Evangelical Christians in Brazil resolve to ‘bring Jesus’ to carnival revelers

Dom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro

With drummers pounding out samba rhythms through the rain, this might almost have been just another one of the hundreds of street parties of Rio’s world-famous carnival.

But nobody at the I’m Full of Love Samba Street Party on Copacabana beach was drunk or in costume, few bystanders were dancing – and the group on the sound truck was singing about Jesus.

Evangelical Christians, a large and increasingly assertive demographic in Brazil, played a key role in the election of the far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, whose wife Michelle is the most famous congregation member at Rio’s Attitude Baptist church, the organizers of the party.

Related: Rio Carnival takes a stand against Bolsonaro's divisive rhetoric

And, where once they would leave town during carnival, they are increasingly visible during the annual celebrations, said Attitude’s pastor, Josué Valandro Jr.

“The city was delivered up to immorality, drinking sprees, crimes, bad things,” he said. “The carnival revelry lasts four days but Jesus’s happiness is eternal.”

His congregation was here to save souls – and sign up new members. “It’s evangelism. The aim is to bring Jesus to people who are enjoying carnival,” said Larissa Rocha, 23, an educational assistant who plays in the church’s drum corps.

One recent survey found around a third of Brazilians are evangelicals – up from 9% in 1991 - compared to around half who are Catholic.

Valandro called the first lady “a woman of God” for her work with deaf people and blamed leftist governments for a moral and economic decline now being reversed under Bolsonaro.

“The president is a man of strong character, with strong convictions,” he said.

Although Catholic, Bolsonaro was baptised by an evangelical preacher in the River Jordan in 2016. Many evangelicals voted for him, unconcerned by his history of homophobic remarks, racist descriptions of indigenous people and praise for Brazil’s military dictatorship.

Since taking office, Bolsonaro has prioritised appearances at evangelical events. “The state is secular, but the president is Christian,” he told a cheering audience of tens of thousands at a recent Rio evangelical event whose orderly, restrained atmosphere contrasted vividly with the noisy, anarchic hedonism of carnival.

“He is an exemplary president. He is rescuing what the country lost: the family,” said Hilquias Pereira, 34, an accountant from another evangelical samba group run by the First Baptist church of Trindade, in nearby São Gonçalo.

Some evangelicals eschew Rio’s official carnival parade because of the association between many samba schools and Afro-Brazilian religions.

On Tuesday, Brazil’s minister for women, family and human rights attacked carnival during a debate on religious freedom at the UN HQ in Geneva, the UOL site reported.

During a debate on religious freedom, Damares Alves – who is also an evangelical pastor – said: “What we are seeing in the carnival parties, unfortunately, is an affront and a disrespect to the Christian faith. We are seeing objects of the Christian faith being ridiculed in a vile way in Brazil.”

Alves promised a new government campaign to protect religious expression.

The previous night the Mangueira samba school presented Jesus as black, homeless and indigenous in a parade which included criticisms of Bolsonaro and the police oppression critics say he has encouraged.

“It is Jesus that is on the side of the poor, the oppressed and against injustice,” said Henrique Vieira, the actor and evangelical pastor who played Jesus as homeless in the parade.

Vítor Costa, 18, an unemployed carnival reveler dressed as Jesus in a white flowing robe, said the government’s alliance with evangelicals concerned him. “Politics affects everyone but not everyone is religious,” he said.

Attitude church members said they felt evangelicals face prejudice and described carnival as an expensive, drunken, promiscuous, crime-ridden mess they would love to reinvent.

“We would only sing songs about family, about friendship, about goodness and God. There would no alcoholic drinks nor drugs consumed. And everyone would be sober,” Pastor Valandro said. “That would be my dream carnival.”