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Top Pentecostal leaders supported the far right in Brazil’s presidential campaign

Evangelicals and Pentecostals drove the spike in Jair Bolsonaro’s support.

Protestors Rally Against Brazilian Presidential Candidate Jair Bolsonaro
Women protest against far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro on September 29, 2018, in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Victor Moriyama/Getty Images

A viral (and false) meme shows a picture of Brazil’s left-leaning Workers’ Party presidential candidate Fernando Haddad, with a superimposed quote attributed to him: “When they turn five, children will become the property of the state. It’s up to us to decide if a boy will become a girl, and vice versa! It’s parents’ job to respectfully comply with our decision! We know what’s best for children!”

Meanwhile, a video viewed more than 4 million times since late September claims that the Workers’ Party was distributing baby bottles shaped like penises in daycare centers.

These are among the false messages that have circulated through Brazil’s Pentecostal and evangelical social networks in the last few weeks of Brazil’s 2018 first-round presidential election campaign. Purveyors of “fake news” seek to manipulate evangelicals and Pentecostals by emphasizing the core issues of Brazil’s culture wars: gender, sexuality, and the role of parents and the state in children’s education.

Meanwhile, viral videos feature evangelicals praising the far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro — a politician whose incendiary comments and ambiguous commitment to democracy have led to frantic condemnations from such hotbeds of leftist radicalism as The Economist and Foreign Policy.

On Sunday October 7, Brazilians went to the polls for the first-round presidential election. Bolsonaro had steadily climbed in vote intentions for months. Still, to many observers’ shock, the rightist surpassed all projections, ending up with 46 percent of the first-round vote in a field of 13 candidates.

On October 28, Bolsonaro will face Haddad, who took second place, in a runoff election. The Workers’ Party candidate — the designated successor of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whom the Supreme Court had barred from candidacy due to a conviction for corruption — garnered just 29 percent of the vote.

What was the role of evangelicals and Pentecostals in the election? Did their support help drive the spike in Bolsonaro’s support? We think it did. As one of us shows in a forthcoming book, evangelicals and Pentecostals first started to get involved in Brazilian electoral politics in the 1980s. Still, Pentecostal and evangelical leaders have shown their political muscle in 2018 like never before.

Throughout most of its history, Brazil was known as a Catholic country. Beginning in the 1970s, however, the ranks of Pentecostal and evangelical clergy, as well as the pews of their congregations, began to swell. Rising from a bit over 5 percent of the population in 1970, evangelicals and Pentecostals will likely constitute nearly 30 percent of the population in Brazil’s 2020 census.

From the early days of Brazil’s return to democracy in the 1980s, evangelical and Pentecostal leaders have recognized the importance of electoral politics. Both the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and the Assembly of God have mobilized to support socially conservative policies and candidates.

Until now, though, evangelical and Pentecostal activists have usually been most effective in supporting candidates for legislative office. Under Brazil’s open list proportional representation rules in which a single district elects dozens of legislators, highly organized religious denominations such as the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God can muster enough votes to get their own legislative candidates elected.

But at the presidential level, evangelical and Pentecostal activism has usually been marked by disunity, with different denominations supporting different candidates. In the most recent presidential election of 2014, evangelical and Pentecostal alliances were “pulverized” among the three leading candidates.

Yet 2018 has taken a drastically different turn. Though various presidential candidates sought evangelical alliances in other recent elections, in 2018 Bolsonaro was the primary candidate to court evangelical leaders. Bolsonaro claims to be a nominal Catholic, yet he attends a Baptist church and has long sought the political support of evangelical and Pentecostal leaders. Cementing these alliances, he was baptized in the Jordan River by the prominent Assembly of God Pastor Everaldo Dias in 2016 (who himself had run for president in 2014).

So it was not surprising when influential Assemblies of God Pastor Silas Malafaia declared his support for Bolsonaro in March 2018. Malafaia predicted that 80 percent of the evangelical vote would go over to Bolsonaro with him. A frequent social media commentator, Malafaia began to use his online presence to attack Bolsonaro’s opponents.

Bolsonaro’s religious alliances solidified in the final week of the first-round campaign. On September 30, Edir Macedo, the powerful founder of the Universal Church for the Kingdom of God and owner of the third-biggest TV station in Brazil, publicly threw his support behind Bolsonaro and gave him a softball interview. José Wellington Bezerra da Costa, the president of the General Convention of the Assemblies of God of Brazil, soon followed in publicly endorsing Bolsonaro on October 2, as did the Congressional Evangelical Caucus on October 4.

Has all of this made any impact on evangelical and Pentecostal citizens? Malafaia might have been wrong about the exact figure, but there is no doubt that Bolsonaro has done well with evangelicals. In the final month of the election, Bolsonaro’s votes among evangelicals shot upward: from 26 percent on August 22 to 36 percent on September 20, and, finally, to 48 percent on October 4.

Still, the rapid growth in Bolsonaro’s support might not be due to the influence of evangelical leaders. The candidate’s support among non-evangelicals also rose dramatically in this period.

But survey evidence indicates that evangelical and Pentecostal citizens were at least getting the message from their leaders. Over the last two weeks of the first-round campaign, one of us (Amy Erica Smith) ran an online survey asking Brazilians about political information in their churches. Among those who attend church, 29 percent of Catholic church attendees, 38 percent of non-Pentecostal evangelicals, and 46 percent of Pentecostals were aware of their church leaders supporting a candidate. Nearly all of them said that that candidate was Bolsonaro.

So what happened? Did evangelical leaders’ campaigning matter? We suspect that it did. In the final days of the campaign, Bolsonaro’s support jumped by about 5 percentage points. Some of the voters Bolsonaro gained may have been persuaded by evangelical leaders and their church communities.

Yet perhaps the most important impact of Bolsonaro’s late-in-the-game evangelical endorsements may have been to give him the aura of momentum and inevitability. While much attention has been paid to the #elenão movement against Bolsonaro, the rejection rate for Haddad and the PT is nearly as high, reaching 40% in various polls. As a result, in the final days of the campaign, Bolsonaro picked up steam, as undecided voters jumped on his bandwagon, and strong opponents of the Workers’ Party decided he was their best bet.