By Daniel Azevedo
Brazil still has the largest Catholic population in the world, but evangelical churches are gaining in size and political clout. In the 1980s, persons identifying themselves as evangelicals made up 6.6 percent of the population; today they are 22.2 percent, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. Whereas Catholics have generally not organized politically, evangelicals from various parties have gradually been gathering under their religious banner. They have been growing in numbers and influence since the 2010 elections that chose President Dilma Rousseff. That year, fearing she would lose the second round of the election to opposition candidate José Serra, Rousseff signed a letter to deputies and senators of the “evangelical bench” promising that she would not sign any laws that went counter to their values, such as legalizing abortion or gay marriage. The letter gave her the support of evangelical churches, and ensured Dilma’s victory. Also in 2010, the evangelical bench in the legislature grew 50 percent compared to the 2006 election, reaching 60 deputies and 3 senators.
The evangelical bench anticipates even greater gains in the general elections this October, although polls substantiating its optimism are lacking. The Folha de São Paulo reports that the Evangelical Parliamentary Front of the House of Representatives estimates it will grow 30 percent, reaching up to 95 representatives – 18 percent of the total House. This could have legislative consequences. As a congressman, for example, Pastor Marco Feliciano tried to win approval for a “gay cure” law, which would make it legal for psychologists to treat and “heal” homosexuals in search of heterosexuality. (Feliciano may at times be an outlier. Last year he said that “black people are cursed by God in the Bible and, for that reason, Africa is the worst continent in world.”) Despite the evangelicals’ strong unifying platform, gaining support beyond their bases may be difficult.
The evangelicals seem to have electoral strategies in Rio de Janeiro in place. Among the four pre-candidates for state governor, two of them are members of the evangelical bench. Early polls suggest one or the other may become the executive of Brazil’s second most important state, although both face legal problems. The first one, Anthony Garotinho, has been accused of money-laundering and illegal distribution of political propaganda; his Caravana da Palavra da Paz allegedly misused public money and broke election laws by distributing Bibles and other materials just to people over the minimum voting age. The other, Marcelo Crivella, is suspected of misusing of public money with his NGO, Farm New Canaan. (The Portal de Transparência Brasil, an NGO tracking Brazilian politicians, has found that all of the evangelical bench members face unspecified lawsuits, and 95 percent of them are on the list of House members missing the most sessions.) They are leading the polls, albeit with only 19 percent and 18 percent of intended votes, because the two non-evangelical candidates have apparently more serious political problems. One is connected to the current and discredited governor, and the other faces serious legal challenges. Despite the low probability of a breakthrough at the presidential level in the near future, the evangelicals’ efforts in the legislature and states strongly suggest their conservative voice will be an increasingly powerful force to be reckoned with.