The rising political power of Evangelicals in Latin America

The rising political power of Evangelicals in Latin America

Members of the Assembly of God, Restoration Ministry Church in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), at a service officiated by Pentecostal pastor Dione dos Santos at the end of 2014.

(AP/Leo Correa)
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Evangelical preacher Fabricio Alvarado came very close to becoming the president of Costa Rica in last April’s elections. The mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Marcelo Crivella, known for making controversial public statements, such as “homosexuality is a sin”, also belongs to a Pentecostal church, as does former government minister and presidential candidate Marina Silva. The 2016 referendum in Colombia demonstrated how the sermons of Evangelical preachers can sway a vote. In Mexico, meanwhile, an alliance with the Evangelical party PES (Partido Encuentro Social) helped ensure Andrés López Obrador’s victory.

It would seem that the reach of these religious organisations in Latin America is not only expanding in terms of the number of followers but also in terms of their influence on government policy.

The various Evangelical churches are seeing rising electoral support for their moral conservatism, such as their opposition to the legalisation of same-sex marriage, abortion and marijuana.

Experts, such as Thomas Wieland of the German episcopal charity Adveniat, have indicated that the rise of the Evangelicals is a response to the loss of faith in the political class in Latin America: politics is seen as a dirty business by a great majority of the population, and Evangelical candidates are seen as an alternative, as people who are not going to rob them, despite repeated evidence to the contrary.

Various charges have been brought, for instance, against Edir Macedo, leader of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, one of the most prominent in Brazil, for criminal activities such as child trafficking in Portugal.

Macedo is currently one of the richest and most powerful men in Brazil, one of the countries that has seen the most remarkable rises in Pentecostalism, especially among the poor. According to official data, 22 per cent of the Brazilian population is Evangelical, and the number increased by 61 per cent between 2000 and 2012. It is widely thought that the reason for this rapid ascension is the capacity the churches have shown in addressing people’s needs in Brazil’s favelas and urban peripheries.

But for Helena Silvestre, who was born in a favela on the periphery of Sao Paolo and has spent twenty years battling for decent housing for all – currently through the Luta Popular movement – the real reason lies elsewhere: “Pentecostal churches were able to take control of free-view radio and television channels, which is where most of the poor majorities get their information from.”

Brazil and the evangelical media empire

Protestant churches already existed in Brazil, but they were a minority. It was in the 1990s that Pentecostal religions started to arrive and began to go from strength to strength: some developed a mass following, such as the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, Renascer and God Is Love. They gained increasing financial momentum, resting on a religious culture of saving: “The followers are sober in their habits, do not spend money on the vices prevalent in poor communities, such as alcohol and cigarettes, and what they save they invest in the church,” summarises Silvestre.

And so, backed by legislation that exempts churches from taxation, they developed the financial might needed to buy radio stations and TV channels.

Evangelicals now control two of the seven biggest TV channels in the country: TV Record and TV Gazeta. The news presenters on these channels greet viewers with “Bom dia e que Deus te abençoe” (Good day and God bless you).

The stance they take, according to Brazilian political analysts, will play a critical role in determining the outcome of the presidential elections in October. Jair Bolsonaro, the conservative member of Congress who went to be baptized in the Jordan River, in Israel, to boost his popularity among believers, is well aware of this.

Robson Rodovalho, founder of the Sara Nossa Terra Ministry, has publicly summarised their position as a combination of “a commitment to free market liberalism” and “the defence of conservative values such as the natural family and anti-abortionism”. Evangelical churches openly defend values and policies associated with the right of the political spectrum through the so-called “Evangelical bench” – the seats occupied by politicians professing this religion. Others call it the “BBB (Bible, Bullet and Bullock) bench”, in reference to the parliamentarians linked to Evangelical religions, the military, police and agribusiness. “They all defend the same policies, the most retrograde,” says Silvestre.

Colombia and the “No” to peace

This rising Evangelical power is not unique to Brazil but can be seen in other countries of Latin America. In Colombia, there are almost 6,000 Evangelical churches, with ten million followers, in a country of 48 million people. Six million of them are eligible to vote, out of a total electorate of 36 million. This influence was demonstrated in the referendum on the peace agreements signed in Havana between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in October 2016.

There was a consensus among analysts that the stance taken by Evangelical pastors, who called on their followers to oppose the agreements, was decisive in the victory of the “No” vote in the referendum. The argument put forward by the religious leaders was that the agreements were tainted with “gender ideology”, based on clauses referring to how the long internal armed conflict had been particularly hard on women, and their bodies. The Protestant churches have also spoken out against same-sex marriage and LGBTI rights, arguing that they defend the family as an institution that protects the highest social values.

Brazil and Colombia are by no means the only countries where the neo-Pentecostal churches are gaining ever-growing influence in the political arena: something similar is happening in Peru, Chile, Honduras and Guatemala.

In Peru, the clout held by Pentecostal groups was seen in December 2016, when they voted en bloc in the two houses to censure the then Minister of Education, Jaime Saavedra, accusing him of being influenced by “gender ideology”, for having included aspects of gender equality in his approach to education. As in Colombia, for such groups, the gender or feminist perspective is dubbed as “gender ideology”, whilst hegemonic patriarchy is seen as part of the natural order of things.

In Mexico, the Evangelical right, gathered within the PES, has allied with the victor of 1 July elections, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, leader of the Morena party. The PES has fallen into a strange paradox: it has gained political influence – it may form part of Morena’s legislative bloc, with 55 deputies – but will lose its registration and will not be able to form its own parliamentary group, having failed to reach 3 per cent of the votes in any of the July elections (presidential, parliamentary and senate).

It did, however, contribute 1.5 million votes to López Obrador, considered a left-wing candidate, who surprised everyone on announcing the backing received from the PES, a party until then considered closer to the PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party which held power in Mexico from 1929 until 2000). This alliance is likely to generate contradictions: whilst López Obrador posed during his campaign alongside LGBTI activists, the PES leader, Hugo Eric Flores, stated that same-sex marriage was “a fashion trend”.

The rise of these churches and their growing influence cannot be separated from their moral conservatism. A clear example is that of Fabricio Alvarado, who campaigned in the presidential elections in Costa Rica emphasising his staunch opposition to same-sex marriage and the decriminalisation of the abortion. There are, of course, few differences with the traditional positioning of the Catholic church, but there is something that has always differentiated the Protestant churches: the importance attached to property and material success. This places Evangelical confessions very close to neoliberalism in the ideological spectrum, with its culture of meritocracy, which appears to be making the Catholic tradition obsolete. One of the fathers of sociology, Max Weber, already said it at the beginning of the 20th century: the connection between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism has always been strong.

This article has been translated from Spanish.