'Tropical Trump' Bolsonaro beholden to Catholic-Evangelical alliance
(NEWS ANALYSIS) He rode a populist wave to win the presidency of one of the world’s largest democracies after years of brewing economic discontent. An outsider and anti-establishment candidate, he was also able to put together that electoral win thanks to the use of social media — and possibly some dirty tricks in the process to smear his political opponents — and by garnering support from a coalition of Christian conservatives.
By the way, we’re not talking about Donald Trump.
After officially being sworn as president on New Year’s Day, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro — who has been dubbed by some political commentators as the “Trump of the Tropics” — has already been dogged by controversy and scandal. The result? His Christian coalition base, a U.S.-style religious right, could very well abandon the new president if he ultimately fails to deliver on his campaign promises. This is where conservative Catholics and Evangelicals have forged a political that will either make or break Bolsonaro over the next few years.
Bolsonaro’s election last October continued the 2016 tide of populist conservative candidates around the world who have come to power. Like Trump, Bolsonaro can be a polarizing figure. Unlike Trump, it isn’t so clear whether Bolsonaro can galvanize his base going forward in a Brazil who has traditionally elected centrists, but also one that has seen a religions demographic shift in recent years. Some have described this coalition as a fickle bunch. Others have argued that his combative style could cause political gridlock in the capital and lead to impeachment. Sound familiar?
While Brazil remains deeply rooted in its Catholicism (it is the world’s largest Catholic-majority nation), those numbers have dropped in recent decades. Brazil’s population has more than doubled over the last four decades — skyrocketing from 95 million to more than 190 million, according to a Pew Research Center study.
The religious shift began in 2000, when the percentage of Catholics fell by two million to 123 million over a span of just a decade. Brazilian Catholics, overall, also tend to embrace liberal social stances and most-likely to accept pre-marital sex, homosexuality and abortion. It is estimated that by 2030, Catholics will represent less than 50% of Brazilian churchgoers.
At the same time, the number of Protestants in Brazil — from the capital city Brasilia, the poor favelas of Rio and even the remotest Amazonian outposts — soared from 26 million in 2000 to nearly 42 million by 2010, the study found. The figure includes Evangelical Protestants, along with various Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God. The Pentecostal movement in Brazil dates back to the early 1900s, started by Italians living in Sao Paulo and led by missionary Louis Francescon.
Some of the country’s biggest sports heroes, for example, are Evangelicals — and they’re not afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves. The country’s celebrated national soccer team prays before and after games. Kaka, one of the country’s greatest players in recent memory, famously wore a t-shirt under his jersey with the inspirational message, “I Belong to Jesus.”
It was this past fall that Bolsonaro, a 63-year-old right-wing former army captain, won 55% of the vote in a runoff election against Fernando Haddad — boosted by conservative Catholics and a growing Evangelical population — pledging to radically reform South America’s largest country.
Amid widespread anger over a spate of corruption scandals at high levels of government, a rise in crime rates across several major cities and a severe economic downturn, Bolsonaro astutely positioned himself as the outsider who could restore confidence and turn the economy around once he took office. He also vowed to make Brazil great again by restoring it to its former glory.
Bolsonaro’s faith played a large part in his election and messaging to voters. The great-grandson of Italian immigrants to Brazil, Bolsonaro is a Catholic who was baptized three years ago in the Jordan River during a trip to Israel. Although he attended a Baptist church for a decade and is married to an Evangelical (his son is one as well), Bolsonaro never renounced his Catholic faith. Even his middle name — Messias — is Portuguese for Messiah, which turned out to be a prophetic omen given the electoral events that unfolded. Immediately following his victory, the firebrand leader prayed on live TV alongside his supporters and an Evangelical pastor.
In a 2017 speech, Bolsonaro proclaimed: “God above everything. There is no such thing as a secular state. The state is Christian, and any minority that is against this has to change, if they can.”
After the first round of elections, Bolsonaro, who suffered a knife attack at a rally and later recovered from that assassination attempt, appeared to soften his tone: “We are going to make a government for everyone, regardless of religion. Even for atheists. We have almost 5% of atheists in Brazil, and they have the same needs that others have.” Nonetheless, his campaign slogan — splashed across billboards and posters and promoted by Christian media — was “Brazil above everything, God above everyone.”
Bolsonaro’s political messaging, that very mix of faith and nostalgia for the ways of life of the recent past, won out among conservatives as well as the poor. An outspoken advocate of Brazil’s 20-year military dictatorship which came to an end in 1985, and his surprise rise from a fringe congressman from Rio de Janeiro to president stunned many in the country. For years, Bolsonaro had become infamous for his offensive comments about the LGBTQ community, women and minorities. He has also voiced staunch opposition to same-sex marriage. Bolsonaro once said he’d rather have “a dead son over a gay son.”
Journalists Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman, in a piece published in The Intercept, called Bolsonaro “the most misogynistic, hateful elected official in the democratic world.” Like Trump, Bolsonaro is active on social media — he has 3.2 million Twitter followers — and isn’t afraid to lash out at critics and political foes.
Those on the conservative end of the political spectrum applauded Bolsonaro for his stances on many hot button political issues. Bolsonaro is pro-life and supports the death penalty, which is currently banned in Brazil. He also fashioned his campaign to appeal to religious voters — a strategy that proved successful — thanks to his many stops to mega-churches and widespread support from popular pastors. Bolsonaro argued during the campaign that Brazil was in the midst of a “ethical and moral crisis.”
Aided by Christian news outlet, Bolsonaro gained widespread support among Evangelicals and nearly half of the Catholic electorate. In 2016, for example, the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff was spearheaded by the efforts of Eduardo Cunha, an influential Evangelical politician and radio talk-show host who has been involved in his own political scandals.
Rousseff was impeached after being charged with economic mismanagement stemming from her alleged involvement a bribery scandal. While those claims were never proven in court, the damage had been done. This paved the way for change, allowing Bolsonaro to fill the political void with his law-and-order and family values platform that appealed to a growing segment of Brazilians.
Nonetheless, Bolsonaro’s support was built on a fragile coalition — but one that ultimately held together in the final weeks of the campaign. Bolsonaro energized the Christian left even before he won the runoff, with a new grassroots Catholic-Evangelical group that opposes him. During the heated runoff race, the group staged a series of marches in several cities across Brazil. At the same time, Brazilian Catholics are almost evenly split between left and right.
Only time will tell if Bolsonaro can navigate the rough waters of Brazilian national politics and deliver on his campaign promises or whether his conservative coalition made up of followers from across the Christian denominational spectrum isn’t ultimately disillusioned by Bolsonaro’s style and ultimate failure to deliver for God and country.