The role of religion in Brazilian politics

. Aug 23, 2020
religion politics brazil President Jair Bolsonaro meets with religious leaders. Photo: Carolina Antunes/PR

In Brazilian electoral politics, there are rules to try and even the playing field, punishing candidates who win their races thanks to the unfair use of money — labeled an “abuse of economic power” — with impeachment. This week, the country’s Superior Electoral Court tried a case which would decide the level of scrutiny religious leaders would face when running for office. They would decide whether or not to create the crime of “abuse of religious power,” and if it should be an impeachable offense. The case was brought up by Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin, who believes that religious leaders are overstepping their roles and using faith as a vote-whipping tool.

Justice Fachin, however, lost in a 6-1 vote. 

His peers say that the current rules, as they are, already regulate such transgressions. Moreover, Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who voted with the majority, said “one cannot transform religion in absolutely neutral movements without political participation and legitimate political interests.” His words echo those of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who once said he was confused about which Bible people were reading when they said that religion and politics do not mix.

</p> <p>But the discussion has become a hot-button issue in Brazil, especially since the <a href="">rise of Evangelical churches</a> as major power brokers in Congress and — with the ascension of Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency — in the federal government.</p> <p>In fairness, religion has always been a part of politics in Brazil, from slave revolts led by Muslims in 19th-century Bahia, to the role of liberation theology in the resistance to the military dictatorship. According to a recent<a href=""> Pew Research Center survey</a>, 84 percent of Brazilians believe that faith in God is necessary in order to have moral values, meaning that religion and religious values play a key role in how Brazilians make political decisions.</p> <p>It is necessary to go beyond the surface level in analyzing the current role of religion in Brazilians politics. <strong>The Brazilian Report </strong>dug into the research and spoke to leading experts in the field to break down the role of religion in politics.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-map" data-src="visualisation/3548889"><script src=""></script></div> <h2>Religion in Congress: the &#8220;Bible caucus&#8221;</h2> <p>For decades, Brazil held the title of being the “world’s largest Catholic country.” Being Brazilian was almost synonymous with being Catholic, even for those who did not attend mass. There was even a name for these non-practicing not-so-devotees: Census-only Catholics.</p> <p>Since the 1950s, however, Brazil has been experiencing a rapid demographic change. The country&#8217;s urbanization process was followed by another phenomenon: the surge of Evangelical Christianity. Brazil&#8217;s Evangelical population exploded from just four percent 40 years ago to nearly one-quarter of the population. It would not be surprising if next year&#8217;s census shows Evangelical Christians as comprising over 30 percent of Brazilians.</p> <p>And while Mr. Bolsonaro is a Catholic, he often professes his faith in evangelical churches. In 2016, he was <a href="">baptized into the Assembly of God Church</a> by a preacher who is also the leader of the Social Christian Party. His electoral win placed religious activists in the cabinet in a way never seen before in Brazil. <a href="">Damares Alves</a>, a former secretary within the congressional evangelical caucus, is now Family, Women, and Human Rights Minister — the &#8216;Family&#8217; element was shoehorned in as a concession to the evangelical community. But religious leaders were also placed in key positions related to policies targeting indigenous groups, populations which many churches seek to convert.&nbsp;</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/1225909"><script src=""></script></div> <p>Earlier this year, Ricardo Lopes Dias, another Evangelical Christian pastor, was appointed as head of Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency Funai —&nbsp;and missionaries were granted special permission to enter indigenous territories, despite there being a raging pandemic that is <a href="">killing an average of over 1,000 Brazilians every day</a>.</p> <p>In Congress, Evangelical Christian candidates went from winning 12 of the House&#8217;s 513 seats in 1982 to snatching up 82 seats in 2018. Alongside the rural caucus and the so-called &#8220;bullet caucus&#8221; — made up of pro-gun and public security lawmakers — the Evangelical bench is one of the top three most powerful interest groups represented in Congress.&nbsp;</p> <p>And while that <a href="">growing influence</a> is linked to the growth of their religion, it is also true that Evangelicals were also empowered by the dictatorship — which saw them as a useful buffer against communists and left-wing elements within the Catholic Church.</p> <p>The Evangelical caucus not only has its own distinct social agenda —&nbsp;anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ rights, anti-secular education — but is also a well-organized group with a strong political strategy. And they know how to pick a winner.&nbsp;</p> <p>As sociologist Liz McKenna told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>, “the majoritarian evangelical bloc has never been on the losing side of a presidential campaign in Brazil since the end of the dictatorship. From Fernando Collor, in 1989, to Jair Bolsonaro, they always chose the candidate who ended up winning.” In 2018, big-name televangelists began endorsing Mr. Bolsonaro late in September, helping push his poll numbers from 33 to 48 percent.</p> <p>It is wrong, however, to assume Evangelicals are a homogeneous group, either in terms of demographics or politics.&nbsp;</p> <p>While it might seem like Evangelicals would be natural allies of Brazil’s right-wing political parties, they served for over a decade as some of the left-wing Workers’ Party’s most reliable allies. In 2002, Evangelical leaders held a campaign barbecue in Rio de Janeiro to show support for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who heads a party associated with more progressive politics, such as LGBTQ- and abortion rights.</p> <iframe src="" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>There is no such thing as a free barbecue, however, and the support of the Evangelical caucus came at a price. The Workers’ Party gave their churches freedom to expand without having to worry about the taxman. As<strong> The Brazilian Report</strong> <a href="">showed</a> last week, the Workers’ Party government also promoted the expansion of Brazilian churches in Africa.</p> <p>More importantly, churches were granted the opportunity to take responsibility for distributing welfare on behalf of the government in poor communities. &#8220;At least in the city of São Paulo, public health and <a href="">social assistance policies</a> created during the Lula administration were being managed by social organizations controlled by Evangelical churches,&#8221; Ruy Braga, a sociologist at the University of São Paulo, tells <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>. &#8220;For the recipients of these public policies, Evangelical churches were more often associated with the Bolsa Família program or even with the role of community health agents than with the distant federal government.&#8221;</p> <p>That arrangement was more of a benefit to Evangelical churches than the state vis-à-vis public opinion. Religious groups became seen as their benefactors, rather than the federal government.&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, the Evangelical caucus is trying to leverage its political power into taking over institutions such as public education and welfare distribution, along with getting tax breaks and support for their media ventures.&nbsp;</p> <h2>The politics of the base</h2> <p>Low-income areas were once seen as the domain of groups belonging to Catholic Liberation Theology. Radical priests would deliver the social gospel to the poor and build a base for social change. This strategy operated in conjunction with trade unions and other civic organizations. Social gospel and the organizing work of Liberation Theology were key to the formation of the Workers&#8217; Party.&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, however, Evangelical churches in these same communities push forward their own version of the prosperity gospel —&nbsp;according to which wealth is a sign of God&#8217;s favor. Moreover, preachers say donations to the church and the community result in wealth coming back to people.</p> <p>One of the ways to understand the rise of the Evangelical churches, particularly on the periphery of Brazil’s major cities, is to see them as rising in response to declines in other forms of civic association and organizations —&nbsp;in particular trade unions.</p> <p>Brazil’s trade unions are a pale shadow of their former selves, they no longer strike fear into the hearts of governments and big business. Though the union-founded Workers’ Party won four successive elections, Brazil&#8217;s trade unions were already in a state of demobilization and steady decline. And, after the 2017 labor reform, compulsory union dues were done away with, robbing these groups from their main revenue source.</p> <p>The country’s largest trade union federation —&nbsp;the Central Union of Workers (CUT) — went from collecting BRL 60 million per year from its members to just BRL 3 million.&nbsp;</p> <p>Meanwhile, Brazil’s Evangelical churches rake in an <a href="">estimated BRL 88 million <em>per day</em></a>. Moreover, the congregants are loyal and dedicated to their beliefs. As Liz McKenna points out, 89 percent of Evangelical Christians contribute regularly to their church through tithes.</p> <p>Part of this shift can be explained by the social trends during the boom years of the 2000s while Lula was in office. The millions that gained access to higher education for the first time or could finally afford a television or fridge saw this as a result of their own individual success and godliness, rather than government policy. The Workers’ Party increasingly promoted the idea of a rising middle class rather than building workers’ power. Prosperity gospel, which preaches that material success is connected to spiritual virtue, found appeal among many of those who believed they had finally moved into the middle class.</p> <h2>Formerly with Lula, now with Bolsonaro</h2> <p>Once organized communities loyal to the Workers’ Party with an active trade union presence, were no longer the focus of base building or political organization. That left a civic vacuum that evangelical churches increasingly filled. The labor market in Brazil has increasingly shifted to forms of informal employment: the typical worker in 2020 risks their lives riding their motorbike for a delivery app or works in a call center, and they are not unionized.&nbsp;</p> <p>As Ruy Braga tells <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>, “Evangelical churches are social hubs, where people make friends and take part in cultural activities, at least as much as they are places of worship. This is especially the case for poor black and multiracial women who are generally deprived of such spaces, many of whom are the mothers of young men victimized by gang and police violence.”</p> <p>Religious spaces in Brazil are syncretic, members are not particularly loyal to the social agenda of the Bible bloc and move between different denominations and spiritual beliefs. They are also the sites of welfare distribution and social services. As a result, these social spaces and those that occupy them often join radical leftist social movements rather than right-wing middle-class social movements. Evangelicals, for instance, form a key part of the base of the two largest movements in Brazil: the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST) and the Landless Workers Movement (MST).&nbsp;</p> <p><a href="">Guilherme Boulos</a>, the MTST leader and the radical leftist candidate in the 2018 elections, points out that ‘the largest part of our base, of the MTST, is by far, [made up of] Pentecostal Evangelicals. It’s wrong to think that all Pentecostals are conservative. (&#8230;) The phenomenon underneath is much more complex.” The average member of this radical social movement is a black woman in her 70s who regularly attends a Pentecostal church.</p> <p>Religion in Brazil is a complex phenomenon. It is a mistake to generalize or reduce it either to its most radical or venal exponents. Religion can never be divorced from politics, in the sense that its idioms and expression are key not only to how people view and interact with the world, but how people organize to change it both for the better and the worse.</p> <p>While the Electoral Court may have struck down the move to render the abuse of religious power during elections a crime, Brazilians and Brazil-watchers should pay close attention to the political maneuvering of Evangelicals. Mr. Bolsonaro is currently enjoying his best polling yet since he took office and Evangelicals form perhaps the strongest and most organized section of his base.&nbsp;</p> <p>People turn to religion during times of uncertainty, suffering, and crisis, like the terrible pandemic we are living through currently. As <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> has <a href="">shown</a>, the state has abandoned poor Brazilians who are both those most likely to die from Covid-19 and are bearing the worst of its economic consequences. As a result, these people are turning to religion for solace.&nbsp;</p> <p>It seems highly likely given that churches provide not only community and social services, and that the Evangelical churches are the ones that predominate in much of the periphery, that their reach and power will almost certainly increase as a result.

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Benjamin Fogel

Benjamin Fogel is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American History at New York University and a Contributing Editor to Jacobin Magazine.

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