness forced 21 million city-dwellers to confront the deforestation underway in remote reaches of South America. For some conservative evangelicals, however, São Paulo’s sudden eclipse illustrated something they already believed to be true: humans have violated God’s plan for the Earth by abusing the environment, and climate change is the result.

</p> <h2>Christians and the climate</h2> <p>Christian movements such as <a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2018/04/25/rise-brazilian-evangelicals/">Evangelicalism</a> and Pentecostalism aren’t often associated with environmental protection.</p> <p>In a famous 1967 article in the journal <em>Science</em>, <a href="http://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/theology/research/projects/beyondstewardship/blame/">historian Lynn White argued</a> that Christianity hurts the environment because the Bible teaches believers that God gave them “dominion” over the world. Therefore, Ms. White wrote, many Christians feel they may treat the Earth as they please.</p> <p>Among Christians in the U.S., Evangelicals are least likely to believe that <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/daily-briefing/2019/10/31/climate-change-bolsonaro-marielle-franco-interest-rates/">climate change</a> is real and human-caused, according to <a href="https://www.prri.org/topic/climate-change-science/">public opinion polls</a> and academic research.</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/1003302"></div><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script> <p>This is not the case in Brazil. Here, Evangelicals and Pentecostals—which make up around 30 percent of the Brazilian population—are just as environmentally concerned as other religious groups, according to public opinion surveys. In fact, some studies show that church attendance actually boosts Brazilian Evangelicals’ environmental concern.</p> <p>My own research on politics, religion and public opinion in Latin America reveals that many conservative Protestants in Brazil don’t just believe in climate change and think of it as sin. Some even see environmental destruction as a sign of the coming apocalypse.</p> <p>“God put everything in our hands perfect,” one evangelical pastor from the Brazilian state of Pernambuco told me during an interview in March. “We’re <a href="https://theconversation.com/understanding-christians-climate-views-can-lead-to-better-conversations-about-the-environment-115693">destroying</a> it.”</p> <p>Another pastor from the Assembleia de Deus, Brazil’s largest Pentecostal church, told me in 2014 that “God made the universe, he made fish in all colors … trees, all sorts of little birds.&#8221; He continued: &#8220;Every year, God sends flowers. Now men in their sinfulness destroy it all. They kill the little birds, burn down the forests.”</p> <h2>Right-wing but not anti-environment</h2> <p>This faith-based distress at humanity’s poor stewardship of God’s creation has some powerful and outspoken proponents in Brazil.</p> <p>The Catholic Church recently held a global meeting addressing the climate crisis in the <a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2019/10/06/struggle-yanomami-photographer-claudia-andujar/">Amazon</a>. Brazil’s former environment minister Marina Silva, a member of the Assembleia de Deus, has voiced horror at the recent fires consuming the Amazon.</p> <p>Ms. Silva leans left, but most Brazilian Evangelicals are politically conservative, meaning their environmental beliefs aren’t necessarily reflected in their voting records.</p> <p>Brazil’s right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro won 68 percent of the Evangelical and Pentecostal vote in last year’s presidential election. A climate-change skeptic whose policies have <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/daily-briefing/2019/11/19/amazon-deforestation-highest-ten-years/">dramatically accelerated the rate of deforestation in the Amazon</a>, Mr. Bolsonaro appealed to Evangelical and Pentecostal Brazilians with his profoundly conservative views on gender, sexuality and religion’s role in society.</p> <p>A survey I conducted after Brazil’s 2018 election found that voter attitudes toward environmental protection had no bearing on their preference of candidates.</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro did not hide his disregard for environmental protections while on the campaign trail. But many Evangelicals I interviewed had no idea Mr. Bolsonaro was planning to remove restrictions on fires for tree-clearing in the Amazon. They supported him because he opposes gay marriage and supports school prayer, they said.</p> <h2>Evangelical environmentalists?</h2> <p>The outbreak of Amazon fires started by humans, which spurred a global reaction, has suddenly made the environment much more politically salient in Brazil.</p> <p>Surveys in August found that 96 percent of Brazilians thought President Bolsonaro should be doing more to combat deforestation. There was no difference between the views of people who had voted for Mr. Bolsonaro and those who had not.</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro’s support among Evangelicals has <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/04/08/opinion-poll-warning-bolsonaro/">fallen substantially</a> since he took office in January, according to polling firm Datafolha. Just 37 percent of Evangelicals now think Bolsonaro is doing a “good” or “great” job.</p> <p>This trend isn’t limited to the Evangelical Church. Mr. Bolsonaro’s popularity has dropped in virtually every demographic group. The decline began well before the <a href="https://brazilian.report/money/2019/11/26/sugarcane-deforestation-brazil/">crisis in the Amazon</a>, but his handling of the fires may have shaved five points off his approval rating.</p> <p>This scenario creates the possibility that right-wing Evangelicals and traditional environmental groups in Brazil could unite to push the Bolsonaro administration to better protect Brazil’s rich natural resources.</p> <h2>Coalitions to caring for &#8216;God&#8217;s creation&#8217;</h2> <p>Bringing Brazilian Evangelicals into the environmentalist movement would require, among other changes, a shift in language.</p> <p>“A religious leader’s discussion with his followers is totally different from a scientist or an environmentalist,” Paulo Barreto, director of the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment, <a href="https://folhagospel.com/entrevista-discurso-de-religiosos-tem-mais-impacto-do-que-de-cientistas/">told</a> the Brazilian newspaper <em>Estadão</em> in 2007. “It’s more emotional.”</p> <p>Talking about “God’s creation” might feel uncomfortable to scientists and some progressives. But research shows that emphasizing the common values between Christians and environmentalists can foster more productive engagement.</p> <p>The Canadian Evangelical climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe recently made a similar case in <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/31/opinion/sunday/climate-change-evangelical-christian.html"><em>The New York Times</em></a>.</p> <p>“By beginning with what we share and then connecting the dots between that value and a changing climate,” she wrote, “it becomes clear how caring about this planet and every living thing on it is not somehow antithetical to who we are as Christians, but rather central to it.”</p> <p>New environmental coalitions are already forming around the endangered Amazon.</p> <p>Domestic and international pressure led Mr. Bolsonaro to impose a 60-day ban on all fires in the region and to deploy Brazil’s armed forces to fight the crisis. In October, the Brazilian Amazon had fewer forest fires than any October since 1998.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="alignleft"><img src="http://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/logo-a0073854423c0c04eddfa9074f700eaf-300x24.png" alt="the conversation brazil article" class="wp-image-398" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/logo-a0073854423c0c04eddfa9074f700eaf-300x24.png 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/logo-a0073854423c0c04eddfa9074f700eaf-768x61.png 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/logo-a0073854423c0c04eddfa9074f700eaf-1024x81.png 1024w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /></figure></div> <h6 style="text-align:right">Originally published on<br><a href="https://theconversation.com/brazil-must-protect-its-remaining-uncontacted-indigenous-amazonians-84141"><strong>The Conversation</strong></a></h6> <p>

Amy Erica Smith

Associate Professor of Political Science as well as Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean's Professor, Iowa State University.

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