Jair Bolsonaro — the newly-elected, far-right President of Brazil — has dispensed with the nation’s Catholic roots in favour of hard-line, protestant Evangelicalism. While this is a welcome development for religious conservatives and anti-progressives, it will have drastic consequences on Brazil’s LGBT and black communities, the protection of women’s rights, and the status of oppressed minorities.
Brazil’s religious landscape has been dominated by leftist Catholic leaders for decades. The mid-twentieth century Liberation Theology movement pioneered a civic form of Catholicism that connected Christian theology with political liberation of the poor. Liberation Theologians argued that the Bible advocates ‘preferential treatment’ of the most vulnerable in society, ritualised through the life of Christ. Under this mantra, ‘sinful’ socioeconomic structures had to be reorganised and dismantled: this was the philosophical legacy guiding the presidencies of Lula Da Silva, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the long list of predecessors dating back to the 1950s.
Before economic crisis struck Brazil in 2016 and disgraced president Lula was arrested on corruption charges, his policy reflected the principal tenets of left-wing Liberation Theology. Most famously, between 2003 and 2013, 50 million people benefited from his cash transfer scheme Bolsa Familia, which provided 12 million poverty-stricken families small amounts of money weekly ($12) and drastically improved the nation’s poverty rate. Smallholder farmers were also supported with seeds and credit lines, helping reduce national hunger.
However, his downfall and unprecedented imprisonment helped deal a deathblow to the ideology of leftist civic Catholicism. His nominated successor, Fernando Haddad, received only 45 per cent of democratic votes in contrast to Bolsonaro’s 55 per cent in the most recent election — a clear sign that the Brazilian people are now struggling to trust self-proclaimed, left-wing Catholics who seemingly lead corrupt lifestyles behind closed doors. Lula’s imprisonment did not just leave a political void for Bolsonaro to fill, but also vacated the space for an emerging — and rapidly growing — community of protestant Evangelicals, who now make up 29 per cent of Brazil’s population. Bolsonaro is a Catholic only in name and is perceived by many Evangelicals to be the solution Brazil needs by offering a way out of the kind of leftist Catholicism that Lula represents. But, of course, Evangelicalism has its own problems — perhaps even worse than the ones it has replaced.
While the Catholic Church is associated with corruption, excess, scandal, abuse and political interventionism in Brazil, Bolsonaro and his Evangelical following exemplify a sacrificial spirituality based on traditional views of the family, sexuality and the economy. When Pope Francis openly supported Lula during his anti-corruption trial, Bolsonaro came forward as the nation’s incorruptible saviour. He has proposed to introduce free-market capitalism into Brazil as a way of allowing providence, rather than hierarchies, to dictate the national economy, promising to privatise key industries and lobby for the middle class — not just the poor. He has vowed to overturn abortion legalisation, clamp down on LGBT education in schools and kill all criminals. His straight-talking bluntness is now offering the Brazilian people something the Catholic Church never has — transparency and, most importantly, national, political sovereignty that isn’t bound to the Pope’s global agenda. Crowds have been going wild at his slogan, ‘Brazil above everything, God above all.’
The political fallout of this dramatic swing to protestant Evangelicalism will of course be borne by those who are most vulnerable in Brazilian society. These are the individuals who have most to fear by Bolsonaro’s claims that the military dictatorship of 1964-85 was an admirable pursuit and that torture is a ‘favourable’ approach when tidying up society. Members of Brazil’s black youth implicated in drug or gang-related violence are likely to be the main victims of his criminal clampdown, while women’s and gay rights are set to be drowned under a barrage of homophobic and anti-abortion rhetoric, as well as a dismissal of domestic violence as a serious concern.
If Trump’s track record is anything to go by, and its use as a yardstick is apt given Bolsonaro’s determination to be the ‘Trump of the Tropics’, it’s likely that marginalised groups in Brazil will see a substantial depreciation of their human rights in the coming year under the auspice of strict, and nationalised, religious conservatism. Although leftist Catholicism clearly had its own problems, it’s by no means guaranteed that a swing towards right-wing Evangelicalism will solve any of the social issues Brazil is currently facing. It’s probably going to make them worse.