Religion shapes Brazil’s presidential election – but its evangelicals aren’t the same as America’s

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(THE CONVERSATION) One week before the Brazilian presidential election, the two heads of the list are fighting over the religious vote.

Last month, first lady Michelle Bolsonaro said at an evangelical church service that the presidential palace had been “dedicated to demons” under previous presidential administrations – a mockery of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, commonly known as Lula, and his centre-left workers. ‘ To party.

Lula is running again in this year’s election, the first round of which is October 2, 2022, and has joined the fray. During his official campaign kickoff in August 2022, for example, he alleged that current right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro was “possessed by the devil”.

Lula was heavily favored to win the election and return to the post he held from 2003 to 2010. In the polls, he is currently around 15 percentage points ahead of Bolsonaro.

Religious voters are an important part of the story. Bolsonaro – whom international media have dubbed “the trump of the tropics” for his conservative brandon persona, anti-democratic streak and ability to attract a Christian base – garnered 70% evangelical support in the 2018 election. including me, maintain that without the evangelical vote, he would have narrowly lost.

However, as a political scientist who has written a book on religious politics in Brazil, I believe that these comparisons between the United States and Brazil also obscure key differences. Yes, Bolsonaro and Trump are very similar in how they use religion. Yet how evangelical communities work and how religion shapes politics is different in every country — and my own research suggests that conservative Christians won’t be as cohesive a base for Bolsonaro as they are for Trump and the Party. republican.

Who is who

A key difference is the language used: who are the “evangelicals” in the first place.

In Latin America, traditionally a Catholic stronghold, the Spanish and Portuguese term “evangelico” is applied to nearly all non-Catholic Christians, including Protestant denominations that are generally classified as “mainstream” or even “progressive” in the United States. one-third of Brazilians identify as evangelical today, up from just a few percentage points in 1970. During the same period, the percentage of Catholics has fallen from over 90% to around half.

In contrast, in the United States, the term “evangelical” is reserved for theologically conservative Protestant groups, as well as Christians who have had a “born again” experience of religious awakening. Americans are also increasingly applying the term “evangelical” in a political sense, to refer to predominantly white political conservatives who are affiliated with Protestant churches.

As a result, the group of people called “evangelicals” is much more diverse in Latin America than in the United States – and it is also quite diverse politically. That said, many evangelicals in Brazil have a certain tendency to adopt theologically conservative beliefs, such as the literal interpretation of the Bible.

Dozens of parties

A second major difference is the lack of a strong partisan affiliation with the Brazilian religious right. Since the 1970s, many Americans have come to associate evangelicalism with the Republican Party. The founding of groups such as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority helped inspire evangelicals to become a strong base for political conservatism.

However, no political party in Brazil can claim such a strong connection with evangelicals as a whole. Brazilian politics is notoriously fragmented, especially on the right, and there are dozens of parties in Congress at any one time. Many parties – mostly conservative – are courting evangelicals, but none have established strong loyalties across the wide range of evangelical denominations and churches.

Jair Bolsonaro personifies this weak partisanship. Bolsonaro ran for president in 2018 under the Social Liberal Party, but then left the party in an attempt to form his own party in 2019 after taking office. These efforts ultimately failed and he joined the Liberal Party at the end of 2021.

Evangelicals may support Jair Bolsonaro, but polls have shown they have little loyalty to the party he is affiliated with at the moment. As a result, the president cannot count on his voters to also elect his political allies. In the end, this very weak partisanship of the electorate weakens the presidents, since they have to negotiate with a very fragmented Congress.

Key issues

A third difference between evangelicals in Brazil and the United States concerns their views on political issues. Like their counterparts in the United States, religious conservatives in Brazil are very committed to issues related to sex and gender. In a stark parallel to recent controversies in American public schools, Brazilian evangelicals have mobilized politically over the past decade to oppose efforts to teach children and adolescents tolerance on LGBTQ issues.

However, Brazilian evangelicals are far less conservative than their American counterparts on many other topics. This is particularly the case for issues on which American evangelicals often follow the guidance of the Republican Party. For example, my research shows that Brazilian evangelicals from a wide range of faiths are highly supportive of environmental action such as preventing deforestation.

Many Brazilian evangelicals have historically tended to come from poor regions and communities of color, which has led them to support issues such as social welfare policy and affirmative action. About 1 in 3 Brazilian evangelicals identify as white, compared to 2 in 3 in the United States

As a result, they are likely to be drawn to President Bolsonaro for his conservative positions on gender and sexuality. However, they can penalize it for its very poor record on environmental protection as well as what is generally recognized as poor performance on the economy and COVID-19.

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What does this mean for the next presidential election? Bolsonaro is attracting evangelicals again, but not yet as strongly as in 2018. New evidence indicates that only around a quarter of evangelical churches are engaging with the campaign so far this year – a significantly lower share than my co-authors and I documented in 2018.

However, some churches still take a firm stance. Brazil’s most politically engaged Pentecostal church, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, is urging its followers to begin a month-long “fast” from secular sources of information. This will likely increase the political influence of church leaders, including church leader Bishop Edir Macedo, who is an ardent Bolsonaro supporter.

Like their American counterparts, Brazilian evangelicals tend to be very religious and believe that religion should influence politics. What that means in 2022, however, is harder to guess than ever. After Bolsonaro’s four years in office, evangelicals may well judge him on his track record, not just his promises – which could be both a blessing and a curse for him.

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