Mon. Jan 24th, 2022

In July 2015, Protestant pastor and theologian Ricardo Gondim sounded the alarm about the growing power of evangelists in Brazil. In a blog post entitled God saves us from an evangelical Brazil, the president of the progressive Bethesda Church warned that if they succeed in gaining the support of a large enough segment of the Brazilian population, leaders of the evangelical movement will secular and democratic country to a totalitarian theocracy.

“Evangelist” is an umbrella term that includes numerous Protestant denominations that share several core principles. These include the perception of the Bible as the ultimate moral and historical authority, the desire to evangelize and spread the faith, and the need for a religious conversion known as “born again.” Among Christian groups, those who define themselves as gospels tend to be much more conservative and against progressive values ​​than those who do not define themselves with that label.

More than six years after the publication of his popular (and controversial) blog post, under the presidency of former General Jair Bolsonaro, Gondim’s serious warnings about the possibility of an evangelical takeover of the Brazilian state appear to be correct.

On December 1, evangelical ministers in Brazil celebrated the Senate’s approval of the evangelical pastor, lawyer, and staunch Bolsonaro ally André Mendonça’s appointment in Brazil’s Supreme Court. As seen in a video clip widely shared on Brazilian social media, Bolsonaro’s wife, Michelle, responded to Senate news approving Mendonça’s appointment by jumping around and shouting “Glory to God” and “Hallelujah” . An evangelical pastor’s appointment to the country’s supreme court, coupled with Michelle Bolsonaro’s openly religious celebration of his Senate approval, added fears that the president and those close to him were working with hard evangelical forces for secularism and democracy to erode in Brazil.

Perhaps in an effort to alleviate secular Brazilians’ fears about his agenda, Mendonça promised during his confirmation hearing at the Senate’s Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee that he would “defend the secular state” as a judge of the Supreme Court. And on December 16, the day of his inauguration, he reiterated his support for secularism during a religious service at the headquarters of the influential evangelical church, Assembly of God. In his speech to nearly 4,000 participants, including President Bolsonaro, his wife Michelle and several prime ministers, Mendonça claimed that he “recognized and defended the importance of the secular state”. However, the fact that he chose to celebrate his inauguration at a religious service held by a church widely criticized for its harsh, anti-secular positions and controversial ties with Christian fundamentalist politicians has raised questions about sincerity. of his promises on the protection of secular values.

Indeed, it is difficult to dismiss the idea that Mendonça was appointed in court because of the perception that his deep-rooted evangelical beliefs – rather than Brazil’s secular constitution – would direct his decisions to the judiciary. After all, Bolsonaro openly stated in 2019 that he intended to appoint someone “terrible gospels” in court.

The controversial announcement was seen by many as an apparent attempt by the president to appease one of his most powerful support bases: the evangelical people. Like the military, Brazilian evangelicals played an important role in Bolsonaro’s rise to power and in turn have won much since the beginning of his term as president. Even before gaining a seat for one of their supporters in the Supreme Court, they enjoyed unprecedented access to and influence over Brazil’s crucial institutions and ministries. Bolsonaro’s Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights, Damares Alves, for example, is an evangelical pastor. Brazilian media reported that in 2016 she told worshipers at an evangelical church that “It is time for the church to tell the nation that we have come … It is time for the church to rule.” And since her appointment as minister in 2018, Alves has openly supported conservative evangelical views on issues such as access to abortion and LGBTQ rights. She also supports “traditional gender roles” and insists that “the Brazilian family be threatened” by diversity policies.

But Mendonça’s appointment to the Supreme Court is still the beginning of a new era of greater evangelical influence in Brazil. During Bolsonaro’s presidency, the Supreme Court served as the final, and sometimes only, line of resistance to deeply conservative, and sometimes discriminatory and dangerous, policies supported by evangelicals on issues such as minority rights, access to abortions, and drug regulation. Mendonça’s arrival on the bench is likely to hamper the court’s ability to resist such policies and allow evangelical people to further increase their influence over Brazilian politics.

Bolsanaro alone, however, cannot be held responsible for the growing power of evangelists in Brazil. In their efforts to expand their support base and further consolidate power, seemingly secular administrations of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff also helped the evangelical movement become the influential political power it is today.

During his tenure, for example, Lula began donating federal funds to Record TV (then known as Rede Record) – a television channel owned by the influential evangelical denomination Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (IURD) – in a attempt to influence the country’s leading commercial news channel, TV Globo.

Rousseff, meanwhile, has given several important ministerial posts to evangelical politicians, such as IURD bishop Marcelo Crivela, during her tenure. Crivela soon became a key member of the Evangelical Parliamentary Front of the National Congress, a powerful multi-party bloc that enthusiastically supports conservative policies based on religious beliefs and regularly thwarts efforts to increase rights protection for marginalized groups. During her re-election campaign in 2014, Rousseff also appeared with prominent evangelical leaders at the IURD’s Temple of Solomon and even quoted psalms such as “Happy is the nation whose God is Lord” in an effort to secure the gospel voice.

In other words, while Bolsonaro eventually made the evangelical movement a leading political force in Brazil by giving an evangelical pastor a seat in the Supreme Court, it was left-wing politicians like Rouseff (and Lula) who paved the way for the movement to increase its influence over Brazilian politics over the past two decades. And the Brazilian left in general still seems to play an important, though passive, role in the growth of evangelical power in the country to this day.

A 2020 survey by the private institute Datafolha showed that the percentage of Catholics in Brazil is declining (about 51 percent of the total population) while the percentage of evangelical people is growing rapidly (about 31 percent). This indicates a major transformation in a country where more than 90 percent of the population was identified as Catholic in 1970.

According to Brazilian anthropologist Juliano Spyer, who specializes in evangelical Christianity and who lived for 18 months between a poor and highly evangelical community on the outskirts of Salvador, the capital of Bahia, as part of his doctoral fieldwork in 2013-14, is this transformation based. on something much more complicated than the Brazilian population suddenly taking a right turn. He says understanding the role that evangelical temples play in the lives of believers is essential to understanding the increasing power that the movement has in the country today.

He says these temples serve as support networks for those in need – they offer literacy courses, activities for children and even financial support for struggling families. He explains that evangelical temples have become the backbone of many poor communities across Brazil, taking over a role previously played by the Catholic Church and leftist social movements.

Indeed, while the majority of prominent left-wing movements in Brazil seem to be – just like their American counterparts – trapped in their own identity-based agendas and immersed in so-called “cultural wars”, the evangelicals are actually doing the bone work, and the lives of Brazilians who living in poverty, changing for the better. This in turn enables them to convey their conservative message further and gain the ability to invite those who help them to take part in organized political action to advance their agenda.

With an evangelical judge on the highest court of the country, the evangelical movement in Brazil is stronger today than ever before. With the left seemingly unable to engage in meaningful dialogue with the growing number of evangelical Brazilians, Bolsonaro has used his relationship with this constituency and especially his leaders to subdue the last remaining institution that opposes his authoritarian agenda: the Supreme Court. Only time will tell whether Mendonça will use his new role to protect the president and his administration. But it is certain that evangelists are now a major political actor in Brazil and they are here to stay.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial views.

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