In the first part of this series of articles on neo-Pentecostalism in Brazil, I talked about how IURD (the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God) megachurches came to the forefront of the political struggle in the country. This blog will unpick the political and linguistic strategies used by the IURD in its pursuit of power in Brazil, both at the micro and macro levels.
In my previous piece, I explored how the smaller churches serve a specific purpose of disseminating the gospel as a tool of recruitment. Those spaces also provide instruction and education in a system of ‘obreiros’ (a casual Brazilian Portuguese word for ‘workers of God’), young people who help the leadership and dedicate themselves fully to the Church in both spiritual and technical matters. Within this system, young people considered to display eloquence and charisma are sent to religious schools to acquire formal education in the gospel, techniques of conversion and marketing, thus becoming pastors themselves and potential future politicians like the present mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Marcelo Crivella.
This system can be considered somewhat ‘tentacular’, due to its low entry-level requirements and capacity to be implemented in communities where the state is absent and infrastructure is scarce. Using this model the IURD has become the most politically successful church in the country. Its model is easily replicable and allows leaders to gather financial resources quickly, calling on believers to sacrifice their incomes in order to help with what the pastors call the ‘work for God’.
This bottom-up recruitment has been used in conjunction with an astute media strategy. In 1989, Edir Macedo, founder of the IURD, began to purchase shares of the second-largest television broadcaster in Brazil. These purchases have evolved into the media empire he possesses today. This television kingpin’s main product is soap operas inspired by the Bible, like the blockbuster “The Ten Commandments” (later re-released as a movie). Macedo’s power, acquired through the Church’s intensive and constant campaigns for tithes, has allowed him to organize and finance the controversial and conservative Brazilian Republican Party (PRB).
The infrastructure composed by these media assets, mega or cellular churches, and their presence in almost every town in Brazil, has allowed Macedo to elect not only the current mayor of Rio de Janeiro, but 30 Church members to the House of Representatives in the last election. The PRB is an important support base for President Jair Bolsonaro’s Congressional coalition, and it is worth mentioning that the Vice-President of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies also comes from the PRB party’s lines.
One of the most controversial appointments to ministerial leadership is Damares Alves, who now commands the recently established Ministry of Human Rights, Family, and Women. This institution was specifically designed to appease the ‘Evangelical Coalition’ that helped Bolsonaro to reach the executive office in last October’s general elections. An evangelical pastor and lawyer, Damares has also been accumulating controversies in a fashion that would make any Trump supporter blush.
From lying about holding a graduate degree, to making explicitly racist statements during a sermon, she has been labelled a professional polemicist by many media outlets. She often preaches on the indecency that shaped and continues to format the political life of Brazil, and before the election in 2018, she contended that ‘the time of politics is over, now it is time for the Church to govern the country’.
The erosion of democratic institutions in Brazil is accompanied by a specific political and religious discourse that escapes the universe of rational arguments and finds fertile ground on social media. With the technological development of smartphones and social media apps, the ideological dispute is projected at the individual level, aiming to manipulate the subconscious, rather than engaging in broader, conventional debate. This individualism can be perceived through the proliferation of the notion of ‘fake-news’ and ‘post-truth’ in recent years.
Armed with this knowledge, Bolsonaro frequently engages with his followers through Twitter or Facebook livestreams, even ditching a meeting with the French ambassador to cut his hair live on social media. Notwithstanding technological and institutional changes in Brazil that have enabled the Neo-Pentecostal movement to grow, the increasing bureaucratization of Brazil’s trade unions has allowed social and cultural services previously provided by the labor movement to be incorporated within the churches’ missions.
The fracturing of historical forms of anti-systemic organizations has been accelerated by the juxtaposition of digital media, television and the proliferation of radical conservative religious groups like the Neo-Pentecostals. Crippling even further the social importance of traditional movements like unions and civil rights organizations, the new Labour Code ended the mandatory contribution to workers’ rights organizations (from both labourers and the State), thus increasing the importance of the Churches’ social programs and sense of collective action in poor and working class communities.
Although the Left and Liberal aisles of Brazil’s political life have tried to tie the government into a more “down-to-earth” and economically pragmatic agenda, considering the current recession that the country is going through, the Executive insists on pursuing a program that focuses on issues dear to conservative Christians. Laws establishing grounds for abortion, funding for science, and mainly women’s and LGBT+ have been constantly scratched out of the Civil Code by Bolsonaro and allies, foretold by Bolsonaro’s acceptance speech, when he highlighted God as the ultimate force to rule above all Brazilians despite the country’s diverse religious beliefs, uniting Catholics and Evangelicals in the common goal to save the country from the ‘unethical’ left.
After the results of his election on October 28th, a prayer was held in the company of different members of the evangelical congressional coalition. Symbolic of the approximation of Bolsonaro with ultra-conservatives from the Neo-Pentecostal front, is his baptism by one Brazilian MP in the Jordan River in Israel, a holy place for Christians due to the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. The moment was chosen for the launch of Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign and occurred at the same time as the first woman elected president by the Workers’ Party was impeached by the senate. The baptism was live streamed on social media and celebrated by many in the Neo-Pentecostal community:
Bolsonaro’s election showcases how far the evangelical speech reached in Brazil during the last years. Piggybacking the anti-left campaign in the medias, Neo-Pentecostal conservatism emerged in the political environment as a force to be reckoned with. This leverage, in terms of both membership growth and moralizing discourse, brought even greater conflict to the already divided Brazilian Catholics.
The veterans of the Charismatic Renewal – a movement that started in the United States in the 1960s that preaches for a spiritual renovation of the self, incorporating several elements of Pentecostalism like glossolalia (the act of speaking strange languages attributed to the Holy Spirit)—saw in Bolsonaro a positive shift towards the defense of eroded family values in the country. Therefore, by focusing on the customary agenda Bolsonaro manages to fissure the Catholic pole even further, not only by creating controversies that catches the public minds, but pitching particular groups within Catholicism against each other.
Neo-Pentecostal politicians often forge lobbying fronts with those Conservative Catholics, in order to constrain what they believe to be an attempt by leftists to instil “gender ideology” inside public schools. This blatant homophobia is perceived in this group’s organisation against the bill of education on combating homophobia. Called ‘School without Homophobia’, the Ministry of Education program was blocked in congress as constituting a “Gay Kit”, allegedly intended to turn kids into ‘homosexuals’.
From the varied perspective of left-Catholics, the radicalization of the Christian-right further deepens the differences between pro-LGBTQ, pro-Social Justice Catholics, and attempts by Pope Francis to reform and open the Church. In some cases, ultra-conservative leagues of Catholics started to name and shame progressive priests, and call out the Catholic Universities in Brazil for their complacency towards ‘communist-plagued’ academic departments.
However, the crown jewel of the Neo-Pentecostal strategic path to power is ultimately the president’s willingness to support their agenda, as the Commander-in-Chief Bolsonaro holds the power to nominate justices of the Supreme Court. Often, the conservatism of the National Congress faces opposition from the Federal Justices, like last May when the judges voted in favor of criminalizing homophobic offenses and making transphobia and hate killings severe felonies.
Soon after, speaking to an audience of members of Brazil’s largest evangelical denomination, the Assembly of God Church in Brazilia, Bolsonaro spoke about nominating an evangelical Federal Justice. From the president’s perspective, the Supreme Court is trying to overrule Congress and run the country on their own. The opportunity to have a Supreme Court judge who promotes confessional votes in key legislations like the Law Against Homophobia is among one of the most important strategies to be deployed in order to turn Brazil into a theocratic country.
The holy alliance between authoritarians and the evangelical conservative movement must be closely followed by progressives and socialists alike. The present developments in Brazil can be perceived as a new blueprint for Christian, right-wing extremism to gain a foothold on power. The bridgehead of the alt-right lies in Christian conservatism, bringing back the importance of the religious as a space for political dispute, one in which the left still needs to learn how to operate.
Rafael Antunes Padilha is a Bachelor in Social Sciences from the University of São Paulo, with majors in Sociology, Political Science and Cultural Anthropology. His bachelor’s thesis was in Rural and Political Anthropology, focusing on the economic dynamics of Italian Settler descendants in Brazil. Last August, Rafael graduated from the Pennsylvania State University in a Masters in Labour and Global Worker’s Rights (with a thesis on the Oaxacan labour movement and their struggle for broader democracy). He has just started a second masters, this time in Contemporary Philosophy at the University of Porto.
 A ‘tithe’ in the context of the IURD consists of a financial gift to the Church, presented as one of the ways to fall into God’s grace. Such financial contributions can collectively amount to millions of dollars.
 Silver, B. J. (2003). Forces of labor: workers’ movements and globalization since 1870. Cambridge University Press.