Religion and Politics Interpenetrate in Brasil

By Ana Keila Mosca Pinezi

The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus or IURD) is a complex that involves a media empire not only aimed at propagating its religious and moral precepts and proselytizing, but also expressing the extraordinary growth of the Evangelicals in Brazil, especially that of neo-Pentecostalism, which has Prosperity and Health Theology at its heart. The neo-Pentecostal Evangelicals are a clear threat both to traditional and to popular Catholicism.

The IURD is a church-enterprise, whose power has spread especially in the Brazilian peripheries and has reached the public sphere and institutionalized politics, through the election of pastors and adherents who represent it in the National Congress and in Brazilian municipalities and states. Thanks to its high number of adherents and its media empire, alongside the Assemblies of God, the oldest Pentecostal Brazilian church, it works as a space to recruit voters and to enlarge the image of candidates who follow its line, to whom they offer in return the maintenance and amplification of power.

The neo-Pentecostal churches, led by the IURD, have become a kind of electoral breeding ground, on the one hand, and centers to broadcast electoral propaganda on the other, for those who represent it and those who will, if elected, offer it advantages and power.

The Evangelical Parliamentary Front (popularly called the ‘Evangelical Bench’), founded in 2003, clearly reflects the insertion of various kinds of Evangelicals into institutionalized politics. Most of the Evangelical parliamentarians in the Evangelical group are members of the Assemblies of God or the IURD.

It is not the first time that Evangelicals have declared support for politicians who interest them. In the first direct presidential elections in Brazil, after the military period and at the beginning of the process of redemocratization, the Evangelicals, represented by the Evangelical group formed at the time of the Constituent Assembly in 1986, favoured Fernando Collor de Mello (PRN), the right-wing candidate against Luis Inacio Lula da Silva (PT), demonized for being a leftist who would therefore persecute the Evangelical churches, instituting a communist government in the country. In 1994, the Evangelicals, notably the Pentecostals, again identified Lula as the ‘candidate of the devil’. The leaders of the IURD advised their adherents not to vote for Lula, who again lost the elections, this time to Fernando Henrique Cardoso, even after Lula declared that he believed in God and tried to approach the Pentecostals. In 2002, however, the IURD and other Evangelical denominations supported the candidacy of Lula, who won in the second round. In Lula’s government, there was an understanding between the president and Evangelical parliamentarians. As we can see, the Evangelicals’ activity in the public sphere is not something new, but the increase in the number of Evangelical parliamentarians and the expansion of their power in the political space has led to a fierce contest on the part of the candidates for their support – support that has now become decisive in the processes of the Brazilian electoral system.

The image of Bolsonaro was built on the basis of moral conservatism and the notion of liberating the country from a communist threat, represented by the PT. In Brazil, Collor de Mello, the first president elected after a period of dictatorship and indirect elections, had his image built in a very similar way. He was called the ‘Hunter of Marajás’, that is, someone who would hunt down the privileged and the rich and who took advantage of the poverty of the great part of the population of a country whose social inequality is conspicuous.

Messianism is strong in Brazil and comes especially from a Sebastianist tradition. ‘Sebastianism’ refers to the belief that Dom Sebastião, the king of Portugal who disappeared at the battle of Alcacer-Quibir in Africa in 1578, will return and take over the Portuguese troops, overcoming enemies and restoring peace, justice and happiness for his people. This belief was present in the Portuguese imagination for more than a century, and came to Brazil, loaded with religious content, in the nineteenth century. The Salvationist idea of ‘sebastianismo’ agglutinated religious and political elements from the popular imagination and exploded in the region of northeastern Brazil called the ‘sertão’ or ‘outback’, specifically in the semi-arid area, one of the poorest of the country, affected by the scourge of drought. Thus, Messianism in Brazil is not based solely on the religious conception of salvation, since there is also the expectation that a ‘messiah’ will free the nation from social ills, acting in the political field too, like the figure of Dom Sebastião himself. Sebastianism was the basis of several political-religious movements in the Brazilian northeast, with the exploitation of religious faith through fanatical leaders. The Brazilian imagination is still today imbued with sebastianismo that has been remodeled and clad in modern clothes and media and becomes stronger and more apparent when there is political dissatisfaction on the part of the population. Thus, even since the proclamation of the Secular State in Brazil in 1890, there is an expectation on the part of a large part of the Brazilian population that political leaders will emerge to restore order or even promote a change in the status quo with regard to poverty, inequality and Brazil’s economic and social precariousness, just as a messiah would do: a divine ‘chosen one’ that would ultimately bring prosperity to the Brazilian people. That said, it is understood that the symbolic terrain for the emergence of religious leaders in politics was ready for popular support.

Although he did not employ a religious repertoire, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (PT), a politician of great popularity, especially in the Brazilian northeast, was considered as someone who, due to his past in poverty, his low level of education, and his status as a worker and trade unionist, could become a popular leader who could change the scenario of Brazilian inequality, allowing a reduction of the base of the social pyramid in the country through public policies and programs aimed at alleviating poverty so as to increase the purchasing power of the poorest social classes.

This plan worked in part, improving development indices, raising the purchasing power of the poorer classes and enabling the country to depart from the map of world hunger. However, the structures that maintain social inequality in Brazil, including the slave and class mentality ruled by the logic of the ‘Casa Grande-Senzala’ distinction, which permeates the imagination of both the rich and the middle class in particular, rejected social advances and any inclusion of part of the popular strata into spaces previously open only to the middle and wealthy layers of society.

There has also been a reaction against advances in the claims of minority groups such as LGBTT and black people. At the end of the first government of the PT’s Dilma Rousseff, there was a disconnection of popular bases from the government, and some unpopular measures were taken, without consulting the social movements that had supported the Lula government. Lulismo began to wear out and show signs that it was coming to an end.

The fact is that the increase in the purchasing power of the popular classes under the PT governments, especially through a family grant, did not come together with citizen education, recognizing rights and duties and, through education aimed at social inclusion, allowing people to reflect on their own condition and on the structures of power that undermine social mobility and the reduction of social inequalities and keep the concentration of income in the hands of very few. This means that Brazilian democracy was not strengthened and the revolt against corruption scandals that now included the PT led to the demoralization of the political class. This was the final blow to ‘lulopetismo’, which culminated in the parliamentary coup that led to Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment and to Lula’s arrest. The political, economic and social scenario became propitious for the emergence of another messiah, coming from politics, but clad with the religious cloak stitched together by the Evangelical Parliamentary Front along with private sectors of the economy. Thus, Jair Messias Bolsonaro, an unknown Rio de Janeiro deputy, has been taken on as a possible messiah: someone to incorporate the Sebastianist idea and save the country from the threat against the traditional nuclear family, restore order in politics, stand up against corruption, and elevate the country to levels of economic development similar to those of neoliberal countries, opening the country up for the exploration of international economic groups, and making the Amazon rainforest available for development.

Bolsonaro’s way of talking was identified as morality-based by conservatives and the religious alike. The austere personality suggested by his military past also triggered elements of the national imagination, even though the military dictatorship is still a recent memory in Brazil, and led to disrespect for human rights, with torture, arrests, disappearances and death for those who opposed it. A sense of nostalgia for things that had not in fact happened in the country has taken over a good part of the population with the idea becoming established that ‘during the military era life was good’. This motto was echoed by Bolsonaro’s followers on issues ranging from the current violence and corruption in the country to the idea that family and traditional values were respected during this period.

The past, then, was distorted by those who, like the former captain and deputy, began to admire the torturers of the military regime, like the most famous of them all, Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, invoked by Bolsonaro at the moment of the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff (who was herself tortured by that colonel during the military dictatorship) and honoured by him in several other situations. The military coup of 1964 that started the Military Dictatorship in Brazil has been denied by politicians and given a new interpretation, softening it and classifying it as just a ‘military movement’. This was, for example, what the president of the Federal Supreme Court (STF), Dias Tóffoli, said on the eve of the 2018 presidential elections.

Jair Bolsonaro, ‘the Legend’, as he has been called by his followers, built his electoral campaign with statements against the rights of minorities, while gesturing positively towards traditional Christian (specifically Evangelical) values as a way of restoring ‘order’ in the country.

Bolsonaro’s election campaign was also characterized as attacking the No-Party School movement (through a bill created by Evangelical conservative political leaders, including Bolsonaro and his sons) calling it ‘ideological indoctrination’, with schools and teachers accused of attempting indoctrination with communist ideology. In addition, many schools and teachers were accused of using material allegedly distributed by the Ministry of Education and Culture and developed under the management of Fernando Haddad as Minister, said to be aimed at the sexualization of children and the adoption of what has been called ‘gender ideology’ which would aim to turn children into homosexuals, transgenders or transsexuals. The alleged material was called the ‘Gay Kit’. In the final stretch of the electoral campaign for the presidency of the republic, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (STF) checked this information and clarified that it was false, and that such material had never existed. Despite this, the Bolsonaro campaign continued to use this false information without any punishment. Both the question of supposed ideological indoctrination and the Gay Kit were held up by Evangelicals as an affront to their values. In this way conservatives, Catholics and Evangelicals from all sides joined forces against Fernando Haddad, the PT candidate for the presidency, and acclaimed Bolsonaro as the salvation of the children, the family and the country.

The image of the messiah was strengthened during the 2018 presidential campaign. More accusations of corruption by Lula and members of the PT, the fruit of award-winning investigations, were made in the press by the then federal judge, Sergio Moro, in charge of Operation Carwash, a Federal Police operation that began in 2014 and sought to investigate and prosecute crimes of corruption, especially money laundering, committed by politicians.

On the basis of this moralistic discourse, the campaign also attacked the artistic class, much of which was against Bolsonaro’s ultra-conservative ideas. Bolsonaro’s followers then stood head-on against the Brazilian artists opposed to the ex-captain’s election, and Rede Globo, the largest and most prestigious television station in Brazil, was denounced as the propagator of evil and immorality, destroying the family and traditional values. At that time, TV Record, the media group belonging to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, appeared as a supporter of Jair Bolsonaro, offering the then presidential candidate space for exclusive interviews. According to Brazilian newspapers, members of the Bolsonaro presidential campaign sought to cooperate with TV Record with the aim of making it a Brazilian Fox News. Since 2015 TV Record has been the second-largest broadcaster in the country and has attracted TV viewers away from TV Globo. TV Record does not only broadcast programs with religious and ecclesiastical content, but offers a reasonably large range of other material, including variety programmes, investigative journalism, features, soap operas and news.

Edir Macedo’s statement that he would vote for Jair Messias Bolsonaro in the first and second rounds of the 2018 presidential election was a major boost to the candidate’s victory. Data from the last census in 2010, as the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) pointed out, showed that Evangelicals jumped from 5.2% of the population in the period from 1970 to 2010, to 22.2%, with a corresponding decline of Catholics by more than 22%. Therefore, Evangelicals, notably Pentecostals and Neo-Pentecostals, the fastest growing strand among them, have come to be seen by politicians and aspirants as an important segment of the population who can leverage political candidacies and bring them to victory.

In 2014, Dilma Rousseff (PT) had the support of Edir Macedo in her presidential campaign and her relatively small margin of votes over her opponent may be linked to this support. Bolsonaro (PSL) was also supported by Pastor Silas Malafaia, leader of one of the member organizations (the Victory in Christ Ministry) of the Assemblies of God, and vice-president of the Interdenominational Council of Evangelical Ministers of Brazil (CIMEB), an organization that brings together approximately 8,000 pastors of various Brazilian Evangelical denominations. Malafaia is well known in the political arena and for his emphatic statements in the media against the rights of the LGBT community and against abortion. Based on Prosperity Theology, Silas Malafaia has supported right-wing political candidates in municipalities and state governments and the presidency. In 2014, he positioned himself directly against the candidacy of Dilma Rousseff, supporting the candidate Aécio Neves (PSDB). With great wealth compared with the usual income of a pastor, Malafaia, who is also a lecturer and has presented a television program called ‘Victory in Christ’ for more than 29 years, has no inhibitions about calling journalists, politicians and public figures ‘bums’ or ‘idiots’ or using other terms to disqualify those who oppose his ideas and statements. He also strongly declared his support for Jair Bolsonaro, justifying this by saying that the candidate was the only one who directly defended ‘right-wing ideology’ and that he embodied ‘the dearest values’ of the Brazilian people ‘in the matter of our customs’. The pastor said he would use his social networks (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, as well as a YouTube channel with 30 million views) to leverage Bolsonaro’s candidacy among Evangelicals, of whom he prophesied that 80 percent would vote for him. The Assemblies of God in Brazil have about 22.5 million members and the churches have spread not only in the major cities, but to small and medium cities in every corner of the country.

With the slogan ‘Brazil above all else, God above all’, Bolsonaro’s campaign gathered around him the Evangelical group that accompanied him through statements in the media and was represented by his leadership, especially by the figure of the then senator Magno Malta (PR), pastor and Evangelical singer. Malta was a central figure in the Bolsonaro campaign, especially after the candidate was stabbed at a rally. In the various appearances of Bolsonaro in the hospital after the stabbing, on television and over the internet, the Evangelical senator was ever-present, blessing the candidate and making public prayers, asking for the restoration of the person who, according to him, would save the country from the clutches of the left. Thus the episode of Bolsonaro’s stabbing was transformed into a religious event of a great sacrifice and the search for divine healing by someone said to be the chosen one of God himself. The appearances of the presidential candidate in a hospital bed, surrounded by his sons, also parliamentarians, and the prayers and supplications conducted by Malta not only caused great excitement among a large part of the Brazilian population but also adapted the sacred space of a church, more particularly one of the Evangelical type, to a hospital room that entered the private life of Brazilian homes through TV screens, computers and cell phones. The ‘Legend’ was becoming a martyr. Not even the image of Bolsonaro in bed making his trademark gesture, that is, pointing with both hands like a rifle, was able to stain his image as the divine chosen one. On the contrary, it strengthened the idea of a ‘warrior’, clothed with divine power to fight the evils of Brazil, identified as corruption (read the corruption of PT) and values contrary to the traditional family and ‘good manners’.

Malta, a candidate for senator, was not re-elected and did not take office in the Bolsonaro administration, but indicated his adviser, Pastor Damares Alves, for the future Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights. She follows the same line regarding the attacks on the left and progressive guidelines and aims to make Brazil an explicitly Christian country, disregarding the principle of secularism and religious diversity. As he said farewell to the National Congress, Magno Malta made a statement in parliament saying that he would cross the country again if he needed to support Bolsonaro and sees him as a man sensitive to spiritual things (!). He also stated that many people had asked him why he wasn’t standing as a presidential candidate and his answer was that it is Bolsonaro who was chosen by God for that mission. He added: ‘The devil does not set up authority. The only one who raises authority is God. I set about my mission to break down the ideological bias. Brazil needs a patriotic man who has God in his heart, willing to face violence, protect the schools and the children, and, above all, to love Israel.’

This speech from Malta sums up, in a way, the messianism that Bolsonaro’s trajectory has acquired and how the figure of a political and religious hero was built into the speech at the same time. Although the ex-captain’s statements are somewhat distant from the teachings of Christ toward the poor and marginalized, or toward the moralists represented by the lawyers and the priests of the Temple, Bolsonaro has been seen as God’s watchman in the sense of using ’weapons’ to defend those who were framed as innocent and good people, declaring that ‘a good bandit is a dead bandit.’ The dichotomy between the citizens of evil and the citizens of good has been understood in the speech of Bolsonaro as what would ‘separate the wheat from the chaff.’ Therefore, the deputy assumed not only the role of divine envoy, but also that of the one who could judge and ‘clean’ the Brazilian land of violence and of all those who might want to destroy the traditional values represented by the nuclear family, thought to be sacred. Thus, there was no inconsistency seen by Bolsonaro’s followers in relation to his military style of discourse, even literally, advocating the flexibilization of the use of firearms and making it easier to possess them.

The idea of ‘love for Israel’ in Malta’s speech, also frequently mentioned by Bolsonaro, is also striking. It is an allusion to a rather strong and prominent notion in the Evangelical world that Israel is the Promised Land and as such must be respected and loved. It is as if time had been stopped and Israel was still in the time of the Old Testament. It is therefore significant that Bolsonaro promises that he will move the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, declaring that he does not recognize the Palestinian State as a country. For many Evangelical denominations, when Israel obtains all these territories and wins the war with the Palestinians, then the second coming of Jesus Christ will be near and peace will be established. This belief is not shared with the Jews and is not part of the collective imagery of the Israelis; but that does not matter to those Evangelicals who see themselves as the spiritual descendants of the people of Israel.

As it could hardly be different, private property is strongly present in the protection, defence and security package. Jair Bolsonaro also had the support of the ‘ruralist’ farm lobby’s parliamentary group. It was no accident that he expressed his criticisms of the descendants of slaves living in quilombola slums, also saying that there is too much land for indigenous people and that he would not demarcate even one more centimetre of land for them. The deputy presidential candidate on the Bolsonaro ticket, General Mourão, stated at an event in his campaign that the country was in a political, economic and psycho-social crisis and that Brazil has ‘a certain inheritance of indolence, which comes from the indigenous culture. And I’m an Indian, my father was an Amazonian. And the malandragem (petty criminality) comes from the Africans. So that’s our cultural crucible’. Shortly after his inauguration as president, Bolsonaro passed FUNAI’s assignment of indigenous demarcation to the Ministry of Agriculture, placing indigenous lands in jeopardy and sending positive signals to the farm lobby.

Wrapped in elements of a supposed ultranationalism, the Bolsonarist discourse was spread through social networks, especially through Whatsapp messages. There were messages accusing the electoral opponent, Fernando Haddad, of having developed, at the time that he was Minister of Education, material distributed in the schools that would give children an incentive to homosexuality (the so-called Gay Kit) and pornography: massively transmitted by Whatsapp, these messages reverberated with religious groups in particular, especially Evangelicals, who openly condemn homosexuality as a deviation from divine creation and think of sexuality as the human dimension most attacked by evil spirits. Still, religious messages such as one that claimed Lula made animal sacrifices to devils in order to try to have Haddad elected were widely passed through chains of members of Evangelical and Catholic denominations alike.

The image of Bolsonaro became the representation of austerity and of morality, but more than that, it was middle class Brazilians, above all, who identified with his everyday life ‘legend’. It is a myth of ‘ordinariness,’ so that Bolsonaro represents the common man, without any brilliance. So he is familiar. This familiarity was extolled as the idea that a ‘common man’ could assume power, without doing anything extraordinary, and that, unlike the academic intelligentsia, scholars of social phenomena, international human rights bodies –  and in contradiction to history itself and the memory of the country – he had been selected by God, perhaps for his own insignificance in political terms and for his more than politically incorrect ideas – with which most people identify.

We can recall the words of Jair Bolsonaro on the day of his inauguration as President of the Republic of Brazil: ‘It is with humility and honor that I address you all as President of Brazil and stand before the whole nation on this day as a day when the people began to liberate themselves from socialism, to free themselves from the inversion of values, from state gigantism and from political correctness.’ His ordinary way of talking, but with words that are meaningful from the point of view of conservatives – words like ‘nation’, ‘values’, ‘socialism’, ‘liberate’, trigger the social imagination and create a feeling that everything will return to being as it was before, a ‘before’ anchored in a nostalgia for something that never existed in the country, meaning full development and changes in the social structure of the population that allowed greater mobility and social justice and unrestricted access to citizenship.

In fact, advances in Brazil regarding minority rights and the denial of racist and prejudiced discourses have led to a forced silence on the part of many Brazilians who swallow their prejudiced words, racist jokes, xenophobia and class and gender prejudice, but the desire to say these things out loud was not erased because these and many other prejudices have remained. Brazil is a racist and classist country. Bolsonaro represented the uncensored possibility of freely saying whatever you think (and feel) in relation to the other, to the different, to the one who makes you uncomfortable by its difference, and to the one, whether it is an illusion or not, that threatens the privileges of the few.

All this, clothed with the aura of religiosity, was minimized and led, to a certain extent, to authorization for free expression against any agenda that smacked of progressive ideas. Consequently, the naturalization of discrimination tends to establish itself, with an expectation of submission of those who are oppressed under the idea that they should be humble, as a theology subservient to the status quo teaches. Above all, whites, men and Bolsonaro’s religious voters have found themselves liberated to say what had been suppressed, with the justification of being legitimate conservatives, a once offensive word that has been rehabilitated and made into a virtue. The content of what is said, of what one thinks and the positions that one takes has become justified by one’s honesty in saying what one is. In this way, the content, even if it is racist, classist or discriminatory, no longer matters. The word democracy was also often evoked in these elections to excuse any kind of content.

As it is a myth, and a myth clad in religiosity and political power, no matter what is said or done, the stalwart followers of Bolsonaro recognize no mistakes in his actions and declarations.

Allusions to biblical texts became frequent in the electoral campaign speeches of Jair Messias Bolsonaro. By using the Bible verse ‘And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32) in one of his presidential campaign videos, Bolsonaro set himself up as the truth itself as opposed to lying and dishonest politicians. According to him, his campaign slogan originated ‘from what many call a toolbox to repair both man and woman, which is the Holy Bible’. These phrases are familiar to Evangelicals and produce a sense that the country, despite religious pluralism and the secular state, can ultimately be governed by a ‘man of God’ and under Christian principles, more precisely as interpreted by the Evangelicals. If social inequality and social exclusion continue to plague the country, it is not something that was at the centre of the concerns in the 2018 elections. In fact, social inequality is interpreted by most Evangelical denominations as the fruit of the sin of human beings. Neopentecostals, for example, see it as something to be overcome through the strategies offered by Prosperity and Health Theology.

Has the political dimension been replaced by the religious one? The answer is no. The political dimension is not sealed off, like any other force in society. They interrelate, they feed, they hybridize. The religious dimension has never been outside the public sphere. The idea that religion is a subject of personal beliefs has already been overcome because it presupposes collective values and rights that are therefore consolidated in the sphere of the public and the collective.

Thus, the religious and the political are in dialogue, and interpenetrate. The cultural elements of religion and politics are not circumscribed respectively to the private and public sphere. They are pulverized in the public space and in private, where these borders have loosened, moved and have even been erased. As the increase in competitiveness among religious groups in Brazil has become increasingly strong with the end of Catholic hegemony and the emergence and extraordinary growth of Evangelical groups, especially Pentecostals and Neo-Pentecostals, the search for representative spaces in politics is essential to ensure not only its functioning and survival, but possible advances in relation to Evangelical proselytism and the dissemination of values and practices seen as the only correct ones.

The 2018 elections showed that the Evangelicals, who do not form a monolithic bloc, but are composed of several strands that dispute the Brazilian ‘religious market’, have united around the myth they have constructed, with the help of the conservative wing of Catholicism and of non-religious conservatives.

Religion is not confined to the heart, to the private lives of the faithful or to the churches, but it occupies the streets and political institutions. It is not possible to define what is only religious and what is only political. Brazil is a good demonstration of this.

Translated from the Portuguese by Christopher Lord


By Ana Keila Mosca Pinezi

Social scientist, teacher and researcher at the Universidade Federal do Triângulo Mineiro (UFTM) in Brasil.
She has published articles and books on religion in Brazil such as:
'Life from the perspective of Hope: a comparative ethnographic study on the notion of faith between historical and neo-Pentecostal evangelicals' and 'Transnational Religious Dynamics and Identity Processes: Socioanthropological and Multicultural Views on the Religious Phenomenon'.