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Brazil’s Bolsonaro took a page from US politics by dangling the possibility of an evangelical Supreme Court Justice

But US evangelicals have been more loyal to Trump than Brazil’s evangelicals have been to President Bolsonaro, so this move may not work.

Victor Moriyama/Getty Images

Speaking at an Assembly of God Pentecostal church this morning, Brazil’s rightist President Jair Bolsonaro opened a new front in Brazil’s culture wars: the composition of Brazil’s Supreme Court. Decrying a recent Supreme Court ruling that hate crime legislation protects sexual minorities, Bolsonaro asked, “Isn’t it time for us to have an evangelical Supreme Court justice?

Bolsonaro’s new line of attack takes a page from the war manual of the US right. When Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil back in October 2018, the international media touted him as a “Brazilian Trump.” The rightist leaders of the world’s second- and fourth-largest democracies do indeed have a number of things in common. Among the most striking: both Bolsonaro and Trump depended on enthusiastic support from evangelicals to get elected. As I wrote last year, endorsements from evangelical and Pentecostal leaders and electoral support from lay evangelicals appear to have been critical to Bolsonaro’s first- and second-round victories.

But that similarity started to break down around inauguration day. Since Bolsonaro assumed office on January 1, his popularity has fallen substantially among evangelicals. Meanwhile, legislators from Brazil’s powerful evangelical caucus in Congress have refused to join his coalition, and they are resisting his plans for everything from pension reform to loosening gun restrictions. Though some evangelicals may rally at Bolsonaro’s call to take over the Supreme Court, recent history suggests that it alone will not be enough.

Contrast this with the US. As Marty Cohen noted last month, Trump has managed to maintain steady, high levels of support among evangelicals; they’ve become the most important constituency in Trump’s base and in the US Republican Party.

So why are evangelicals reacting so differently to the leadership of Bolsonaro and Trump?

Part of the answer lies in economic data: The US economy has boomed under Trump, while Bolsonaro so far appears unable to turn around a slump that began in 2014.

But just as importantly, I would argue, is that political parties work very differently in the two countries. Those differences affect evangelicals’ political strategies and loyalties.

As I explain in my new book, Religion and Brazilian Democracy, Brazilian evangelicals began engaging in electoral politics during the country’s transition to democracy in the 1980s. Organizing within congregations and denominations, clergy and lay leaders drew on religious networks to elect the evangelicals who would form the country’s new evangelical caucus in Congress.

Their aim — much like their evangelical counterparts in the United States in the 1970s — was to resist liberalizing sexual and family values, especially policies related to abortion and homosexuality. Brazil’s new evangelical politicians of the late 1980s also hoped to guarantee a level playing field for religious competition by thwarting any Catholic attempts to embed privileges for the Church in the country’s new constitution.

But unlike American evangelicals who organized to take over the Republican Party, Brazilian religious conservatives running for office in the 1980s found it impossible to coordinate. The problem was Brazil’s political system, which offered them literally dozens of different parties to join. Combined with extreme multipartism, open list proportional representation allowed dozens or even hundreds of candidates to run for office in most legislative and city council districts. As a result, evangelicals had no incentive to join forces to take over a single party. In fact, competition between religious groups created disincentives for uniting politically; instead, denominations became teams supporting different candidates.

Still, evangelical political leaders recognized that competition between religious groups sometimes hurt their ability to promote shared goals. Electing evangelical mayors, governors, and presidents would require creating coalitions representing a majority of the vote. As a result, races for executive offices have often involved calls for evangelical unity.

As evangelicalism gradually grew to around 30 percent of the Brazilian population today, evangelical political unity achieved some big successes. In 2016, the Brazilian Republican Party — a medium-sized party associated with the neo-Pentecostal Universal Church of the Kingdom of God — managed to elect its Bishop Marcelo Crivella as mayor of Rio de Janeiro. And two years later, evangelicals united behind Bolsonaro, who took over the extremely small Social Liberal Party to launch his winning presidential bid.

Yet Bolsonaro’s evangelical front appears to have broken apart. Though evangelicals got a few key cabinet appointments, leaders have had less access to power than they hoped. Given the ad hoc nature of his coalition, Bolsonaro must satisfy many masters. Tellingly, just a few weeks ago — before dangling the possibility of an evangelical Supreme Court justice today — Bolsonaro indicated he would nominate celebrity judge Sergio Moro, a Catholic, for the next Supreme Court vacancy.

Bolsonaro’s declining popularity among evangelicals is also a sign that religion and politics remain less polarized in Brazil than in the US. Once again, Brazil’s fragmented party system is key to understanding what’s happening.

In the United States, the Christian Right’s alliance with the Republican Party led evangelical activists increasingly to adopt conservative positions on other issues from the environment to gun control. Meanwhile, liberals and conservatives increasingly sorted themselves into religious camps: Conservatives chose to become evangelicals and liberals chose to leave evangelicalism (actually, often religion altogether).

But in Brazil, evangelicalism only affects attitudes on issues related to sexuality, gender, and the family. Hence, Brazilians’ weak party ties likely limit the intensity of the country’s culture wars.