Presidential elections divide Brazil’s evangelicals while Afro-Brazilians enter political fray

In the race between current President Jair Bolsonaro and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil’s elections, evangelicals are finding themselves sharply divided on the candidates, even as Afro-Brazilian religions are finding a new voice in the political process. Writing in Christianity Today magazine (September), Marcos Simas and Carlos Fernandes report that while about 70 percent of evangelicals voted for Bolsonaro in the last election, there is now a much closer split, with 39 percent showing a preference for the incumbent and 36 percent going for Lula (who was released from prison in 2019, with corruption convictions annulled last year). Observers say that this time economic concerns may carry just as much or even more weight than religious and ideological ones. Such factors as Covid, inflation (exceeding 11 percent), and unemployment (at 10 percent) may drive Bolsonaro’s poorer supporters to seek an alternative, Simas and Fernandes write. There is also growing diversity among the country’s large evangelical population: 196 deputies and seven senators belong to the Evangelical Parliamentary Front, but these politicians are spread across 19 different political parties. About a quarter of them belong to Bolsonaro’s right wing Liberal Party, drawn to its social conservatism (being pro-life and for defense of religious freedom and the traditional family). But even a segment of Bolsonaro’s supporters diverge from him on some issues, such as environmentalism.

Bolsonaro has received more endorsements and support from pulpits this time around, write Simas and Fernandes. This may be because he has cultivated closer ties with Pentecostal leaders, participating in the nation’s March for Jesus rally. He also followed through on his promise to appoint an evangelical to the Supreme Court. But other evangelical critics have charged that fellow clergy and laypeople have become too close to Bolsonaro, demonstrated in recent incidents of evangelicals being caught up in corruption and influence peddling scandals. But it remains to be seen if Lula can take advantage of this dissatisfaction with the president; he has defended the decriminalization of abortion in Brazil as well as supported other socially progressive positions. Lula himself doesn’t focus on these culture war issues but stresses economic concerns—something that has resonated with Brazilians who saw their standard of living rise significantly during his presidency.

Source: NPR.

Among the 28,000 candidates in the October elections in Brazil, 713 were leaders of religious groups, with 70 percent being evangelicals. In a new development, as reported by Jean-Claude Gérez in an article published by the Swiss Catholic news agency (September 26), 29 candidates presented themselves as priests (pais-de-santo) or priestesses (mães-de-santo) in Afro-Brazilian religions such as Umbanda or Candomblé, with some wearing their religious attire on campaign posters. According to Ivanir dos Santos (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), who is himself a priest in an Afro-Brazilian group as well as a religious freedom activist, the figure is probably higher, since not all Candomblé- or Umbanda-related candidates advertise it prominently.

One of these candidates, Bernadete Souza d’Oxóssi from the leftist Socialism and Liberty Party, who is the head of the terreiro (place of worship) Ilê Axé in Ilheus (State of Bahia), recounts that she became politically aware after attempting to intervene in a social conflict, with her orisha (spirit) manifesting and leading police officers to assault her and claim that Satan would get out of her body. According to Ivanir dos Santos, religious intolerance and demonization of African-born beliefs have been key reasons for Afro-Brazilian religious leaders’ involvement in politics. More generally, the emergence and involvement of evangelicals in politics since the beginning of the present century has led to a new place for religion in public debates in Brazil, says Rodrigo Coppe Caldeira (University of Belo Horizonte). The presence of Afro-Brazilian religious figures as candidates is also linked to the growth of black awareness and related attempts to increase Afro-Brazilian representation in parliament. According to the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics (IBGE), despite Afro-Brazilians making up 54.1 percent of the population, only 124 of the 513 federal deputies elected to the National Congress in 2018 self-identified as black, reports Tatiana Lima (Rio On Watch, September 20). Black activists are eager to change that.

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