Brazil turns far-right. What role did religion play in Bolsonaro’s election?
In his first speech after his victory, streamed live on Facebook on Oct. 28, Brazil’s far-right president-elect thanked God and praised voters for allowing the country to “march now on the right path.” Mr. Bolsonaro, whose middle name means “Messiah,” is a Catholic who is married to an evangelical Protestant woman.
“I have been seeking [answers] in what many call the ‘toolbox to repair the man and the woman,’ which is the Holy Bible,” said Mr. Bolsonaro. Carrying out most of his campaign through social media, his first miracle was to get elected after spending only $750,000, according to P.S.L’s reports.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s remarks were made in his home in a wealthy neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. A Bible was prominent on his dinner table, alongside the Brazilian Constitution. He recited John 8:32: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
The candidate for the Social-Liberal Party (P.S.L.), he takes office on Jan. 1. Often described as the world’s newest champion of right-wing populism, Mr. Bolsonaro won 55 percent of the vote in the run-off election against his center-left rival Fernando Haddad, a protégé of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
In addition to God, Mr. Bolsonaro might want to consider thanking Mr. Lula, the falling star of Brazil’s Workers’ Party (P.T.) for his unintentional assistance to the Bolsonaro campaign. Mr. Lula coordinated Mr. Haddad’s campaign from prison, where he currently resides following his conviction on corruption charges.
But faith played a role in Mr. Bolsonaro’s success too. His religion-themed campaign addresses resonated with Brazil’s evangelical Protestants. They have become an increasingly influential presence in Brazilian politics over the past three decades, said Magali do Nascimento Cunha, a consultant to the World Council of Churches Commission on Faith and Order and a communications professor at the Methodist University of São Paulo.
In his Facebook speech, the president-elect said that God reserves something special for him and his people. A sign of this, he said, is the fact that he was virtually reborn after an assassination attempt on Sept. 7. Mr. Bolsonaro was critically wounded after he was stabbed in the stomach at a political rally.
His first mass media appearance as president-elect was alongside Senator Magno Malta, a political ally and evangelical pastor. Mr. Malta led a prayer service thanking God for the president-elect’s victory, and Mr. Bolsonaro’s first interview was broadcast on TV Record, a media network belonging to neo-pentecostal bishop Edir Macedo, leader of the powerful Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.
Mr. Bolsonaro, who has been dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics,” says he plans to make Brazil great again—“similar to the [nation] we had 40, 50 years ago.” His pick for foreign minister, diplomat Ernesto Araújo, is an anti-globalist and a Trump enthusiast.
Mr. Bolsonaro, who has been dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics,” says he plans to make Brazil great again—“similar to the [nation] we had 40, 50 years ago.”
Ms. Nascimento Cunha told America that Mr. Bolsonaro’s explicitly retrograde agenda was welcomed by both evangelical and Catholic conservative voters. Evangelicals are approximately 22 percent of Brazil’s population and Catholics are about 65 percent, according to the 2010 census.
“This is a reaction to the advances we have seen since the 1960s in discussions about the family, the place of women, youth and sexuality. It is a Christian morality that tries to recover an idealized past, a sort of nostalgia that finds an echo in Bolsonaro's campaign,” she said.
Described by rivals as homophobic, misogynist and racist, Mr. Bolsonaro’s discourse attracts those who fear ideas that are associated with the political left—offering more rights to L.G.B.T. people, normalizing abortion, revising the concept of family and redistributing private property.
Unlike evangelicals, who are mostly conservative, Brazilian Catholics are almost equally split between the political right and left. According to an Ibope poll of Sept. 18, 25 percent of Brazil’s Catholics describe themselves as right-wing voters, while 21 percent report they are on the left. For evangelicals, the split widens to 33 percent on the right and only 6 percent on the left.
“While evangelical discourse is more focused on moral values, Catholics have looked at both social issues, such as the rights of the poor, and the same traditional moral values,” said Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, coordinator of the center for Faith and Culture at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo and a religion commentator in Brazilian media.
The National Conference of the Bishops of Brazil (C.N.B.B.) has been critical of proposals that threaten both democratic rights and the pro-life agenda. Officially, the Catholic Church did not support any candidate.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s hard-line agenda on crime during the presidential campaign was supported by many voters.
“The C.N.B.B. had a coherent attitude to its history and is being faithful to what Pope Francis has proposed to the Catholic Church,” said Ms. Nascimento Cunha.
“Still, conservative Catholics have found themselves quite comfortable with some leaders that have shown explicit support to Bolsonaro. Some of them even repudiate the leadership of the C.N.B.B.,” she added. “The Catholic Church is experiencing a crisis in Brazil, a division that has always existed but which now appears within the perspective of this new government.”
The expression of these religious values intensified an already strong backlash against the Workers’ Party. That became the engine carrying Mr. Bolsonaro to power, according to many Brazilian political analysts.
“More decisive was the widespread sentiment that the Workers’ Party has betrayed the interests of both the ‘poor middle class,’ which in recent decades has risen from the poorer sections of the population, and a more established middle class,” said Mr. Ribeiro Neto.
In other words, voters felt betrayed by the left after their 13 years in power were marred by corruption and partisan power plays. At the end of the cycle, Brazil saw its economic stability compromised.
He threatened to banish the “red criminals” of the Workers’ Party from the country and promised to achieve “a cleansing never seen in the history of Brazil.”
“These issues frustrated the ideal of social ascension and self-realization through individual effort and work,” Mr. Ribeiro Neto added. In his opinion, this election was indeed the crowning of “a conservative wave,” but continued Catholic support for Mr. Bolsonaro will depend primarily on the success of his economic plan.
According to Christina Vital da Cunha, an anthropology professor at the Federal Fluminense University who studies the growing influence of evangelicals in Brazil’s politics, Mr. Bolsonaro captured Brazilians’ economic, physical and moral insecurities.
“Most people who are religious in Brazil, either Catholics or evangelicals, are conservative,” she said. She points out that Brazil’s conservatives do not necessarily support authoritarianism, but they do seek a return to social standards that they feel that have been lost because of a leftist social agenda that welcomed diversity and the expression of minority identities. That, in their view, weakens the ideal of family in Brazilian life.
“Despite an incentive to women’s work and to children’s financial autonomy, [the conservatives’] model of family includes the submission of women and children to the male figure.”
Responding to other insecurities, Mr. Bolsonaro appointed a popular figure to the Ministry of Justice and Public Security—Judge Sérgio Moro, seen by many Brazilians as a guardian of political morality. It was an astute political move, as the judge had been in charge of the prosecution of corruption crimes under the vast Operation Car Wash and was the man responsible for putting Mr. Lula behind bars.
Mr. Bolsonaro addressed economic insecurity by nominating a free market economist, Paulo Guedes, as his chief economic adviser. Mr. Guedes has a degree from the University of Chicago, but no political experience.
This choice, his critics say, unpleasantly echoes General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile. During the 1970s and ’ 80s, the “Chicago Boys,” a group of Chilean economists also educated at the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman, pursued a libertarian, pro-American economic policy in Chile, while Pinochet’s bloody regime enabled the experiment through political repression. In the end over 3,200 were dead or missing and thousands were in prison or exiled.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s hard-line agenda on crime during the presidential campaign was supported by many voters. A former army paratrooper and a defender of the repressive dictatorship that ruled the country for 20 years between 1964 and 1985, Mr. Bolsonaro has signed on several ex-military officers as members of his government. That includes the vice-president, General Hamilton Mourão; the future defense minister, General Fernando Azevedo e Silva; the head of the Cabinet for Institutional Security, General Augusto Heleno; and the first indigenous woman to become a soldier in Brazil, Lieutenant Silvia Nobre Waiãpi, who is part of the transition team.
Those choices raise questions about the preservation of human rights and individual freedoms under his rule. General Heleno, for example, told the media that his conception of human rights only extends to the “right humans,” meaning only those who obey the law.
At an election rally, Mr. Bolsonaro threatened to banish the “red criminals” of the Workers’ Party from the country and promised to achieve “a cleansing never seen in the history of Brazil.” He also said that minorities have to bow to the will of the majority or simply leave the country.
“Bolsonaro’s position on human rights will depend on his success on the economic and social front,” Mr. Ribeiro Neto concludes. “If he is able to reverse the path of deepening economic crisis, he will gain political support and will not resort to controversial measures in the socio-cultural field, including [repressing] democratic freedoms. If he fails, he will have to create an enemy that unifies his political and social base.”