Brazilian presidential candidates woo evangelical vote

Four years ago, 70% of evangelical Protestant Brazilians voted for President Jair Bolsonaro. But according to recent polls, their support has changed. As his election campaign to reclaim Brazil is in full swing, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is eagerly courting this electoral bloc, which is one of the biggest prizes in Brazilian politics and could determine the winner of the next election.

In Rio de Janeiro’s bustling Floriano Square in the city center, locals throng to the sound of street vendors and passing trams. In this bustling environment, the Worldwide Church of the Kingdom of God could almost go unnoticed. However, about fifty people passed through its doors to gather at lunchtime. Most are women, some still wearing their work uniforms and some seeming to go into a trance. “Get rid of vice, invoke God”, breathes the pastor, microphone in hand, in a resounding speech that resonates up to the roof.

Three months before the elections in Brazil, most of the faithful are agitated when the question of political interference in the Church – and vice versa – is raised. “There is no place for politics inside the church. Only Jesus counts here,” insists a woman in her forties who came to worship.

However, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of Christ, founded in 1977, is closely linked to the Brazilian Republican Party (PRB). In 2020, two of Bolsonaro’s sons, Flavio (senator) and Carlos (municipal councilor in Rio), as well as his ex-wife Rogéria Braga, joined the party.

“Talking about politics during worship does not bother me. If the pastor raises campaign issues, I think that’s fine,” said Thiago, a 36-year-old mechanic who was leaving the church. Like 70% of evangelicals at the time, Thiago voted for the current president in 2018. He plans to vote the same way in October. “Here I find a discussion about family, something that I also like about Bolsonaro,” he says.

The conservative evangelical electorate played a decisive role in winning Bolsonaro the presidency, even though the president declares himself a Catholic. Some famous evangelical pastors have even turned him into a “messiah” figure.

“Jair Bolsonaro used a very strong religious rhetoric built around evangelical ideas”, explains Magali Cunha, researcher at the Institute of Religious Studies (ISER). “He created an image. He was baptized by an evangelical pastor in Israel and his own wife is an evangelical. He also forged ties with the most important church leaders in the country.

“There is no evangelical vote”

Since Bolsonaro’s election, public opinion has come to associate evangelicals with the far right and conservative values. For Cunha, it is important to remember that this community does not form a single homogeneous block but embraces multiple and contradictory realities. “The evangelical vote does not exist. It’s a myth. Evangelicals voted for Lula and [former president] Dilma Rousseff for years because they recognized themselves in their proposals. Now part of them continue to be loyal to Bolsonaro but this has decreased significantly.

Just a 10-minute walk from Piazza Floriano on Rua Carioca, black railings completely hide the entrance to the Brazilian Baptist Church between music shops. Inside, the decor is basic. The few dozen plastic chairs are empty on this Friday morning in Rio. Pastor Marco Davi de Oliveira is an imposing figure even with a broad smile on his face. His church wants to be progressive. It welcomes worshipers of all social origins and all sexual orientations every Sunday. About 80% of church members are black.

“We need to redefine the word ‘evangelical’, which has become pejorative in Brazil,” he says. “Here, we are evangelical but we also fight for justice, equality and inclusion. It is also to be evangelical.

An erosion of support for Bolsonaro

Four years later, evangelical support for the far-right president is collapsing. According to a Datafolha poll published in June, only 36% of evangelicals intend to vote for him again this year.

The context of this campaign is different, says Cunha. “In 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was an unknown. Now Brazilians know who he is. Religious leaders loyal to him will not be able to convince voters with the same ease.

Bolsonaro’s tenure has angered and disappointed part of the evangelical community, according to the researcher.

“Evangelicals in Brazil are mostly poor black women living in marginalized neighborhoods in big cities. These are the people who have suffered the most from this government. People are suffering from inflation, hunger, unemployment. Most have lost many loved ones to the pandemic. Covid-19 has killed more than 675,000 people in Brazil, the second highest death rate in the world after the United States.

The liberal pastor de Oliveira said a change in voting intentions is not “the consequence of great work by the left, but the consequence of people’s hunger”.

Rampant inflation and the economic crisis remain challenges for Bolsonaro’s government, affecting tens of millions of Brazilians. Some 33 million people face hunger and more than half of the population, or 125 million, live in a state of food insecurity. Brazil has appeared on the UN’s “hunger map” again in 2020, having successfully tackled widespread food insecurity under Rousseff’s Workers’ Party government.

The left watches the evangelical vote

Lula, currently leading the polls, is trying to win back the electorate by all means. The leader of the Workers’ Party notably organized several meetings with influential pastors such as Paulo Marcelo Schallenberger of the Church of the Assembly of God. By choosing Geraldo Alckmin, a moderate right-wing Catholic who has good relations with conservatives and evangelicals, as his running mate, Lula is making inroads in this community.

It avoids controversial topics like abortion and instead focuses on economic issues like inflation and unemployment. The Workers’ Party even had a short-lived podcast aimed at appealing to evangelical voters (the project was scrapped due to disagreements within the party).

Lula successfully wooed evangelical voters in his two winning campaigns in 2002 and 2006, as did Rousseff in 2010 and 2014. However, winning over other evangelicals is not inevitable, according to de Oliveira.

“For a long time, the mistake of the left was to think that evangelicals represented nothing,” he says.

Three months before the election, evangelicals are courted by political parties of all persuasions. The community represents 30% of the electorate and has taken root throughout the country. “When Lula and Bolsonaro talk to evangelicals, they know they’re talking to all of Brazil,” Cunha says.

Pastor de Oliveira is convinced that this electoral bloc will be decisive. “Whoever succeeds in defeating the evangelicals will win this election,” he says.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

Barry F. Howard