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Will evangelical legislators go along with the rightist agenda of Brazil’s Bolsonaro?

Despite the sharp right turn in Brazilian politics, evangelical legislators remain a question mark.

A man wearing a hat that reads, “Jesus,” participates in the March For Jesus” In Sao Paulo, Brazil.
The March for Jesus in Sao Paulo, Brazil, is considered by organizers to be the most popular Christian event in the world.
Victor Moriyama/Getty Images

When Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s presidency in late 2018, conservative groups had grand dreams of swift and dramatic changes in politics and society. Two months into his presidency, some changes have indeed been rapid and stark, ranging from a rollback of environmental protections to an expansion of gun rights.

In Congress, however, Bolsonaro has still not firmed up the coalition he will need to make policy changes such as pension and education reform. He may enjoy being called the “Brazilian Trump,” but the Congress he faces is very unlike Trump’s; it’s a famously fractious body with dozens of parties. To pass legislation, Bolsonaro will need to keep a lot of allies happy. Yet when he took office, Bolsonaro refused to play the game of “coalitional presidentialism,” a system in which recent presidents have doled out cabinet positions to party leaders in exchange for support.

In rejecting the old rules, Bolsonaro bet on his ability to corral legislators in the evangelical caucus, where he was a member until recently. But that bet remains risky.

Though Brazil was historically a Catholic country, evangelicalism (a diverse group ranging from “mainline” Protestants to Pentecostals) has expanded rapidly. The 2020 census will likely register that around 30 percent of Brazilians identify as evangelical –– up from 5 percent in 1970. Simultaneously, evangelical political power has grown, as prominent pastors tweet and broadcast on television their support for “men of God.”

Evangelical endorsements didn’t much affect presidential races until very recently, because religious leaders couldn’t ever settle on a single candidate to endorse. Commentators often remarked that the evangelical vote was “pulverized” across many parties.

The 2018 elections changed that. By the end of the first-round campaign, evangelical clergy had largely united behind Bolsonaro. One all-important thing attracted evangelicals to the candidate supporters call “the Myth”: his stances on sexuality and gender roles.

Though Bolsonaro still identifies as Catholic, his wife is evangelical and he has long attended a Baptist church. In 2016, a prominent politician baptized him in the Jordan River. Bolsonaro speaks the same tongue as evangelicals, voicing their anxieties over changing family roles. As a result, he has become, in some sense, Brazil’s first evangelical president. Statistical analysis indicates that he would have narrowly lost the presidency without evangelicals.

But evangelicals by themselves were not enough to win the presidency. Always and everywhere, presidential campaigns must build odd coalitions of diverse social groups. Bolsonaro’s coalition is just a bit odder than most.

Over the past decade, a motley group of rightist and center-rightist social movements has coalesced in Brazil, forming a wave that toppled President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and swept Bolsonaro into office. Brazilian pundits talk about the triad of “Bible, bullets, and beef”: religious conservatives, gun rights activists, and agribusiness. Brazil’s new right incorporates pro-trade neoliberals and anti-globalists who think China threatens their Christian “fatherland.” It includes both libertarians and social conservatives who aim to severely restrict cultural liberties.

A common enemy kept these groups working together: the center-left Workers’ Party, or PT, that held the presidency from 2002 to 2016. In the 2018 campaign, viral WhatsApp memes portrayed the PT as a totalitarian force aiming to overturn Brazilian society and inculcate homosexuality.

But the PT is now out of power — its legislative presence decimated and its leader, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in prison. Fear of the left may not hold the right together going forward.

What will? The evangelical caucus could be key.

Though he refused to go along with “coalitional presidentialism,” Bolsonaro astutely catered to evangelical interests in his cabinet picks. He nominated social conservative Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez as minister of education and culture after evangelical legislators decried his first pick as “too progressive.” And Bolsonaro picked Damares Alves for minister of women, family, and human rights — an evangelical pastor who promised to lead a “cultural counterrevolution,” restoring a social order where “girls wear pink and boys wear blue.” These picks will give the religious right broad latitude to shape policy in areas core to their agenda, such as public school sexual education.

But what’s interesting is that survey research shows that Brazil’s lay evangelicals on average oppose his stances on many other issues, including environmental protection, minority rights, and social policy. In a new survey, I find that evangelicals who voted for Bolsonaro are much less likely than his supporters from other religious groups to agree with his slogan that “a good criminal is a dead criminal.”

Bolsonaro’s cabinet nods to evangelicals might help him keep the evangelical caucus’s support in policy areas where lay evangelicals tend to disagree with him. But evangelical politicians don’t have to go along. Evangelicals excel at both social movement organizing and backroom dealmaking. Given Bolsonaro’s tenuous legislative position, evangelicals could influence policies on guns, labor, the environment, human rights, or poverty.

This gives evangelical leaders leverage to advocate for the full range of evangelical voters’ priorities – including defending the poor and stewarding the environment. Doing so could advance the vision of a just society eloquently described from the pulpit. But if the evangelical caucus limits advocacy to a narrower set of policies — gender, sexuality, and education — evangelicals will miss the full opportunities of “their” president’s administration.

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