The Rise of Christian Conservatism in Brazil

Since Brazil’s foundation, religion has been a very strong political force in the country. But in the last thirty years, things are getting worse for secular values.

Formally, Brazil is a secular state. However, public displays of religiosity by the state such as crosses in court halls or “God be hailed” in the bank notes illustrate a rather different reality.

In 2010, a census appointed Brazil having the largest Catholic population in the world (64.6% of Brazilians declared themselves as Catholics). But this number is falling because Evangelical Churches have been gaining popularity. The percentage of Evangelical Christians in the country has grown 61% between 2000 and 2010 and now reaches 22.1% of the population.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, some evangelical preachers started what is called “prosperity theology”. Its motto says that if you give money to God’s work, God will give it back to you and much more. At that time, in a country where a good part of its population lied below the poverty line, it had a great appeal and those churches started to receive money from its followers.

As it happens in the US, many preachers became rich. The most famous is Edir Macedo. In 2015, Macedo was in the Forbes Billionaire List, with an estimated U$ 1.1 billion. Edir Macedo owns a television channel and in 2014 also inaugurated the Salomon Temple, the biggest religious center in Brazil at the cost of US$ 200 million. This is just one of the many evangelical churches in Brazil that ask for money from their followers.

In the late 1980’s, they started a new enterprise: politics. The Catholic Church had always been very powerful in Brazil, but it used its influence in an indirect way (pressuring congressmen and other political persons). They have never promoted the election of a priest, for example. But the evangelical church began to exert influence by being more direct means, such as directly electing congressmen. Many preachers started as municipal councilmen, but soon they were in State Parliament and eventually the National Congress.

Of course this has become a major threat to Brazilian secularism. The strong presence of religious leaders in politics has slowed down advance in solving major problems and led to the proposal of bills that explicitly violate the principles of secularism. In some cities, they have approved laws to force Bible reading sessions before the city councilmen meetings. There is a bill at the National Congress called “Family Statute”. It defines family as being formed only by a man, a woman and their children, leaving out all other possible configurations, such as grandparents and grandsons, uncles and aunts living together and taking care of their nephews or nieces and, of course, gay couples. Another bill aims to force the teaching of creationism in public schools. Another bill that tries to change the constitution in order to explicitly recognize gay marriage (which would avoid the need to rely on the National Council of Justice precedent from 2013) finds great resistance from this Evangelical Group in National Congress.

Some congressmen are trying to fight that group, but they are very strong and count with much support from the population. The Secular Humanist League of Brazil (the major humanist group in the country) stands up against these threats, but it seems its efforts have not been enough to protect the secular values.

Recently, Brazil had an impeachment process on which the Evangelical lobby in National Congress had a significant influence. Under investigation for several corruption scandals, Eduardo Cunha, the former President of the Chamber of Deputies (or what would be the Speaker of the Lower House in the U.S.), was an active supporter of the impeachment. He is tied up with evangelical churches in Rio de Janeiro and had a lot of influence on congress, blocking abortion debates for instance. During the impeachment process, as the evangelical churches have a lot of influence on politics, he acted as their voices, opposing the Worker’s Party of Former President Dilma Rousseff, which is supportive of LGBT rights. At the Congress Session when the congressmen voted nominally on the impeachment matter, speeches thanking God, praising the “traditional family,” the “future of our children,” and lots of religious references, were common between the congressmen. Jair Bolsonaro, congressman of PSC (Social Christian Party), praised a convicted torturer during the 1960–1985 Military Dictatorship in Brazil.

With the new president Michel Temer vested, the conservative Congress has now more liberty to act. A bill that changes the Constitution which grants religious entities the right to question laws at the Supreme Court (PEC 99/2011) may actually be approved by the Congress, as the evangelical churches have strongly supported the impeachment.

This current political scenario makes the effort to keep religion out of the state particularly difficult. As humanists, we know that we must be constantly watching for threats against secularism. As long as religion keeps interfering with politics, Brazil will be facing the constant threat of medieval, theocratic mentality, and the dream to become a modern, global power will sound more and more like a distant fantasy.