Evangelicals flex their muscle in Brazil’s Congress | International

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Brazilian deputy Sóstenes Cavalcante, 47, is bothered by being labeled as powerful. He prefers terms more in keeping with the humility that the gospel preaches. He and his people “have a lot of influence, that’s undeniable,” he says in an interview at his office in Brasilia. This theologian, who for eight years served as a missionary in Argentina, is now the leader of the evangelical parliamentary front in Brazil, a bloc that has more legislators than any party on the floor. In the 513 seats of the Chamber of Deputies, more evangelicals (116) than women (75) sit. They are the most visible faces of the growing political power of a community of faithful that continues to grow and to which one in three Brazilians already belongs.

They never had as much power or a president as conservative and related as the Catholic Jair Bolsonaro. Their alliance is important because the vote of millions of conservative Christians will be crucial in deciding whether he is re-elected or whether Lula da Silva returns for a third term.

Cavalcante assures that, “respecting the parliamentarians of the (Evangelical) front who support the opposition, 90% or 95% of us support the re-election of President Bolsonaro.” He speaks excellent Spanish that he learned during his eight years as an Assembly of God missionary in Santa Fe.

The leader of the evangelical parliamentary front, deputy Sóstenes Cavalcante, during the interview, on June 13.Paula Cinquetti

The Brazilian president, of Italian descent, was baptized by a shepherd in the Jordan River, in northern Israel. His wife, Michelle, is evangelical, like his children. And his 2018 election slogan Brazil above all, God above all It fits perfectly with an ultra-conservative agenda that is very attractive to Christians in Protestant churches. The next elections, in October, will be a duel between good and evil, according to the retired military officer.

There is a party, Republicans, which is the political arm of a church, the Universal Church. But all the formations, except the one farthest to the left, the PSOL, have evangelicals among their lordships. And these belong to a wide range among the hundreds of Protestant denominations, but, in moral matters, the coincidence is almost absolute. “What unites us are issues of values ​​and customs, such as the fight against abortion, against the legalization of drugs and in favor of the traditional family. These three issues, and games of chance, are the strongest”, says legislator Cavalcante. Casinos and weapons are two issues of discrepancy with the president.

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They coordinate in a WhatsApp group. There are the instructions. “The days that the issue is important, we put the orientation (of the vote) there. The deputies stop following their parties and continue to lead. When the issue is ideological, the party does not sanction them, except for the PT. He even fired a deputy who voted in favor of life and against abortion”, he affirms.

Brazil is a secular country with a Catholic majority immersed in a deep social transformation driven by the strength of the evangelical churches, which own media and move enormous amounts of money. Citizens are deeply believers, a crucifix presides over the hemicycle and every Wednesday first thing in the morning the headquarters of the Congress hosts an evangelical worship in a room with songs, raised hands, guests and retransmission on Facebook. There President Bolsonaro promised them a “terribly evangelical” judge for the Supreme Court. He complied.

A woman kneels during the evangelical worship held in a room of the Chamber of Deputies, on June 13.
A woman kneels during the evangelical worship held in a room of the Chamber of Deputies, on June 13.Paula Cinquetti

In the previous election, seven out of ten evangelicals voted for Bolsonaro. And the polls indicate that support for the president will decline, but it will still be in the majority. There is also a minority that identifies with Lula for earthly reasons, explains political scientist Vinicius do Valle, from the Evangelical Observatory. “They vote for him not because they are evangelicals, but because they are poor. In Brazil they are the religious segment with the highest proportion of blacks, of people who live on the periphery, in other words, low-income,” says researcher Do Valle in a video call interview.

Deputy Benedita da Silva, black, 80-year-old from Rio de Janeiro, is the emblem of the protesters in Lula’s party. She does not usually vote with her co-religionists. The veteran politician is an exception because, in the Brazilian Congress, much more relevant than party acronyms are the benches, the lobby parliamentarians. The three most powerful are popularly known as BBB (boi, bible, bullet). That is, the defenders of the interests of the agricultural sector, the evangelicals and the security forces.

One of the novelties that Bolsonarism has brought is that the spectrum of issues on which conservative Christian legislators act in unison has been expanded. The political scientist affirms that, “with this government, they not only act together on the moral agenda, but also in defense of Bolsonaro’s strategic policies.” His interest in education is growing as a battlefield to combat sex education, LGBT rights or homophobia. On that flank, they have experienced the ridicule that the minister of education, an evangelical, and two pastors were arrested for influence peddling. Cavalcante throws balls out and limits himself to saying that “it was an unfortunate event”, that they did not propose him for the position and criticizes the delay in dismissing him.

Evangelicals did not always participate in politics, nor were they always so far to the right. The convulsive years of the political crisis that included the impeachment against Dilma Rousseff and culminated in the election of Bolsonaro also brought changes to its political universe. They increasingly openly recognize themselves as right-wing—“mainly after the phenomenon of Bolsonaroism,” the political scientist points out—and the speech against Lula’s PT also permeated. “In some sectors, the left is not seen as the political opponent, as a legitimate position in the political game, but as evil. An enemy that must be fought in a holy war”, according to Do Valle.

Live music during the weekly worship that evangelical deputies celebrate weekly in Congress.
Live music during the weekly worship that evangelical deputies celebrate weekly in Congress. Paula Cinquetti

Although the evangelicals are often defined as a monolithic bloc, the faithful are much more plural and diverse than the leaders, as all those who study the phenomenon in Brazil and its spectacular push in the last two decades insist.

Conservative Christian leaders were once politically in tune with the PT —more with Lula than with Rousseff—, but they contributed to the downfall of the president and then enthusiastically joined the Bolsonarist wave.

In those years, says the legislator, they operated in secret. They worked in a coordinated manner against the majority of the PT. “It was the way we found to offer some kind of ideological resistance to a leftist government,” explains the deputy, who belongs to the Assembly of God, the largest evangelical denomination, with a century of presence in Brazil.

He reproaches the PT for corrupt practices while they governed and their progressive agenda. Or, as the head of the evangelical front says, “Governments that attacked Christian values.” He complains that “when they failed to pass the laws here, they did so via the judiciary,” as happened, he stresses, with same-sex marriage or the extension of the right to abortion in the case of fetuses without a brain.

Despite being aware that the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have worn down the president and that the economic crisis is one of his weak flanks, he is confident of a victory for Bolsonaro. And he is convinced that the election will be decided by a much smaller margin than the ten points of 2018. “Now it will be 3%, at most 5%,” he predicts. He hopes that then the far-right president can dedicate himself fully to the ultra-conservative agenda. Among the priority issues, restrict the right to abortion.

Cavalcante, theologian and leader of the evangelical parliamentarians, embraces another participant in the evangelical ceremony on June 13 in the Chamber of Deputies.
Cavalcante, theologian and leader of the evangelical parliamentarians, embraces another participant in the evangelical ceremony on June 13 in the Chamber of Deputies.Paula Cinquetti

The priority of the evangelical parliamentary front is not, in any case, to elect a president but to expand its ranks. Right now they hold 20% of the seats when it is estimated that they account for 30% of the 210 million Brazilians.

The next president, be it Lula (a favorite in the polls and who is also courting them) or Bolsonaro, will undoubtedly have those millions of compatriots very much in mind, as do the presidents of Congress. “We no longer work in secret, everyone knows it. The presidency of the House, when they go to vote on controversial issues, wants to know what those three fronts (BBB) ​​think. Before, they only asked the party leaders and the women’s caucus. Now, to avoid surprises, they also ask us. We have the ability to defeat or win projects, so they began to listen to us.”

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