The Christian Coalition That Helped Elect Bolsonaro Has Started to Crumble

The Brazilian president’s visit to Israel, which was meant to rally his evangelical base, has instead revealed his weakness.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touch the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on April 1. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touch the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on April 1. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro toured Israel in an effort to strengthen ties between the two countries. In Israel, his reception was mixed. Although the visit drew some criticism due to Bolsonaro’s stances on torture and the environment, he also won support for the business opportunities that a closer relationship would represent.

At home, meanwhile, the trip was even more divisive. According to Leticia Pinheiro, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University, the three days of tours and business meetings “managed to displease all of his constituent groups.” After promising to move the Brazilian Embassy to Jerusalem, which angered officers in his diplomatic corps, Bolsonaro changed his mind and offered to open a new business center in the city instead. That angered Bolsonaro’s Christian Zionist supporters while also managing to antagonize his country’s trade partners in the Arab League—leading buyers of Brazilian halal meat. Things only got worse when Flávio Bolsonaro, the president’s oldest son and a senator for Rio de Janeiro, tweeted on Tuesday that he wished Hamas would explode itself, irritating the many Brazilians who back a two-state solution.

But not everyone was so incensed. In fact, one of Bolsonaro’s key backers, the celebrity pastor Silas Malafaia, was jubilant about Bolsonaro’s activities in Israel. “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you,” he said, quoting the book of Genesis. “We have a lot, a lot to gain with accords with Israel, much more than selling chicken to Arab countries.”

The numbers point in a different direction. In 2018, Brazil’s trade balance with Arab League countries was around $3.9 billion. With Israel, it had a trade deficit of around $848 million. Meat was its top export to both. No wonder representatives of Brazil’s agribusiness lobby had so quickly stepped in to persuade Bolsonaro to back down from an immediate embassy move. Unfortunately for Bolsonaro, that wasn’t the end of the story. Malafaia and his allies in Congress soon made it clear that they will hold Bolsonaro to his original promise. In an official note on Wednesday, the evangelical caucus noted that its members “continue believing in and supporting the transfer of the embassy in Israel.”

This showdown may be the first major crack to show in the president’s right-wing, Christian vision for foreign policy. In his campaign speeches, he praised U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel and criticized the international left. He’s peppered many of his statements with biblical references. Meanwhile, he drew close to the Brazilian diplomat Ernesto Araújo (now the country’s foreign minister), whose writing calls for Brazil to be freed from the “anti-Christian” system of “globalist ideology.”

The problem for Bolsonaro is that, although those positions were palatable enough to voters, acting on them has proved more difficult. If anything, his efforts reveal the fragility of the Christian coalition Bolsonaro united under the slogan “Brazil Above Everything, and God Above All.” If it crumbles, it could spell the beginning of the end for Bolsonarism.

Bolsonaro can partially thank Brazil’s evangelical mega-pastors for his election victory; all of Brazil’s four major televangelical chiefs openly endorsed him, and Malafaia in particular was a devoted Bolsonaro yes man. Now, they want their due. One of their priorities is better relations with Israel.

Evangelical politicians’ strong support for Israel is relatively new in Brazil, according to the sociologist Clemir Fernandes of the Institute of Religious Studies. Evangelical Christianity has grown rapidly in the country since the 1980s and is projected to surpass Catholicism as Brazil’s biggest religion by around 2032. In 2002, the fact that the leftist presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva met with a representative of Palestine during his campaign did not stop high-profile evangelical leaders, including Malafaia, from endorsing him. Since then, says Fernandes, many pastors have shifted their positions and now see it as their duty to offer “political support for Israel as a state.” Around Brazil, Fernandes told me, “you start seeing Israeli flags, menorahs, and the instrument shofar in some Brazilian evangelical churches.”

Pastors and their followers increasingly traveled to Israel, too. Malafaia and other big names such as Valdemiro Santiago and Estevam Hernandes led religious tours to the country that have contributed to three consecutive yearly records for the number of Brazilian visitors, Israel’s tourism minister told the BBC this month. The airline LATAM opened its first direct São Paulo to Tel Aviv flight in December 2018. Bolsonaro’s own baptism in the Jordan River in 2016, Fernandes explained, “falls exactly into the pattern of these kinds of visits.” Deeping sympathies for Israel, many prominent Brazilian pastors also receive financial support from Brazilian evangelicals living in the United States, Fernandes pointed out. Zionist discourse is strong there, as is the political demand to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Before Bolsonaro’s campaign, such ideas, which may sit uneasily with Brazil’s historical support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, were less prominent in Brazil’s mainstream political discussion. Marina Silva, another popular evangelical candidate in 2018, never went so far as to propose an embassy move. But Bolsonaro’s election and his choice of Araújo as foreign minister brought Brazilian Zionism into the spotlight.

Araújo and Eduardo Bolsonaro, another of Bolsonaro’s sons and a federal deputy for Sao Paulo, represent one decision-making nucleus for Bolsonaro’s foreign policy—often called the “anti-globalist” or “ideological” contingent—but they are not the only one. Competing agendas from relative moderates, including generals, captains of agribusiness, and free-market economic planners, who hold Brazil’s vice presidency and several cabinet positions, have led Bolsonaro to walk back some more radical announcements, such as a pledge to withdraw from the Paris climate accords (France threatened trade retaliation) and the embassy move. The fact that Bolsonaro has so often had to change his mind shows his limited ability to manage the two competing factions.

Another problem is that as much as Bolsonaro continues to invoke his Christian base with statements like “I will govern with the guidance of God”—and for all his claims to be defending Brazil’s “Judeo-Christian tradition”—Bolsonaro’s Christian supporters have not leapt to defend his foreign-policy choices. His own claims aside, many evangelical voters were lukewarm supporters to begin with and didn’t vote for him only because of his faith but because of his pledges to fix the economy and improve the country’s security, according to Ana Carolina Evangelista, also of the Institute of Religious Studies.

Now, three months into his tenure, Brazilian economic forecasts have worsened, and staggering levels of urban violence have continued. Despite Bolsonaro’s pledges to clean up politics, moreover, scandals have dogged his family. The proportion of Brazilians who give the government positive marks has dropped 15 percentage points from January to March, according to the polling organization Ibope.

Similarly, support among evangelicals has dropped by 14 percentage points. Winning them back with a flashy trip to Israel was a long shot. On Wednesday night, the altar at a large evangelical church in Rio’s working-class neighborhood of Inhaúma was decked with a menorah. But many churchgoers said their opinion of Bolsonaro was based not on his policy toward Israel but on more everyday concerns.

Lourdes Oliveira, a 51-year-old schoolteacher, said, “I was happy to see Bolsonaro go to Israel” because “I think Brazil should make visits to all countries.” Asked if she thought moving the embassy to Jerusalem was a good idea, she replied, “I don’t know enough to say.” Overall, she said she thinks the Bolsonaro administration is “not going well” because “I haven’t seen anything change. And lots of people are feeling revolted.”

Claudia Medeiros, a 54-year-old domestic worker, said she did not have an opinion about Brazilian policy toward Israel but that Bolsonaro’s Christian faith appealed to her during the election, along with his pledge to “make a change in everything, like employment.”

Oliveira’s son Marcos, who is 19, followed news of Bolsonaro’s visit to Israel with rapt attention and a level of support that would guarantee Bolsonaro’s political survival if it were more widespread. He said the decision to delay the embassy move in favor of a business office was “marvelous” because it “is appropriate with the political factors of the moment,” and that he expects and supports a full embassy transfer. Asked if he was worried about geopolitical repercussions of such a move, he replied, “There will be repercussions. But what I want is a return to the Christian world. Because the way it is now is not working.”

For now, Marcos’s level of dedication to Bolsonaro remains in the minority. Outside the Inhaúma church, a family of Bolsonaro voters was sitting down for dinner at a corner restaurant. Geraldo Pena, a 59-year-old mechanic, said he had seen the news about the Israel visit and that he thought the business office was a good idea. Overall, though, he said he’s unsatisfied with his new president, asking, “What has he fixed?”

Since the Bolsonaro administration has set no serious plans in motion to improve security or the economy, he’ll likely continue to try to keep his support from evangelicals by appealing to ideological issues. These include not only friendliness with Israel but also proposals for socially conservative public education policies, fiercely championed by Bolsonaro, which would remove sex education and anti-homophobia education from school curricula.

Whether that will work, though, is an open question. And voter opinion aside, Bolsonaro’s political survival for now will be determined by Congress. Beyond this week’s drama over his Israel visit, a congressional battle is underway over one of his biggest campaign pledges: cuts to Brazil’s pension system. Just as with foreign policy, the unlikely partners Bolsonaro stitched together to win Brazil’s election have hit on plenty of points of disagreement. The evangelical power brokers who backed Bolsonaro until now may prove to outlast him.

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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