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 candidates “who promote violence,” referring obliquely to Bolsonaro. The National Conference of Bishops of Brazil quickly issued a statement clarifying that this was the cardinal’s personal opinion, and that the church didn't endorse candidates or political parties.

The Catholic Church hasn’t always taken such a backseat role in Brazilian politics. Catholicism was the official religion in Brazil for nearly four centuries, until Brazil became a secular state with the passage of the First Republican Constitution in 1891. Leaders under the First Republic tried to enforce a separation between church and state, but the Catholic Church maintained a strong presence in public affairs, in large part through its ties to oligarchs and the politically powerful. Only during the first half of the twentieth century did the state gradually become more secular and religiously pluralistic. Then Afro-Brazilian and Protestant faiths gained legitimacy, and the social and political status of the Catholic Church declined until the Second Vatican Council in 1959 ushered in a new era of reform.

During the latter half of the century, the Brazilian Catholic church shifted its approach from one that centered on elites and favored the status quo to one that promoted social justice and ecclesial and political action on behalf of the poor. Ministers, priests, and laypeople embraced this reinvention, as popular practices such as healings, prophesying, speaking in tongues, and performing miracles became hallmarks of a new era of Catholicism. This shift took place while Brazil was ruled by a military junta between 1964 and 1985. The Brazilian Catholic church played a leading role in the fight against this regime. While civil liberties were constrained, critics were tortured, and poverty was rampant, Catholic grassroots and social justice associations, some of which were independent from the central church, held popular assembly meetings in which they oversaw efforts to resist the regime. Priests, nuns, and laypeople led projects to bring popular housing, public transportation, health services, and education to the population. By fusing religion with politics, these church-led meetings created spaces for individuals to participate in their communities and become informed about their civil and political rights.

With the end of the dictatorship in 1985, the Catholic Church abandoned radical progressivism and returned to its conservative roots. Catholic grassroots community organizations shrank in numbers and in influence as the church ceased to actively support political activism.

When Brazil emerged as a democracy in the late 1980s, evangelical Christian leaders seized the opportunity to enter political life.

Protestantism rose as the Catholic Church receded. In fact, neo-Pentecostal denominations, such as the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and the Assemblies of God, had grown steadily throughout the twentieth century. Between 1980 and 1991, the Pentecostal population grew by 7.1 percent per year. Between 1991 and 2000 the annual growth rate reached 8.3 percent, which was four times faster than the growth rate of the Brazilian population during the same period. This growth was driven by a large media apparatus ensuring nationwide reach, the rising popularity of the prosperity gospel, and growing conservatism in the population. When Brazil emerged as a democracy in the late 1980s, evangelical Christian leaders seized the opportunity to enter political life. With the goal of promoting church-sponsored candidates, the Assemblies of God changed its motto from “Believers Don’t Mess With Politics” to “Brother Votes for Brother.” In 1987, 33 evangelicals were elected to Brazil’s constituent assembly, more than ever before in history.

Since that time, evangelical churches have continued to mobilize communities around moral and social issues, and in so doing, to extend religion’s reach into the country’s public life. The demographic growth of evangelicalism, combined with theological legislative initiatives such as those that seek to limit reproductive rights and abolish sex education in public schools, culminated in the rise of Bolsonaro, a politician who plays to the insecurities of a conservative population that feels threatened by the dominant liberal political and social order. Evangelical leaders have successfully mobilized voters on the basis of perceived threats to sexual morality. They have framed evangelical candidates who defend the secular state as untrustworthy of believers’ votes. The appointment of Damares Alves, a lawyer and evangelical pastor, as Secretary of Women, Family, and Human Rights was a recent victory for the movement. As she was being sworn in, Alves said that Brazil was entering a “new era” in which “boys wear blue and girls wear pink.” Her comment was a nod to what many conservative evangelicals have criticized as “gender ideology”: school education that acknowledges transformations in gender relations and predetermined roles for women and men.

MISMATCHED STRATEGIES

Strategies that gave the Catholic church clout under the military dictatorship have failed to stem the evangelical tide today. The Catholic church prohibits clergy from running for office or explicitly supporting candidates, focusing instead on promoting civic norms and voter turnout. Evangelical leaders, meanwhile, can not only support candidates but even run for office themselves. Some append titles such as “pastor” and “bishop” to their names on the ballot to gain votes. Loyal above all to their church, evangelical candidates see political parties as merely vehicles for winning office, and they nimbly switch parties in response to changing political winds.

A powerful evangelical bloc has emerged in Congress.

All of these factors have contributed to a decline in Catholic and a rise in evangelical representation in Congress. In 2019, Catholics made up 53 percent of the body, down from 60 percent in 2010. At the same time, the percentage of the body that identifies as evangelical has risen to 15 percent, up from eight percent in 2010.

Although most evangelical politicians are conservative, there is a small but active community of progressive evangelicals. Facebook and Twitter groups such as Leftist Christians and Christians Against Bolsonaro are gaining popularity, especially since last year’s presidential election. These groups seek to combat economic and cultural inequality, defend the civil rights of minorities, and protect the environment and the secular state. But unlike their conservative counterparts, they lack financial resources or famous endorsers to spread their message. They have struggled to counter the hegemonic narrative presented by the news and religious media that evangelicals all share the same views on controversial social issues. As a consequence, progressive evangelicals remain in the margins of religious political activism for now, but that could begin to change as more of them mobilize as a backlash to Bolsonaro.

A powerful evangelical bloc has emerged in Congress. The Evangelical Parliamentary Front unites members from the Assemblies of God, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, and other Pentecostal denominations, and makes frequent alliances with conservative Catholics represented by the Catholic Parliamentary Front. Through this legislative juggernaut, Brazil’s conservatives have greatly amplified their political power relative to their numbers.

Evangelical lawmakers have moved to block the distribution of sex-education materials, which Bolsonaro, when he was still a federal deputy, dubbed “gay kits.” They have sponsored legislation to limit access to abortion and create financial incentives to prevent victims of rape from interrupting pregnancies. They have proposed bills that promote the “moralization of the family,” which would recriminalize same-sex marriage and prevent same-sex couples from adopting. More recently, Brazil’s Supreme Court of Justice began a hearing on a new law that would criminalize homophobia. The hearing has since been put on hold, but not before stirring up Brazil’s newly empowered cohort of religious conservatives: many of them see the bill as a potential threat to their religious freedom, suggesting that it could lead to the criminalization of sacred texts that condemn homosexuality. As this trend continues, politics and policy will continue their rightward turn in Brazil, and the line between church and state will become increasingly blurred. Bolsonaro stands ready to seize that opportunity.