Bolsonaro’s Christian Coalition Remains Precarious

A loose alliance of Catholic and evangelical conservatives helped Brazil’s new president to power. But their continued support is far from certain.

Worshipers at an evangelical church in Brasília, Brazil, on Sept. 21, 2018, pray for the recovery of then-presidential contender Jair Bolsonaro after he was injured in a knife attack. (Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images)
Worshipers at an evangelical church in Brasília, Brazil, on Sept. 21, 2018, pray for the recovery of then-presidential contender Jair Bolsonaro after he was injured in a knife attack. (Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images)

On a Sunday evening in December, around 40 worshipers gathered at an Assemblies of God evangelical church, lit by a rotating disco light, in Rio de Janeiro’s Jacarezinho favela. Children chased each other between plastic chairs as adults sang hymns.

Many of the congregants voted for Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right incoming president, who takes office on New Year’s Day.

One of the congregation’s pastors, Jose Junior Feliciano, who works by day selling snacks from a cart, explained his vote for Bolsonaro by pointing to the church’s bullet-pocked concrete facade—scars from wars between drug gangs and the police. “Something has to change,” he said.

After 13 years of rule by the center-left Workers’ Party (known by its Portuguese acronym PT), which culminated in 2016 with corruption scandals, a recession, and high crime rates, resentment against the party remains a common sentiment. Feliciano is one of the millions of former PT supporters who delivered Bolsonaro’s victory.

Bolsonaro, a Catholic, worked hard to attract these crossover voters, especially evangelicals. Two years ago, he was baptized in the Jordan River during a visit to Israel, and on the campaign trail, he filled his stump speeches with religious rhetoric and made dozens of campaign videos meant to appeal to religious Christians, including multiple appearances by celebrity pastor Silas Malafaia, a member of Assemblies of God.

The same December evening at the church in Jacarezinho, another of the congregation’s pastors, Cosme Felippsen, expressed alarm over the country’s political trajectory. “Bolsonaro’s abolishment of the Labor Ministry will make life harder for working Brazilians,” he said from the pulpit. Felippsen had marched against Bolsonaro, alongside both evangelicals and Catholics, during the election.

Feliciano had his share of worries as well. “I give Bolsonaro one year to see if things get better with security and the economy,” he said. “If they don’t, he loses my support.”

To secure his victory, Bolsonaro leaned on a long-term movement, with roots much deeper than his campaign’s, to establish a U.S.-style religious right in Brazil. But his stitched-together Christian alliance is a fickle flock: His support among evangelicals dropped in the final days of the campaign, in part due to grassroots activism from progressive Christians, and evangelical congressmen grew angry in recent weeks when he chose an education minister without consulting them. Bolsonaro’s popularity after his transition from an anti-establishment candidate to a sitting president will reveal the extent to which the country’s Christian right has become a true political base, rather than a transient voting bloc. So far, many of Brazil’s Christian faithful seem to see their vote for Bolsonaro as more of a gamble than a blank check.

In recent decades, Brazil has seen a dramatic religious demographic shift. In 1970, the country was 92 percent Catholic. Today, while still home to the world’s largest Catholic population, some 30 percent of the population 16 years and older identifies as evangelical, according to the polling organization Datafolha. Nationally popular evangelical bishops such as Robson Rodovalho and Edir Macedo, the owner of what has ranked in recent months as Brazil’s second-most-watched television network, say they aim for evangelical political power.

The success of Bolsonaro’s “Brazil before everything, and God above all” campaign stands against the backdrop of their political groundwork. Datafolha found approaching October 2018’s presidential runoff that Catholics (some 55 percent of Brazilian voters) planned to split their votes almost evenly between the left and the far-right—with around 5 percent of Catholics moving right since 2014’s runoff—whereas evangelicals’ support for the right-wing candidate rose from around 50 percent in 2014 to around 70 percent.

The role of evangelicals in Brazilian politics has changed drastically since 2002, when support from evangelical leaders helped usher the PT’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva into office. By 2010, a vocal group of those leaders had begun to peel away, abandoning a discourse about inequality in favor of fighting culture wars and embracing ideas such as the assertion that the left wants to teach young people to be gay (as Bolsonaro often claimed during his campaign).

The evangelical base has not always taken up these issues. “They do not necessarily care as much about these culture war points as do their most outspoken leaders,” said Ana Carolina Evangelista, a political scientist at the Institute of Religious Studies in Rio de Janeiro. She cited a 2017  that found that 77 percent of respondents among participants in the largest evangelical march of the year in São Paulo thought that “school should teach respect for gays,” and 91 percent disagreed that “in an economic crisis, it is necessary to cut spending, even on health and education.”

But amid overlapping economic, security, and corruption crises in recent years, evangelical leaders’ tendency to blame the left became more attractive, said Evangelista, and “uptake for Bolsonaro among evangelical voters followed a larger anti-establishment mood.” Evangelical kingmakers arrived late to board the Bolsonaro ship and have signaled willingness to step off if it appears to be sinking.

In his first year, “Bolsonaro is likely to benefit from a ‘wait and see’ honeymoon period,” said Adriano Codato, a political scientist at the Federal University of Paraná, but after that, voter and congressional support could sour due to economic or corruption crises, the first of which is already underway. In December, public prosecutors began investigating more than $300,000 in mysterious payments that in 2016 and 2017 flowed through the bank account of a man employed by Bolsonaro’s son. Incoming Justice Minister Sérgio Moro and other officials have called for more information.

Bolsonaro’s presidency could also energize a Christian opposition. During his campaign, comments denigrating human rights, women, black people, and LGBT people brought together a more active Christian left than Brazil has seen in years. Between the first-round and runoff elections, both in October, a group of evangelical leaders announced public support for Fernando Haddad, the PT candidate, and a new grassroots Catholic-evangelical alliance, which called itself the “Love Defeats Hate Christian Collective,” staged marches in four major cities. This movement has been buoyed by “the energy of a younger, social media savvy, more diverse cohort,” said Love Defeats Hate organizer Flávio Conrado. The group’s demonstration in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 18 drew an eclectic mix of Catholics and Pentecostals, who swayed with candles to songs, including a Bob Marley tune performed by a gospel singer. An evangelical organizer of this event won a spot in Rio’s state legislature, alongside at least seven right-wing evangelicals who publicly endorsed Bolsonaro, and other organizers are exploring runs for municipal office in 2020.

But for now, left-of-center Christians are likely to face a legislative pummeling. The conservative evangelical and Catholic caucuses are “arriving with a great expectation of power” in the new Congress, according to Christina Vital, a sociologist at Federal Fluminense University who studies religion in politics. They may achieve more of their political wishes under Bolsonaro than under any previous administration. Abortion, already illegal in most cases in Brazil, may become more difficult to access. Sex education and efforts to prevent homophobia may be banned from schools. Sóstenes Cavalcante, a Bolsonaro ally and a leader of the congressional evangelical caucus, promised his supporters this ban would pass the lower house of Congress in 2019. He said the caucus had grown “much more conservative, with many more fierce people.”

In Rio’s Jacarezinho church, Feliciano ended the Sunday service by thanking first-time visitors, including a transgender woman named Fernanda. In an interview afterward, he brought up the importance of welcoming LGBT people like her. His words set him apart from those of the new president, but he was unequivocal. “Here, we love our neighbors,” he said. “I’m a Christian before I am a Bolsonaro voter.”

Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn

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