Dispatch

Country of God

In long-Catholic Brazil, the burgeoning evangelical population has become a dynamic political force -- and could even choose the country’s next president.

YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images
YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

BRASÍLIA, Brazil — Pastor Hadman Daniel stands on the altar in Novo Dia in Brasília, a church of the Assembly of God, the most popular denomination among Brazil’s 42 million evangelical Christians. In the pews, about 3,000 people chant and sing as the pastor invokes them to spread the gospel "to the ends of the Earth, from the Amazon to the world’s five continents." Daniel also has another prayer: for Marina Silva, the Socialist Party’s candidate in the Oct. 5 presidential election, and a member of Novo Dia, who has a chance to become the country’s first evangelical Christian president.

Silva has said that her candidacy was "divine providence." It certainly looks like it: The daughter of an impoverished rubber tapper who grew up harvesting latex from trees in the Amazon, she learned how to read and write at age 16, and eventually became one of Brazil’s most influential environmentalists. She initially failed to collect enough signatures necessary to create a new party, Sustainability Network, before the election. But then, the Socialist Party’s Eduardo Campos brought her on as his vice presidential candidate. On Aug. 13, Campos was killed in a plane crash. Silva was supposed to be on the same plane but changed her mind at the last minute. And now she’s the primary challenger to incumbent President Dilma Rousseff.  

Among the many extraordinary facts about Silva’s campaign is that she is the first evangelical in this largely Catholic country to come anywhere close to the presidency (Silva was once Catholic and dreamed of becoming a nun, but converted to Pentacostalism in 1997.) Her candidacy is the mark of a changing nation: Despite a long history solidly under the influence of Rome, Brazil is quickly becoming an evangelical powerhouse. In recent years, Brazil has emerged as the second-largest exporter of Christian missionaries in the world (behind only the United States). From 2000 to 2010, the number of Brazilians who identify as evangelical jumped from 15.4 percent of the population to 22.2 percent, a total of 42.3 million people, according to the 2010 census. Meanwhile, during the same period, the Catholic church’s share of the population dropped from 73.6 percent to 64.6 percent (and many of these say they are non-practicing). 

These church members, and the pastors who lead them, haven’t been shy about establishing themselves as a new force to be reckoned with in Brazilian politics. And with a hotly contested election underway — in which a politician they see as one of their own is a leading contender — suddenly the evangelical vote is more coveted and courted than ever.

Silva has turned expectations for the 2014 Brazilian election upside down. Her story has won over voters in a way Campos never did: Polls showed her entering the race in August with a surprising 29 percent of the vote (Campos had only been polling at 9 percent at the time of his death). Rousseff, of the Worker’s Party, was polling at 38 percent, while Aécio Neves of the centrist Brazilian Social Democratic Party polled at 16 percent at the time. 

Since then, Silva has lost some support, coming in with 25 percent of the vote in the latest polling, which places her behind Rousseff, at 39 percent but ahead of Neves at 19 percent. But she remains a solid threat. If none of the three candidates emerges with a majority in the first round — which appears likely — a second round will be held in late October, and the two women will compete for Neves’s voters. That’s when the evangelical vote will be decisive. "In such a polarized dispute like this — and if we consider that the evangelicals are more cohesive in their behavior — evangelicals may decide this election," says political scientist Marco Antonio Carvalho, scholar at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, a São Paulo-based university and think tank.

There are an estimated 28 million registered evangelical voters in Brazil, according to the country’s 2010 census. Among the three major candidates, Silva has a solid, if not commanding lead with these god-fearing men and women, with over 38 percent of evangelical voters saying they would vote for Silva compared to 31 percent who say they would vote for Rousseff, according to polls. (Neves’s support among evangelicals is minimal). Should the election move into a second round though, Silva has twice as many votes among the evangelicals as Rousseff, as those who backed minor candidates — one of whom is an evangelical pastor — have shown themselves more inclined to line up behind Silva.

Religious voting blocs are a new phenomenon in Brazil. As in other countries, the Catholic church here holds traditional stances on issues like abortion and gay marriage — stances that are, for the most part, shared by the majority of Brazilians: despite its reputation as a haven for sex, samba and carnaval, the country is largely socially conservative. But, though influential behind the scenes, the Catholic church has never been a loud voice in Brazilian politics, pushing for legislation that codifies its positions into law. Suddenly, however, Brazil has found itself home to a wave of Billy-Graham style preachers, some of them with their own television stations, or radio programs. Many are aggressive prosecutors of American-style culture wars. And Brazilian politicians are finding that these ministers expect to be wooed.

Rousseff — who failed to win a majority in the first round of the 2010 election in part due to an evangelical-sponsored campaign that claimed that she supported legal abortion — has met with several evangelical leaders during the course of this election. She was quick to announce her support for various laws in Congress that would benefit the evangelical churches, such as a bill proposed in 2009 by Congressman George Hilton, a member of the evangelical Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, that would ensure certain legal rights and protections for religious entities.  And her campaign printed some 2 million pamphlets entitled "Evangelicals with Dilma," each with a photograph of the president worshipping at an Assembly of God church in São Paulo. (Rousseff is Catholic.) Her efforts have managed to win over some big names: Pastor Edir Macedo, for instance, the head of the São Paulo mega-church Solomon’s Temple and the richest religious leader in Brazil, is a Worker’s Party supporter. 

Silva, too, despite her own religious background, has been forced to work to win over major figures in the evangelical community who can deliver votes. Some influential leaders, like Pastor Silas Malafaia of the Victory in Christ Ministry, with his hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, and Marcos Feliciano, a congressman and head of the Revival Time church, have backed her. But the General Council of the Assemblies of God in Brazil, the largest evangelical denomination in the country with 12.3 million followers, told Silva in early September that it would support her only if she committed "in writing" to the values of the church, which include standing against gay marriage and abortion, and opposing laws that would criminalize homophobia, according to the president of the church political committee, Pastor Lelis Washington Marinhos. "Our support will depend on this," Marinhos told Foreign Policy. So far, Silva has had not committed to a written statement.

Silva has had to balance efforts to court this important new constituency against concerns that by working too hard to win them over, she could alienate other voters who might come to see her as "the evangelical candidate." Brazil’s government remains explicitly secular. Moreover, not everyone has welcomed the newfound prominence of these churches in Brazilian society: with evangelical mega-churches have come billionaire pastors and accusations of embezzlement.

In a late September speech to some 300 evangelical leaders in São Paulo, Silva defended the idea of a secular state and emphasized that she had no intention of mixing religion and politics. Silva has sought to present herself as a politician who happens to be evangelical, rather than a leader who would put the interests of the churches first. Still, at the same speech, the candidate asked for prayers for her campaign and for an outcome that would represent "God’s wish."

Despite her efforts to emphasize her independence, Silva has bent to the will of the mega-churches before: After Silva unveiled her electoral platform, which she’d developed with Campos, on August 30, she was forced to withdraw it after less than 24 hours under pressure from evangelical leaders, who voiced strong objections to its proposals to legalize gay marriage, criminalize acts of homophobia, and make abortion more accessible. Silva covered for her hasty retreat, saying the original draft was published by "mistake," but in doing so, also generated some suspicion among non-evangelical voters about her real thinking on social issues.

Even without Silva, evangelicals have been steadily raising their profile at the national level. Seventy-four of the country’s congressmen consider themselves evangelical — meaning that, were they to form a party, they would be the third-largest in Congress, behind only the Democratic Movement Party and the Worker’s Party. A recent survey conducted by the weekly news magazine Epoca shows that 345 candidates in the 2014 general elections used titles like "pastor," "bishop," or "missionary" — an increase of 47 percent compared to 2010 and more than triple the number of evangelism-inclined candidates in 1998.

The presidency would indeed represent a special prize for the megachurches in this country of Christ the Redeemer. Even so, the Baptists, Presbyterians and Pentacostals here have no intention of just handing over their votes. Silva, it seems, like everyone else, will have to work for them.

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