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Four years ago, 70 percent of evangelical Protestant Brazilians voted for President Jair Bolsonaro. But according to recent polls, their support has shifted. With his electoral campaign to reconquer Brazil in full swing, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is avidly courting this voting bloc, which is one of Brazilian politics’ biggest prizes and could determine the winner of the next election.
In Rio de Janeiro's bustling Floriano Square in the city centre, residents hurry along to the sound of street vendors and passing tram cars. In this busy setting, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God might almost go unnoticed. However, some 50 people have passed through its doors to worship at lunchtime. Most are women, some still in their work uniforms, and some of whom appear to go into a trance. “Deliver yourself from vice, call on God,” bellows the pastor, mic in hand, in a resounding speech that reverberates up through the roof.
With three months to go before elections in Brazil, most of the faithful become agitated when the issue of political interference in the church – and vice versa – is raised. “There's no room for politics inside the church. Only Jesus matters here,” insists a woman in her 40s who has come to worship.
However, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of Christ, founded in 1977, is closely linked to the Brazilian Republican Party (PRB). In 2020, two of Bolsonaro's sons, Flavio (a senator) and Carlos (a city councillor in Rio), as well as his ex-wife Rogéria Braga, rejoined the party.
“Talking about politics during worship doesn't bother me. If the pastor raises campaign issues, I think that's absolutely fine,” says Thiago, a 36-year-old mechanic who was leaving the church. Like 70 percent of evangelicals at the time, Thiago voted for the current president in 2018. He intends to vote the same way this October. “Here I find a discussion about the family, something I also like about Bolsonaro,” he says.
The conservative evangelical electorate played a decisive role in winning Bolsonaro the presidency even though the president professes to be a Catholic. Some celebrity evangelical pastors even turned him into a “messiah” figure.
“Jair Bolsonaro used very strong religious rhetoric built around evangelical ideas,” says Institute of Religious Studies (ISER) researcher Magali Cunha. “He created an image. He was baptised by an evangelical pastor in Israel and his own wife is evangelical. He's also forged ties with the country's most important church leaders.”
‘There is no such thing as the evangelical vote’
Since Bolsonaro's election, public opinion has come to associate evangelicals with the far right and conservative values. For Cunha, it is important to remember that this community does not form a single homogenous bloc but embraces multiple and contradictory realities. “There is no such thing as the evangelical vote. It's a myth. Evangelicals voted for Lula and [former president] Dilma Rousseff for years because they recognised themselves in their proposals. Now, a part of them continues to be loyal to Bolsonaro but it has decreased considerably.”
Only a 10-minute walk from Floriano Square in Rua Carioca, black railings completely conceal the Brazilian Baptist Church's entrance between the music shops. Inside, the decor is basic. The few dozen plastic chairs are empty on this Friday morning in Rio. Pastor Marco Davi de Oliveira is an imposing figure even with a broad smile on his lips. His church claims to be progressive. It welcomes worshippers of all social backgrounds and all sexual orientations every Sunday. Some 80 percent of church members are Black.
“We must redefine the word ‘evangelical’, which has become pejorative in Brazil,” he says. “Here, we're evangelical but we also fight for justice, equality and inclusion. That’s also being evangelical.”
An erosion of support for Bolsonaro
Four years on, evangelical support for the far-right president is slipping. According to a Datafolha poll published in June, only 36 percent of evangelicals intend to vote for him again this year.
The context of this campaign is different, Cunha says. “In 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was an unknown. Now Brazilians know who he is. Religious leaders who are loyal to him will not be able to convince voters with the same ease.”
Bolsonaro's tenure has provoked anger and disappointment for part of the evangelical community, the researcher says.
“Evangelicals in Brazil are mostly poor, Black women living in the marginalised neighbourhoods of large cities. These are the people who have suffered the most from this government. People are suffering from inflation, hunger, unemployment. Most have lost a lot of loved ones to the pandemic.” Covid-19 has killed more than 675,000 people in Brazil, the second-highest mortality rate in the world after the United States.
Liberal pastor de Oliveira says a shift in voting intentions is not "the consequence of wonderful work by the left, but a consequence of people going hungry".
Galloping inflation and the economic crisis remain challenges for Bolsonaro's government, affecting tens of millions of Brazilians. Some 33 million people face hunger and more than half the population, or 125 million, live in a state of food insecurity. Brazil once again appeared on the UN's “hunger map” in 2020, after having successfully tackled widespread food insecurity under Rousseff's Workers' Party government.
The left eyes the evangelical vote
Lula, currently leading in the polls, is looking to reconquer the electorate by any means necessary. The Workers' Party leader has notably organised several meetings with influential pastors such as Paulo Marcelo Schallenberger of the Assembly of God church. By choosing Geraldo Alckmin, a moderate right-wing Catholic who has good relations with conservatives and evangelicals, as his running mate, Lula is making inroads into this community.
He is avoiding controversial topics like abortion and instead focusing on economic issues like inflation and unemployment. The Workers' Party even had a short-lived podcast aimed at attracting evangelical voters (the project was shelved due to disagreements within the party).
Lula successfully courted the evangelical electorate during his two winning campaigns in 2002 and 2006, just as Rousseff did in 2010 and 2014. However, winning over other evangelicals is not a foregone conclusion, according to de Oliveira.
“For a long time, the left's mistake has been to think that evangelicals didn't represent anything,” he says.
Three months before the election, evangelicals are being courted by political parties across the spectrum. The community represents 30 percent of the electorate and has taken root across the country. "When Lula and Bolsonaro talk to evangelicals, they know they are talking to the whole of Brazil," Cunha says.
Pastor de Oliveira is convinced this voting bloc will be decisive. “Whoever succeeds in conquering the evangelicals will win this election,” he says.
This article was adapted from the original in French.