News | Brazil / Paraguay - Social Theory How the Christian Right Shapes Brazilian Society

Once a fringe group, the Pentecostal movement has grown into a decisive force in the country



Delana Corazza,

Millions of Evangelical Christians demonstrate at the thiry-first March for Jesus in São Paulo, Brazil, 8 June 2023. IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

The so-called “March for Jesus”, the largest Evangelical event in Brazil, highlights one of the most significant social phenomena in Brazilian society over the past three decades: the increase in believers belonging to Evangelical churches. The implications of this rise transcend the religious domain and are leading to profound political and cultural consequences.

Delana Corazza is a researcher on Neopentecostals and Politics at the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research in Brazil.

Translated by Marty Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

Originally launched in the United Kingdom in the late 1980s, the March for Jesus has been held annually throughout Brazil since its creation in 1993 by Estevam Hernandes, leader of the Pentecostal church Renascer em Cristo (“Reborn in Christ”). Mainly attended by Pentecostals, the march addresses moral issues such as protecting the so-called “traditional family” and opposing the legalization of abortion. In 2009, then -president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party (PT) approved a law that included the march in the national calendar of official events.

Official data regarding the number of participants in the event’s latest edition, held in downtown São Paulo this past June, are controversial. Organizers claimed an attendance of 2 million people, while police placed the number at 300,000. Regardless of that discrepancy, understanding this phenomenon is essential to any political camp today.

The Power of Faith

According to Brazil’s official census bureau (IBGE), 9 percent of the population attended Pentecostal churches in 1990. By 2000, the figure had risen to 15.4 percent, while in 2010 it was 22.2 percent. The Jair Bolsonaro government did not conduct the 2020 census, but the Datafolha polling institute stated in early 2020 that Evangelicals now make up 31 percent of the population. Another very important piece of information from the same study suggests that the typical Evangelical is female, Black, and has a low income, meaning that Evangelicals are today more clearly profiled in terms of gender, race, and class.

IBGE demographer and retired professor José Eustáquio Diniz suggested in a study that Evangelicals will comprise half of the Brazilian population by 2030. It is worth emphasizing that the majority of believers do not belong to the larger religious denominations but attend small Pentecostal churches in peripheral neighbourhoods, many of which were “raised up” from one day to the next in the garages and backyards of believers throughout Brazil.

According to a study by the Centre for the Study of the Metropolis (CEM) at the University of São Paulo, 17 new Evangelical churches opened up every day in Brazil in 2019. Among many other factors, this is partly due to flexibility in training pastors. While historical Protestant denominations and other more traditional religions require their leaders to study theology for years, nothing prevents a Pentecostal believer, disgruntled with the church he attends, from starting his own church run out of his garage.

Pentecostal Evangelicals cannily absorbed the popular religiosity of religious festivals and their cathartic moments so necessary for abused, stigmatized, and oppressed bodies.

There are several interrelated keys to understanding the Evangelical phenomenon. One is the advance of neoliberalism in the 1990s, with devastating consequences for the poorest of the working class. Lacking jobs and the psychosocial support needed to deal with the poverty and violence that devastated peripheral areas as a result of the restructuring of the world of work, many people found objective and subjective responses to their pain and anguish in these small churches. Their present identification as believers is bound up with their prior identities as workers deprived of the basic essentials: shelter, food, and work. In concrete terms, the former class identity of “workers” is gradually supplanted by that of “brethren”.

Among these brothers and sisters in faith, there are numerous accounts of lives rebuilt within the church according to a daily discipline of belief. Their trajectories and environment are endowed with new meaning, both from a territorial and personal perspective. A new aesthetic of the periphery can be observed: psalms and other Biblical verses appear on the walls of homes and local shops. The small church often becomes the centre of a neighbourhood, that is to say an open arena, a place to be heard, where you can feel safe, welcome, and achieve a sense of belonging in areas otherwise marked by loss and deprivation.

Many illiterate women and men were motivated to learn to read in order to deepen their knowledge of the Bible. Believers manage to find a job through the mutual aid networks of the “church brethren”, which is very common in Brazil and is reinforced by the true cliché that circulates among the faithful to the effect that they are more docile, more submissive, do not drink nor have other vices. Young people who have completed their basic schooling but struggle to find work organize within the church to learn musical instruments, exercising their newfound abilities in weekly services. Women who work as domestic servants in wealthy neighbourhoods become preachers or leaders of worship in their churches, a transformative process by which they secure personal dignity in a country scarred by the vestiges of slavery.

A Theology of Success

The liturgy of born-again Christianity is one of bodies that express themselves spontaneously through words and music, and it unfolds beyond the institutional sphere of the church. Pentecostal Evangelicals cannily absorbed the popular religiosity of religious festivals and their cathartic moments so necessary for abused, stigmatized, and oppressed bodies. Pentecostal services are available on an almost daily basis, alongside meetings for Bible study and for specific age groups.

The stories shared in services, through the act of witnessing, forge affective and effective bonds, replacing even family ties, which continue to unravel in an individualist society. Some denominations also have cell groups “where individuals gather in the homes of believers with the purpose both of attracting newcomers to the church and of fostering new leaders. In practice, these cell groups work as a sort of small domestic church, the main objective of which is to multiply and breed new ‘cells’”.

The churches developed in the daily grind of working-class peripheral neighbourhoods, and their followers encountered in them the promise of prosperity in this life. Unlike other Christian traditions, in which salvation only takes place in the Kingdom of God, Evangelical churches came to offer the possibility of rewards on earth. This new perspective is an important factor for understanding the phenomenon, a theological tenet that provided meaning for impoverished workers with little expectation of leading a dignified life.

This theological break from tradition, termed “prosperity theology” (a term used more by academics than churchgoers themselves), can be understood as a choice to be in the world and to garner individual earthly achievements, with concrete practical consequences for the believer. The greater the faith, sacrifices, and discipline, the more blessings will be received, measured in terms of health, work, and wordly goods. Prosperity then ceases to be a mere possibility and becomes a consequence of the believer’s commitment to a divine task, the latter very clearly set forth by the Pentecostal leadership. The consequences, meanwhile, have moved beyond day-to-day existence of impoverished workers and into the arena of institutional politics.

Getting Political

Evangelicals’ changing attitudes to Brazilian politics made themselves clear from the 1980s onwards, by which time the premise that “Evangelicals do not get mixed up in politics” had lost its meaning. However, a closer relationship between conservative Evangelicals and the military dictatorship was already noticeable in the 1970s, when some Evangelical newspapers, especially those linked to the Baptist Church and the Assemblies of God (both historical and Pentecostal denominations) began to adopt a more secular tone, despite rumblings among some of the faithful.

The justification given was that society was in moral crisis, and believers had a duty to take a public stand on certain issues. There were several: from the excesses of the Brazilian Carnival to the debate on legalizing abortion in Latin America, from confronting ecumenicalism or “religious liberalism” to geopolitical relations revolving around the United States and its conflicts with the Soviet Union, Cuba, and China.

Although Evangelicals tended not to identify with his hate speech, Bolsonaro’s utterances were effective in construing a vision of the left as an anti-Christian grouping bent on destroying the family.

The phase of openly engaging with politics is summed up by the phrase “brethren vote for brethren” which came into use around the time of Brazil’s return to democracy. It is important to point out that Protestantism in Brazil historically had a strong anti-Catholic bias. Aware of the power of Catholicism in the institutional sphere, Evangelical groups laid claim to a condition of “being in the world” already secured by Catholics.

Back then, Evangelicals took an active stance in favour of the secular nature of the State, more with the aim of breaking down Catholic privileges than in the wish to empty it of religious significance. Though some progressive Protestants took part in that effort, it was mainly led by conservatives. What can be termed the new Christian Right took root at that point, and it has become a major political force in Latin America over the past decade, especially in Brazil.

None of this happened by chance. In the 1970s, Brazil was also distinguished by the spread of Liberation Theology in the peripheries. Liberation Theology is a religious movement that sprang up in Latin America among several popular organizations, made up of people of faith, in response to encroaching industrialization. In Brazil, industrialization led to the rural peasant masses being proletarianized, deepening the continent’s structural economic inequalities. Liberation Theology inaugurated the theological break with tradition that as we saw was later taken up by Pentecostals, in which it becomes possible to find happiness in this life. Liberation theologians intended, of course, that such happiness should be built collectively on the foundation of social justice.

At the same time, successive US governments, in league not only with the Protestant Right but also with conservative Catholicism as personified by pope John Paul II, were active in Latin America in sometimes bloody actions against Liberation Theology. Conservative churches throughout Latin America, many of them fundamentalist, received funding from US groups keen to see them consolidated in the region.

In the 1980s, the CIA held meetings in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to develop strategies for government actions to maintain dominion in Latin America. Their conclusions are summarized in the Santa Fe Documents, which affirm the need to educate people against the then-current transformative visions. The document argued openly and explicitly against Liberation Theology:         

Liberation Theology must be understood in that sense: it is a political doctrine disguised as religious belief, characterized by a stance of opposition to the pope and to free enterprise, with the objective of weakening the independence of society in the face of control by the state. … Thus, we see that the innovation of Marxist doctrine slots into a long-term cultural and religious phenomenon.

Boosting Bolsonaro

We have yet to find a document proving that the CIA orchestrated a power play against Liberation Theology on Brazilian territory. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that the discourses of the conservative Christian Right in the US, primarily in the 1970s and 1980s, are repeated in current Brazilian context.

In the US, the Christian Right managed to gain organizational structure fighting against feminism and gay rights — defending the “traditional” family, composed of a man and a woman united in the purpose of procreation — and it played an important role in Ronald Reagan’s re-election. Brazilian neo-conservatism has followed a similar pattern, culminating in the election of Bolsonaro.

Brazil’s former president won election with a record that was questionable, to say the least, in terms of qualifying him for the highest office of the land. In his political career as a congressman, he managed to pass two pieces of legislation in 27 years. His campaign was marked by racist, chauvinistic, and homophobic statements that nonetheless won over 55 percent of the Brazilian electorate in the second round. Despite declarations like “I am in favour of torture” and “she does not deserve (to be raped) because she is too ugly, not my type, I would never rape her”, among other absurd statements so wholly opposed to the teachings of Jesus Christ, one group stood out prominently in its support: 70 percent of the Evangelical vote went to Jair Bolsonaro in 2018.

It is no coincidence that the former president spent his entire term in direct contact with Evangelical leaders, attending services and major church events.

Throughout his long and mediocre political career, Bolsonaro displayed little interest in moral issues relating to Christian or family values. His discourse moved towards the Christian Right when he began to move among Evangelicals during the first Dilma Rousseff administration (2011–2014). Although avowedly Catholic, he allowed himself to be baptized in the River Jordan, in Israel, by a pastor. Moral issues then became a fundamental part of his political discourse. His ties to the Evangelical voter base were solidified by statements defending the heterosexual family and against any dialogue on issues of gender and sexuality, particularly with regard to abortion. His positions were spun as fake news items such as that “schools are going to teach your kids to be gay”.

Although Evangelicals tended not to identify with his hate speech, Bolsonaro’s utterances were effective in construing a vision of the left as an anti-Christian grouping bent on destroying the family. Family was the one thing many believers had struggled to rebuild within their churches. The family is the central tenet in public policies of the Christian Right throughout Latin America, and Bolsonaro embraced it. He made contact with the Christian worldview that sees the nuclear family as the foundation of society.

Expanding Influence

There is another relevant aspect, worthy of note. In Brazil, it was the Calvinists — historical Protestants — who profoundly shaped the fundamentalist discourses within the Bolsonaro government, especially with regard to issues of gender, sexuality, and religious intolerance. They filled key cabinet positions such as the Ministry of Justice (Pastor André Mendonça) and Ministry of Education (Pastor Milton Ribeiro). Pastor Damares Alves, the first Minister for Women, Family and Human Rights and a popular figure among Evangelicals, is also from a historical denomination, the Baptist Church. Alves has her own experiences of oppression and gender violence, yet she is staunchly opposed to gender equality and sexual liberation, and has played an international role in anti-abortion movements.

Other important cabinet positions, especially in culture and education, were handed over to figures from historical Protestant denominations. The Christian Right thus consists not only of Pentecostals, but of various denominations that have pushed back effectively against liberal or liberating theologies that have been so central in popular struggles in Brazilian history.

Brazil’s Evangelical members of congress, for their part, are majority Pentecostal, drawn primarily from the Assembly of God. They tend to act on a pragmatic basis, meaning they will support a left-wing government if needed in order to maintain their positions, but are more comfortable supporting a right-wing one because of agreement on moral issues. Until 2014, there was a certain rapprochement between Evangelicals and PT administrations, though the relationship was visibly strained by issues of gender equality.

Any political camp today that ignores the strength of Evangelicals fails to understand an organized segment of society that is gaining increasing sway over the working classes and the institutional political arena.

Thanks to American influence, anti-state discourses — heavily linked to the Christian Right in the US, where any extension of state influence is seen as a communist agenda — helped shape Evangelical positions in the Brazilian congress. While communism or what they call communism — again due to US influence — is “demonized” by institutional Evangelicals, Israel is considered the Promised Land chosen by God and the foreign ally of choice, which explains the prominence of Israeli flags in the March for Jesus.

It is worth underscoring that the anti-state agenda derives from the Evangelical leadership. Rank-and-file Evangelicals follow in ideological lockstep, repeating the information they are continually bombarded with, such as the idea that “the state is corrupt”, which is reinforced by widespread public opinion. The doctrine of the minimal state is not easily absorbed by working-class born-again Christians. Black and impoverished, the Evangelical base depends on the state, even if it is wary of the public service machinery.

Bolsonaro’s ties to Evangelicals were decisive for his victory in the 2018 elections. It is no coincidence that the former president spent his entire term in direct contact with Evangelical leaders, attending services and major church events. The majority of Evangelicals voted for Bolsonaro against Lula at the last election. Bolsonaro was the first president to attend the March for Jesus, where he declared: “You were decisive in changing the destiny of this homeland called Brazil”.

In the highly polarized scenario of 2018, the March also adopted a more overtly political tone, incorporating symbols of the conservative camp (such as the Brazilian flag or the yellow jersey of the national football team). Bolsonaro attended the march twice, establishing a precedent for the current Lula administration. Lula, who never made excuses for his absence over the eight years of his two prior terms of government (2003–2010), this year sent a letter to Estevam Hernandes in which he stated: “I have always admired and respected the March for Jesus, which I consider one of the most extraordinary expressions of the faith of our people.”

Despite the absence of Lula, the government was represented by congresswoman Benedita da Silva and federal attorney general Jorge Messias. During his speech, Messias referred to the president (albeit not by name) and was met with a slight boo from the assembled crowd.

Strength in Numbers

Bolsonaro did not attend this year, just as he has not attended any Evangelical event since the 2022 election. Representing the Bolsonaro camp were André Mendonça, his former Minister of Justice and current Supreme Court justice — described by the former president as “terribly Evangelical” when he nominated him for the bench — and Tarcísio de Freitas, the current governor of São Paulo. Both were applauded. Sorely missed were Bolsonaro’s spouse, the Evangelical Michelle Bolsonaro, as well as former minister and current senator Damares Alves. Both are tasked with winning over the female Evangelical vote for the far right, since Bolsonaro underperformed among Evangelical women in the last presidential election.

The size of the march points to the perception Evangelicals have of themselves: we are many and we want to be heard. They are many — in point of fact, millions — and, for that very reason, they are diverse, heterogeneous. While they occupy the institutional arena in conservative stripes, they can also be progressive at times. They are a significant part of the working class and their politics are subject to debate. They are not simply a monolithic bloc of fundamentalists and conservatives. They are an ocean of people, engulfed in daily contradictions between what they live and what they stand for.

It seems imperative to consider religion as a mobilizing force among the Brazilian people. Lula’s decision not to attend the March for Jesus at a critical moment for opening up dialogue suggests a cavalier attitude towards Evangelicals. In their vast majority, they have built up a brick wall against the progressive agenda and developed an anti-leftist discourse. Being present at or absent from the largest gathering of Evangelical churches in Brazil conveys an important message. Any political camp today that ignores the strength of Evangelicals fails to understand an organized segment of society that is gaining increasing sway over the working classes and the institutional political arena. Their strength is in numbers, but not only.