Four years ago, 70% of Brazilians who declared themselves evangelical Protestants supported Jair Bolsonaro. Today, according to several polls, his preferences have changed. In the midst of an electoral campaign to reconquer Brazil, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva hopes to get his support. The evangelical vote is one of the main challenges of the campaign for the presidential elections on October 2.
In the busy Plaza Floriano, in the center of Rio de Janeiro, the cariocas walk briskly to the sound of street vendors and trams. In the midst of all this hustle and bustle, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God goes almost unnoticed. However, dozens of faithful pass through its doors at lunchtime. About fifty people attended the service inside. Among these, the majority are women, some still in their work uniforms, who seem to be almost in a trance.
“Get rid of those vices, invoke God,” says the pastor, microphone in hand, in a forceful speech with no decibel limit.
Three months before the elections, the majority of the faithful are put on the defensive when the question of the interference of politics in the Church and vice versa is raised.
“There is no place for politics in the Church. Here only Jesus counts,” replied a woman in her forties who had attended the service. However, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, founded in 1977, is closely linked to the Brazilian Republican Party (PRB). By 2020, two of Jair Bolsonaro’s sons, Flavio (a senator) and Carlos (a councilman from Rio de Janeiro), and his ex-wife, Rogéria Braga, had joined the party.
“It doesn’t bother me that politics is talked about during the service. If the pastor mentions the issues of the campaign, that’s fine with me,” says Thiago, a 36-year-old mechanic, as he leaves the church. Like 70% of evangelicals back then, Thiago voted for the current president in 2018. He plans to repeat that vote next October. “Here I find a speech about the family that I like and that Bolsonaro also has,” he adds.
The very conservative evangelical electorate played a decisive role in bringing Jair Bolsonaro to the Presidency of the Republic.
Some famous pastors had even transformed him into “messiahs”, when the current president is more affiliated with the Catholic faith. According to Magali Cunha, a researcher at the Institute of Religious Studies (ISER) in Sao Paulo, “Jair Bolsonaro has led a very strong religious discourse, built around an evangelical imaginary. An image was created: he was baptized by an evangelical pastor in Israel and his wife is evangelical. He also forged links with the leaders of the country’s main churches.”
“The evangelical vote does not exist”
With three months to go before the election, evangelicals are being courted by all political parties because the stakes are high. On the one hand, Jair Bolsonaro tries to win back his support at all costs. On the other hand, the Workers’ Party (PT) is trying to repeat the good results it obtained in this community during the four presidential elections it won.
this community it represents 30% of the Brazilian electorate and is spread throughout the country. According to Magali Cunha, “when Lula and Bolsonaro talk to evangelicals, they know they are talking to all of Brazil.”
Since the election of Jair Bolsonaro, public opinion has associated evangelicals with far-right and conservative values. For Magali Cunha, it is important to remember that this community does not form a single, uniform bloc, but encompasses multiple and contradictory realities: “The evangelical vote does not exist, it is a myth. Evangelicals voted for Lula and Dilma Rousseff for years because they identified with with their proposals. Now, a part of them is still loyal to Bolsonaro, but this part has decreased considerably.”
Just ten minutes walk from Floriano Square, on “rua Carioca”, between the music shops, the black bars completely hide the entrance to the Brazilian Baptist Church. Inside, the decoration is more than modest. The few dozen plastic chairs are empty this Friday morning in the Rio de Janeiro winter.
We have to redefine the word ‘evangelical’, which has become pejorative in Brazil
Marco Davi de Oliveira, with his imposing stature and wide smile, is their pastor. His church calls itself progressive. Every Sunday it welcomes people from all social backgrounds and sexual orientations, and close to 80% of its members are black. According to him, “we have to redefine the word ‘evangelical’, which has become pejorative in Brazil. Here we are evangelicals, but we also fight for Justice, for equality and inclusion. That is also what being evangelical consists of.”
The fall of support for Jair Bolsonaro
Four years after his election, the massive support of evangelicals for the far-right president has its nuances.
According to a Datafolha survey, published last June, only 36% of evangelicals intend to vote for Bolsonaro again this year. For Magali Cunha, the framework of this campaign is different: “In 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was an unknown. Now Brazilians know who he is. Religious leaders who are faithful to him will not be able to convince voters with the same ease.”
The results of his mandate also provoke anger and disappointment in a part of the evangelical community. According to the researcher, “the evangelicals in Brazil are mostly women, black, poor, who live on the outskirts of large cities. These are the people who have suffered the most with this government. People who suffer from inflation, hunger , unemployment, most of them lost relatives during the pandemic.” Covid-19 caused the death of 675,000 people in Brazil, making it the second most affected country in the world.
This opinion is shared by the left-wing pastor Marco Davi de Oliveira, for whom this change in voting intentions is not “a consequence of a magnificent job by the left, but rather a consequence of the hunger of the people.”
Galloping inflation and the economic crisis are the negative points of the Government of Jair Bolsonaro. These affect tens of millions of Brazilians, while 33 million go hungry and more than half of the population, 125 million people, are in a situation of food insecurity. Since 2020, Brazil has been part of the UN “hunger map” again, after having managed to get out of it under the government of Dilma Rousseff (PT) in 2014.
The left covets the evangelical vote
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is currently leading the polls, is trying to win back this electorate by all means. As part of his seduction operation, the PT leader has organized several meetings with influential pastors, such as Paulo Marcelo Schallenberger, from the Assembly of God. By choosing Geraldo Alckmin as his vice-presidential candidate, a moderate right-wing Catholic who has good relations with conservatives and evangelicals, Lula is reaching out to this community.
Every effort is made not to offend this electorate. The former president avoids controversial topics like abortion and instead seems to focus on economic issues like inflation and unemployment.
The Workers Party even had a podcast project to appeal to evangelical voters (suspended due to disagreements within the party).
During his two winning campaigns in 2002 and 2006, Lula had already courted the evangelical electorate, as had Dilma Rousseff in 2010 and 2014. However, according to Marco Davi de Oliveira, seducing evangelicals is not something that is guaranteed: “The The error of the left was to think for a long time that the evangelicals did not represent anything”.
Pastor Marco Davi de Oliveira is convinced of this: “Whoever manages to seduce the evangelicals will win these elections.”
This article was adapted from its French original