Four years ago, 70% of self-proclaimed Brazilians backed Jair Bolsonaro’s evangelical Protestant. Today, according to many pollsters, their preferences have changed. In the midst of an election campaign to take back Brazil, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva covets their votes. Evangelical voting is one of the main campaign issues for the presidential election scheduled for October 2.
In the lively “praça Floriano” in the heart of downtown Rio de Janeiro, Cariocas rush to the sound of street vendors and trams. In this religion, the universal church of the Kingdom of God goes almost unnoticed. However, dozens of believers push the door at lunchtime. About fifty people came to attend the service inside. Among them, the majority of women, for some were still in uniform and seemed to have gone into trance. “Get rid of these vices, pray to God,” shouts the priest, microphone in hand, in a resounding speech, without a decibel limit.
Three months before the elections, most believers turn their backs on the question of political interference in the church being raised, and vice versa. “There is no place for politics inside the church. Here, only Jesus is what matters,” replied a woman in her forties, who had come to attend mass. However, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, born in 1977, is closely associated with the Brazilian Republican Party (PRB). In 2020, two of Jair Bolsonaro’s sons, Flavio (Senator) and Carlos (Rio de Janeiro Municipal Councillor), and his ex-wife Rogeria Braga, joined this party.
“Talking about politics during worship doesn’t bother me,” says Thiago, a 36-year-old mechanic, as he leaves church. “If the pastor brings up campaign-related topics, I find it fine.” Like 70% of evangelicals at the time, Thiago voted for the current president in 2018. He intends to renew that vote next October. “Here, I find a letter about the family that I also like about Bolsonaro,” he adds.
Conservative evangelical voters played a crucial role in elevating Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency. Some star priests even converted him into a “Christ”, while the current president belongs to some extent to the Catholic faith. According to Magali Cunha, a researcher at the Institute for the Study of Religion (ISER) in São Paulo, “Jair Bolsonaro carried a very powerful religious discourse, based on the evangelical imagination. He created an image of himself: he was baptized by an evangelical pastor in Israel and his wife is herself an evangelist. He established relationships with the leaders of the main churches in the country.”
‘Evangelical voting does not exist’
Three months before the elections, evangelicals are dealt with by all political parties because the stakes are high. On the other hand, Jair Bolsonaro is trying to regain his support at any cost. On the other hand, Labor is trying to repeat the good results it got in this society during the four presidential elections it won.
This community represents 30% of the Brazilian electorate and is established throughout the country. According to Magali Cunha, “When Lula and Bolsonaro speak to evangelicals, they know that they speak to all of Brazil.”
Since Jair Bolsonaro’s election, public opinion has linked evangelicals to the far right and conservative values. For Magali-Kona, it is important to remember that this community does not form a single united bloc but embraces multiple and contradictory realities: “Evangelical voting does not exist, it is a myth. Evangelicals have voted Lola and Dilma Rousseff for years because they recognized themselves in their proposals. Now some of them continue to be loyal to Bolsonaro. But that has gone down significantly.”
Just a ten minute walk from the praça Floriano, on the rua Carioca, among the music shops, black fences completely conceal the entrance to the Brazilian Baptist Church. Inside, the decoration is more than basic. Dozens of empty plastic chairs in the winter Carioca Friday morning. Marco Davi de Oliveira, who commands volume and a wide smile, is the Reverend. His church claims to be progressive. Professionals of all social origins and sexual orientations are welcomed every Sunday, and approximately 80% of members are black. According to him, “We must redefine the word ‘evangelical’, which has become pejorative in Brazil. Here, we are evangelical but we also fight for justice, equality and inclusion. This is also what it means to be evangelical.”
Erosion of support for Jair Bolsonaro
Four years after his election, massive support from evangelicals for the far-right president is eligible. According to a Datafolha poll published last June, only 36% of evangelicals plan to vote for him again this year. For Magali Cunha, the framework for this campaign is different: “In 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was unknown. Now Brazilians know who he is. Religious leaders loyal to him will not be able to persuade voters as easily.” The results of his term also provoke anger and disappointment in part of the Evangelical community. According to the researcher, “Evangelicals in Brazil are mostly women, blacks, the poor, who live on the outskirts of big cities. They are the people who suffer the most from this government. People suffering from inflation, hunger and unemployment. Most of them have lost loved ones during the pandemic.” Covid-19 has killed 675,000 people in Brazil, making it the second poorest country in the world.
An opinion shared by the left-wing priest Marco Davi de Oliveira, who sees this development in voting intentions not as “the result of brilliant work by the left, but the result of the hungry”. Accelerating inflation and the economic crisis are the black spots of Jair Bolsonaro’s government. It affects tens of millions of Brazilians, 33 million of whom face hunger and more than half of the population, or 125 million people, are food insecure. Since 2020, Brazil has once again become part of the UN “hunger map”, having managed to break out of it under the government of Dilma Rousseff (PT) in 2014.
The left covets the evangelical vote
And Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, currently the leader in the opinion polls, is seeking to win back these voters by all means. As part of his seduction, the Labor leader in particular organized several meetings with influential priests, such as Paulo Marcelo Schallenberger, of the Assembly of God. By choosing Geraldo Alckmin, a moderate right-wing Catholic who has good relations with conservatives and evangelicals, as his vice presidential candidate, Lula takes Lula a step closer to that community.
Everything is being done to avoid offending these voters. The former president avoids controversial topics such as abortion and instead appears to focus on economic issues such as inflation and unemployment. Labor even had a podcast project aimed at appealing to evangelical voters (it was put on hold due to disagreements within the party).
During his two victorious campaigns, 2002 and 2006, Lula had called out evangelical voters; Just like Dilma Rousseff in 2010 and 2014. However, according to Marco Davi de Oliveira, seducing evangelicals is not a foregone conclusion: “The left’s mistake has been to think for so long that evangelicals are nothing.”
Reverend Marco Davi de Oliveira is convinced: “Whoever succeeds in seducing evangelicals will win this election.”