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How Evangelical Conservatives Are Gaining Power in Brazil

Bolsonaro May Be Just the Beginning of the Rightward Turn

Bolsonaro in Brasília, Brazil, February 2019 Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s newly elected president, caused a social media frenzy on Wednesday morning by publishing a pornographic video of a man urinating on another man. Sharing the video was his way of condemning Carnaval, the annual celebration preceding Lent that is known for its street parties and dancing. On Twitter, many Brazilians criticized his behavior using the hashtag #ImpeachBolsonaro. Others jumped to his defense with the hashtag #BolsonaroTemRazão (#BolsonaroIsRight). Many of those were conservative evangelicals—a significant base of Bolsonaro’s support. 

Evangelical Protestants now make up 22 percent of Brazil’s population of roughly 209.3 million, and represent the fastest-growing religious demographic in the country. Catholicism, meanwhile, has been losing members since 1872. Evangelicals comprise a politically conservative demographic that is quickly transforming its social influence into political power.

The rise of evangelical conservatism is enabled by a politics of morality: evangelicals take anxieties over issues concerning life, family, sexuality, and gender roles and articulate them into politics and leverage them into policy. Their success is exacerbating an already unlevel playing field between the two largest faiths in Brazil. This is a shift that has been taking shape in Brazil for three decades, and it is unlikely to subside. Conservative evangelicals represent the largest group within the neo-Pentecostal faiths in Brazil, and have successfully mobilized believers based on their faith and moral values. Catholics, on the other hand, are almost equally split between conservatives and progressives, and haven’t been able to motivate congregations to coalesce around issues in the same way. And when conservative Catholics do coalesce, they do so with their conservative evangelical allies. This trend will challenge the future of the Brazilian secular state, as Brazilian politics is poised to be heavily influenced by conservative religious ideals.

THE DECLINE OF CATHOLIC POLITICAL POWER

During the 2018 presidential campaign cycle, evangelical Christians rallied behind Bolsonaro, but the Catholic Church remained officially neutral. The only Catholic leader who came close to criticizing Bolsonaro was Cardinal Sérgio da Rocha, who said that Catholics shouldn’t support

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