Religion alive and well in Brazil’s public square

Despite legal foundations intended to enforce a secular political framework, developments in Brazil over the past ten years have led to a larger presence of religion in the public sphere, reported Marcelo Camurça (Universidad Federal Juiz de Fora) at the April conference on “Politicization of the Sacred and Sacralization of Politics,” which took place at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and which RW attended. This peculiar Brazilian understanding of secularism might be gaining strength in other Latin American countries as well, Camurça suggests. According to Article 19 of Brazil’s constitution, state institutions at all levels are forbidden to “establish religious sects or churches, subsidize them, hinder their activities, or maintain relationships of dependence or alliance with them or their representatives.” The document allows for different interpretations of “public interest,” however, that allow accommodations to religious groups.

Following a 2008 agreement between Brazil and the Holy See on the legal status of the Catholic Church in Brazil, which gave it such additional rights as confessional religious teaching at public schools, both secular and evangelical politicians reacted. After initially opposing the concordat-like agreement in alliance with secular political sectors, evangelical members of the Brazilian Parliament opted to settle for a “General Law on Religions” bill, extending the benefits to all creeds. In this context, Camurça said he finds an increasing presence of religious symbols in Brazil’s public space. While the presence of crucifixes in schools, courts and parliaments reveals the lasting legacy of centuries of the Catholic Church’s presence, new religious symbols are also gaining visibility. Evangelicals—who understand secularism as protecting religious pluralism—are promoting monuments to the Bible in a variety of public spaces, from squares to schools, hospitals and parliaments. Imitating Catholic arguments regarding the crucifix, evangelicals claim that the Bible should be interpreted as a symbol of universal and inspiring values for humanity. Both Catholics and evangelicals claim that spiritual values are moral resources for the entire nation. But religion’s presence in the public sphere involves competition as well—Catholic charismatics in some areas of the country (especially the Northeast) have been eager to erect statues of the Virgin Mary in public places as part of a strategy to contain evangelical expansion.