Nearly 13,000 candidates with religious titles ran for office in Brazil's Nov. 15 local elections – an increase of 24 percent compared to previous municipal elections. However, the total number of religious leaders who ran for office is even greater, given that not all elected candidates and politicians use a clear religious title.
Religion has always played an important role in Brazilian politics, including the formation of a powerful group in the National Congress known as Bancada Evangélica (Evangelical Caucus, officially the Evangelical Parliamentary Front), formed in 2004 but active at least since 1987. And today, the far-right government of President Jair Bolsonaro is heavily supported by religious leaders associated with the Bancada Evangélica.
With 203 members, the Bancada Evangélica seeks to expand its conservative agenda throughout the country. The group has members from several political parties – even a few members of traditional left-wing parties. If the Bancada Evangélica were classified as an official party, it would be the largest in the Brazilian legislature.
Brazil’s historical ascension of religion in politics
Silas Fiorotti, a doctor of anthropology at the University of São Paulo, coordinates the Religious Diversity in the Classroom project – a progressive initiative that promotes discussion of religious freedom and tolerance in classrooms across Brazil. He told Sojourners that evangelicals have become a dominant force in Brazilian politics. “Over the past two decades, the evangelicals have perfected their work in party politics: They have largely adopted the strategy of bargaining, they have increased their presence in the leadership of political parties; they have negotiated positions, debt forgiveness of the churches, and ownership of TV channels with the federal government; they have benefited from funding for electoral campaigns; and they have turned the evangelical churches into the main electoral corrals.”
Since the early 2000s, Brazil has witnessed a surge of religious participation in politics as different religious groups seek to influence public policies and, undoubtedly, to guarantee advantages for their religious denominations, such as tax exemptions.
But according to Levi Araújo, a pastor affiliated with the Brazilian Baptist Convention, religion and politics arrived centuries before with colonialism. "Since Europeans arrived in the native lands of Brazil, religion has always been prominent and interfered in the palaces of power," he told Sojourners.
“With most evangelical pastors, the logic is the same: In their [eyes], spiritually and theologically, they believe that to be in power and alongside the powerful is the will of God. For this and other reasons, most conservative fundamentalist evangelicals are fervently excited to say: ‘Now it is our turn, at last it is our turn.’”
“These people firmly believe that God is exalting them after decades of rejection, disrespect, and humiliation,” he continued. “And that God wants to show all of society that the evangelicals are the only people of God on the face of the Earth.”
According to Baptist pastor Guilherme Burjack, the faith-based support of Bolsonaro is the result of the president’s efforts to pursue a religious identity-based agenda: He paints himself as a “populist and messianic" politician who can give the evangelicals the respect they deserve, explained Burjack.
Bolsonaro was able to connect with important evangelical leaders by appealing to their religious and political identities. He presents himself as a defender of family values and an opponent of abortion. During his campaign, Bolsanaro announced that he would nominate a “terribly evangelical” individual to the Supreme Court, but he has not yet fulfilled this promise. He recently appointed Kassio Nunes, a young Catholic judge, to the Supreme Court, a young judge with ties to the fairly progressive Workers Party.
Even though Bolsanaro has failed to appoint an evangelical to the Supreme Court, his evangelical base has remained loyal to him. He still provides evangelicals with a sense of safety and identity in Brazil, explained Fiorotti. “Evangelical conservatism tries to give answers and security to people in the face of the changes, crises, uncertainties, and neoliberal tendencies present in Brazilian society today,” he said.
Of all religious voters, Fiorotti said that the evangelical voter “proved to be the most vulnerable and susceptible” to following the political choices promoted by their religious leaders.
Separating evangelicalism and authoritarianism
As a more progressive faith leader, Burjack believes the main function of the pastor should be civic education. “The progressive pastor should use the election period to teach his community what rights it has in relation to its politicians; what tools it has to make the prefecture, councilmen, and all the other bodies actually function,” he said.
Undoubtedly, not all candidates who appear on the ballot with religious titles are conservative. LGBTQ, Black, and progressive religious individuals and leaders have sought to expand their presence in their churches, in public debate, and also in politics. “Most evangelicals follow their pastor when their faith and moral agenda are defended, but independent groups are growing and articulating more,” says Araújo.
However, progressive people of faith are still a minority.
Fiorotti believes that “evangelicals urgently need to democratize and decentralize power in their own churches,” empowering lay members with divergent opinions to participate in church assemblies and debates. He doesn’t want left-wing evangelicals to “simply put forward candidatures from left-wing pastors” or create a left-wing evangelical caucus.
It is necessary, he said, “to create spaces for dialogue and participation within the churches so that the evangelicals have autonomy [and] learn to read the Bible in its diversity.” Only then, according to Fiorotti, can diverse faith communities coexist in the political sphere, outside the influence of autocratic leaders.
Similarly, Araújo said that evangelical pastors must refocus their mission: “Preach the gospel,” and above all “prophesy systematically and vehemently against the manipulative Christian religious leaders who uncritically support Bolsonaro.” He notes that “there is room for dialogue with conservatives, [but] in the case of fundamentalists, only with exorcism and evangelization.”
And if the results of the election are indication, the evangelical grip on Brazilian politics may be weakening. While support for right-wing candidates remained strong in rural areas, Bosanaro suffered a series of defeats, failing to elect some candidates to whom he personally campaigned. And progressive candidates, particularly Black women and trans activists, have seen their numbers increase considerably.