Amid Crisis in Brazil, Evangelicals Emerge as the Main Conservative Power

In the world’s largest Catholic country, the evangelical movement could select Brazil’s next president.

Introduction. The American Left is keeping an eye on the increasing influence of conservative evangelicals in Brazil. “The Nation,” the oldest continuously published weekly magazine in the United States since 1865, produced this month a special article, titled “Amid Crisis in Brazil, the Evangelical Bloc Emerges as a Political Power,” about the political power of evangelicals in Brazil.

It is very important to see what “The Nation” is saying, not only because it is the oldest magazine in the U.S., but also because it is progressive and left-wing and it is worried about the Brazilian evangelical influence. If the American Left, which is the most powerful Left in the world, is worried about evangelicals in Brazil, it is an excellent sign for Brazilian evangelicals.

The following article, even though edited, corrected, adapted and “conservatized” by my view as a Brazilian evangelical insider, is largely based on the article of “The Nation”:

Although Brazil remains the world’s largest Roman Catholic country, in recent decades a massive growth among evangelicals has challenged Catholic hegemony. In 1970, the percentage of Brazilian Catholics stood at 90 percent; today, it barely clears 50 percent. During that same time span, the percentage of evangelicals has risen from 5 percent to roughly 30 percent, thanks to the aggressive evangelistic outreach efforts by Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal (charismatic) churches. Across the country, evangelical leaders are struggling to keep up with the growth of their flock. Abandoned shopping centers, X-rated theaters, and strip clubs have all become unlikely places of worship.

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Such a radical transformation in Brazil’s religious landscape has given rise to discussions about the emergence of a “Brazilian Christian right” — a movement similar to the American Christian right in its ability to reshape politics. Evangelical leaders already played a crucial role in former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s ouster, and their influence appears set to increase for years to come. It was Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of the Brazilian Congress) and one of Brazil’s most prominent evangelicals, who led the drive to impeach Rousseff for moving funds from several state accounts to conceal a budget deficit in the run up to the 2014 elections.

Although this was a violation of the law, the two previous presidents resorted to the same sort of budgetary tinkering without any consequences. “Cunha staged a constitutional coup,” according to Paulo Iotti, a constitutional expert at the Group of Lawyers for Sexual and Gender Diversity, a São Paulo–based homosexualist NGO. But in a fatality of destiny, Cunha himself was found guilty of corruption, money laundering, and illegally sending money abroad.

In March, a judge sentenced him to 15 years in prison, one of the stiffest sentences ever given to a public official in Brazil. Rousseff and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who have been embroiled in bigger scandals and corruption, have never been sent to prison. They have been completely free. Cunha was the first major casualty of “Operation Car Wash,” an anti-corruption dragnet that has so far ensnared some 60 percent of Brazil’s Congress as well as President Temer.

Cunha should be a cautionary tale for anyone harboring the illusion that the political rise of evangelicals will fix the ills of Brazilian politics. Corruption in Brazil is endemic since its discovery 500 years ago. It is a historic evil thought incurable. The Brazilian government has fully inherited the Portuguese system of pillage on Brazilians. The Catholic Portuguese crown was notorious for looting Brazil and its riches, especially through abusive taxes, and Brazilians are historically known for evading such government pillage.

The expansion of Protestant evangelism didn’t happen overnight. Protestants first landed in Brazil in the 19th century, with the establishment by European immigrants of mainline Protestant denominations, like the Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Anglicans. Classic Pentecostal churches, such as the Assemblies of God, soon followed. A second wave of Protestants arrived in the 1940s with the advent of the Foursquare Gospel Church, imported from California by preachers Harold and Mary Williams. From its base in São Paulo, Foursquare quickly became one of the fastest growing churches in Brazil. Key to their appeal was revival events inspired by the evangelical campaigns of Billy Graham. Reminiscing about the early days of his evangelism in Brazil, Harold Williams noted that while attending a Graham crusade it dawned on him that “Brazilians love circuses. I think they would be drawn to a circus tent for a revival.”

A third and final wave came in late 1970s and 1980s with the rise of the neo-Pentecostal movement, including many evangelical fellowships (comunidades evangélicas). U.S. televangelist Rex Humbard, whose TV programs were broadcast in Brazil since 1975, is thought to have had a decisive role in general evangelism and expansion of the neo-Pentecostal movement in Brazil. “The 700 Club,” presented by Rev. Pat Robertson, who prayed in the Brazilian TV with his gift of revelation, was also a powerful inspiration.

Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), founded by Bishop Edir Macedo in 1977, is an exceptional case, because it embraces practices rejected by all the other neo-Pentecostal churches. UCKG founder openly supports abortion and his denomination rejects prophecies and revelations as “demonic,” teaching that God only speaks through the Bible and nothing else. UCKG, whose founder lives in the United States, adhered to a pro-abortion and cessationist stance very common in the PCUSA, the largest Presbyterian denomination in the U.S.

Just as PCUSA supported left-wing Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, UCKG supported left-wing Lula and Rousseff in Brazil.

There is no shortage of explanations for why Protestant evangelism is thriving. The polling data suggest “a more personal connection with God,” a more active worshiping experience, and a church with a greater emphasis on moral values. Another school of thought emphasizes the more democratic structures of Protestant churches relative to those of the Catholic Church.

Like the rise of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the early 1980s, which ushered in the emergence of the American Christian right, Brazilian evangelical leaders have entered the political fray motivated by a sense of moral outrage. These leaders point to the moral decay that has taken place in Brazil under Lula and Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT). They condemn the rise in secularism; the advent of gay “marriage,” imposed by the Federal Supreme Court in 2011; the growing acceptance of abortion, although illegal; and the ubiquity of pornography. Their preferred venue for decrying Brazil’s descent into sin is the March for Jesus, an annual gathering that draws hundreds of thousands to downtown São Paulo. Held just ahead of São Paulo’s famed gay pride parade, the event showcases an evangelical agenda dominated by opposition to the gay agenda and abortion.

In constructing their advocacy against moral decline, Brazilian evangelicals take their cues directly from the American evangelical conservatism, a process facilitated by the many transnational ties linking the American and Brazilian evangelical communities. By the late 1980s, according to The New York Times, there were already 2,800 Protestant missionaries from the US in Brazil, and “dozens” of different US-based churches and missions. California-based Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN), the world’s largest religious broadcaster, reaches 220 Brazilian cities in 23 Brazilian states, covering 45 million people.

With American influence, the Brazilian branch of Bethany House Publishers published in 1998 for the first time in Brazil a book addressing the challenges of the homosexual militancy. Titled “O Movimento Homossexual” (The Homosexual Movement), the pioneering book, written by Julio Severo, was based on U.S. homosexualist actions that could be copied in Brazil — and eventually they were actually copied.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

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