Since being elected, the Brazilian far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has positioned evangelical fundamentalists in key positions within his government. He has supported a foreign policy that aims to construct a conservative Christian alliance of sorts – with the United States’ Donald Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Poland’s Law and Justice Party, and others.
In April, Jair Bolsonaro sent his son, Eduardo Bolsonaro (also a federal deputy) to Hungary and Italy, with the aim of strengthening ties with both countries and their respective leaders, Viktor Orbán and Matteo Salvini - who left office months later. The president's first official visit after being elected was to see Donald Trump in the United States, a visit in which he also had time for a dinner with Steve Bannon, a strategist of the global far right whose plan for an alliance between leaders and parties from this ideological spectrum fits the ambitions of the Brazilian president.
After a visit to Chile with President Sebastián Piñera, a conservative figure dealing with social unrest in his own country, Bolsonaro had an embarrassing visit in Israel, where he and his chancellor, Ernesto Araújo, declared that Nazism would be a left-wing ideology.
These first visits denote Bolsonaro's attempt to build a network between nations with conservative governments and allegedly founded on Christianity. The inclusion of Israel is part of the logic of evangelical fundamentalism because they believe this state is strategic to the fate of Christians and the world.
At a recent event in Hungary, the Brazilian secretary of National Sovereignty and Citizenship Affairs, Ambassador Fabio Mendes Marzano, presented the Brazilian government’s official vision to the world: The [Christian] religion is now a determining factor in the process of public policy formulation.
Almost immediately, Bolsonaro forced Brazil to “change its position on human rights (notably, on sexual and reproductive rights for women and on gender identity), started to vote in favor of Israel (which, in some circles, is considered the fulfilment of the biblical prophecy of Christ's return to earth) and formed a broad front of conservative countries,” explains Guilherme Casarões, professor of Political Science and International Relations at Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV-EAESP).
“The far-right acts like a parasite in moral scares, in the idea of a hero who comes to save the country and is anointed by God, that we have to cooperate with signs and prophecies - like the idea of transferring the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, (which is theological, would be a historical sign of Jesus' return),” explains theologian and Pastor Ricardo Gondim.
Bolsonaro’s just the tip of the iceberg
Multiple members of Bolsonaro’s government have declared that they are in a Christian "crusade" against the left, human rights, and minorities, while defending “family values.” The federal government's Secretary of Culture, Roberto Alvim, declared in July that he was preparing forces to launch a "crusade" against progressive ideas which, he says, threatens the "Judeo-Christian civilization."
“Jair Bolsonaro relates to religious fundamentalists in three ways: by distributing positions, by producing public policies, and by appropriating extremist discourses,” Casarões explains.
Once in government, he adds, “Neo-Pentecostal Evangelicals and fundamentalist Catholics took on first and second level positions, especially in the areas of education, culture, human rights, and foreign policy,” promoting a “culture war” seeking to "rewrite the narrative of Brazil's identity" as a Christian nation. More than 60 million Brazilians declare themselves Protestant or Evangelical out of a population of 210 million.
"Neo-Pentecostal is a term used only in Brazil”, explains journalist Fábio Marton, author of the book Ungodly: The Gospel of an Atheist in which he tells of his upbringing in a fervently Pentecostal family. It’s a term that doesn’t represent a theological division “nor has ever been used by churches,” but it is used by outsiders to define those churches adept at prosperity theology, "more open to request for money and televangelism.”
Bolsonaro’s move to increase the presence and power of fundamentalists leaders initially seemed similar to those of previous presidents such as Lula da Silva and specially Dilma Rousseff, but, in fact, went significantly further.
Under Lula da Silva and more so Rousseff, evangelical fundamentalists gained power in several areas, forcing significant setbacks in human rights such as the cancellation of the anti-homophobia kit, anti-AIDS policy setbacks and even a fundamentalist evangelical pastor, Marco Feliciano, was eventually appointed to the presidency of the Commission on Human Rights of the House of Representatives. It is also true that Bolsonaro has taken steps forward, promising and effectively delivering measures that violate human rights in a way never before seen in Brazil's young democracy.
The current situation
Silas Fiorotti, doctor in anthropology from the University of São Paulo and coordinator of the project "Religious Diversity in the Classroom," says: “evangelicals in Brazil have played a very damaging role in the democratic game.”
“The discussion on religious freedom is hegemonized, nobody wants to mess with the big evangelical churches, nobody wants to mess with the legal status of the churches, and the more moderate evangelical leaders are afraid to effectively discuss this issue,” he adds.
Theologian and Protestant pastor, Ricardo Gondim, of Betesda Church, is an exception. He became known throughout Brazil after writing a blog post in 2015 that says "God forbid us from [becoming] an evangelical Brazil," in which he criticizes the conservative denominations adept at the so-called "theology of prosperity.” For him, “there is a danger of Brazilian theocracy.”
Gondim says that the danger of theocracy is due not to the “competence of this so-called evangelical leadership,” but mostly due to the “international articulation of powerful groups of extreme-right that saw in the fundamentalist Christian religious movements an enormous potential.” For him, Brazilian fundamentalist leaders are “politically naïve and have no decent ideological background”.
Fiorotti adds that “religious freedom has been used as an excuse for evangelicals to stimulate attacks against minorities with their speeches.” Day by day, such attacks in Brazil appear to be getting worse.
How did it come to this?
According to a study published by Brazilian researchers, economic crises help to explain the increase in the number of evangelical believers – and there’s no shortage of economic crises in the recent history of the country. Churches with slogans such as "Stop Suffering," like the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, one of the country's largest evangelical denominations, which owns the second largest television network in Brazil, are examples of how televangelists take advantage of economic crisis and unemployment to expand their faith-based business.
To Gondim, the Brazilian evangelical movement is in part a Calvinist movement: There is a sovereign god who articulates, organizes, and engages history. The movement is also Pietistic in a puritanical way, full of strong emotions.
“It is this ‘warm heart’ that will give rise to Pentecostalism in the USA. In Brazil a very strong matrix is that of the millenarian movements that sweep the USA at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries - imminent end of the world, imminent return of Christ, prophecies about the end of the world,” he explains.
This mix is growing in Brazil, Gondim explains, because it has come into harmony with Latin American and Brazilian culture, "a culture of affection, but at the same time with a moralist [leader like Bolsonaro] who believes in a historical linearity and that everything is heading towards a glorious end with an all-controlling God."
Fiorotti points out to other important elements, such as “the presence of charismatic leaders; flexibility in customs and moral standards; more relaxed liturgies … the attachment to divine healing and the offer of magical services; the emphasis on spiritual battle and the fight against evil; the role of Pentecostal churches as networks of support and social integration; the business rationalization of the churches; among others.”
“It’s an extremely mobilizing form of religion,” says Marton, adding that the Pentecostal sees himself at war against a sinful world, taken literally by the devil in every corner. “All people, all ideas, even consumer products, everything can be the devil.”
According to Gondim, sex education in schools and respect for other people's sexual orientations are considered part of a diabolical and supernatural agenda that conspires against God. It’s not, “just a cultural war, but metaphysical - there is a real and concrete devil that conspires for the family to be destroyed, the world to be destroyed, the economy to retreat.”
Both contemporary Pentecostalism and Bolsonaro’s movement have been characterized by the “depoliticization of issues, the defence of a concept of religious freedom that privileges the evangelicals, the defence of evangelical public culture, the association of certain moral values with an idea of national culture,” explains Fiorotti.
The growth of evangelicals and the imposition of standards contrary to human rights “represent negative impacts for minorities, especially for adherents of Afro-Brazilian religions who are widely demonized by Pentecostal evangelicals and who suffer the most violent attacks of religious intolerance and racism,” says Fiorotti.
In the past few years, several cases of violence against adherents of Afro-Brazilian religions have been recorded. Brazil has even seen the rise of evangelical gangs, the “soldiers of Jesus,” and groups of drug traffickers who adopt the religion and expel non-believers from poorer communities that they control.
Gondim says, “We will have very difficult moments and the situation will degrade even more … [Bolsonaro] will use this moralistic evangelical force, of order, of ‘good citizens,’ of pro-God, to establish a dictatorship in Brazil. At least he will try.”