Evangelicals in Brazil are stronger today than ever before

The appointment of André Mendonça to the Supreme Federal Court was a turning point for the evangelical movement in Brazil.

Man in black robe and a black mask talks in front of several microphones with people in suits in the background.
Andre Mendonça talks with press after his inauguration on December 16, 2021 in Brasilia, Brazil. Mendonça had been nominated by President Jair Bolsonaro and then approved by Brazilian senate to fill a vacant position on the supreme court. [Andressa Anholete/Getty Images]

In July 2015, Protestant pastor and theologian Ricardo Gondim raised the alarm about the growing power of evangelicals in Brazil. In a blog post titled God save us from an evangelical Brazil, the president of the progressive Bethesda Church warned that if they succeed in securing the support of a large enough segment of the Brazilian population, leaders of the evangelical movement would swiftly transform the secular and democratic country into a totalitarian theocracy.

“Evangelical” is an umbrella term that encompasses numerous Protestant denominations that share several core tenets. These include the perception of the Bible as the ultimate moral and historical authority, the desire to evangelise and spread the faith and the need for a religious conversion known as being “born again”. Among Christian groups, those who define themselves as evangelical tend to be much more conservative and against progressive values than those who do not define themselves with that label.

Over six years after the publication of his popular (and controversial) blog post, under former general Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency, Gondim’s dire warnings about the possibility of an evangelical takeover of the Brazilian state appear to be proving correct.

On December 1, evangelicals in Brazil celebrated the Senate’s approval of evangelical pastor, lawyer and staunch Bolsonaro ally André Mendonça’s appointment to Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court. As seen in a video clip widely shared on Brazilian social media, Bolsonaro’s wife, Michelle, reacted to the news of the Senate approving Mendonça’s appointment by jumping around and shouting “glory to God” and “hallelujah”. An evangelical pastor’s appointment to the nation’s highest court, coupled with Michelle Bolsonaro’s overtly religious celebration of his approval by Senate, added to the fears that the president and those close to him are working with hardline evangelical forces to erode secularism and democracy in Brazil.

Perhaps in an attempt to try and ease secular Brazilians’ fears about his agenda, during his confirmation hearing at the Senate’s Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee, Mendonça promised that he will “defend the secular state” as a supreme court judge. And on December 16, the day of his inauguration, he reiterated his support for secularism during a religious service at the headquarters of the influential evangelical church, Assembly of God. In his speech to nearly 4,000 attendees, including President Bolsonaro, his wife Michelle and several state ministers, Mendonça claimed that he “recognises and defends the importance of the secular state”. However, the fact that he chose to celebrate his inauguration at a religious service held by a church widely criticised for its hardline, anti-secular positions and controversial ties to Christian fundamentalist politicians, raised questions about the sincerity of his promises about protecting secular values.

Indeed, it is difficult to brush off the idea that Mendonça was appointed to the court due to the perception that his deeply held evangelical beliefs – rather than Brazil’s secular constitution – would guide his decisions on the bench. After all, Bolsonaro had openly declared in 2019 that he plans to appoint someone “terribly evangelical” to the court.

The controversial announcement was seen by many as an apparent attempt by the president to appease one of his most powerful support bases: the evangelicals. Just like the military, Brazilian evangelicals played an important role in Bolsonaro’s rise to power and in turn gained a lot since the beginning of his tenure as president. Even before they secured a seat for one of their supporters on the Supreme Court, they have been enjoying unprecedented access to and influence over Brazil’s crucial institutions and ministries. For example, Bolsonaro’s  Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights, Damares Alves, is an evangelical pastor. Brazilian media reported that in 2016, she had told worshippers at an evangelical church that “It is time for the church to tell the nation that we have come … It is time for the church to govern.” And since her appointment as minister in 2018, Alves has been openly supporting conservative evangelical positions on issues like abortion access and LGBTQ rights. She also supports “traditional gender roles” and insists that “the Brazilian family is being threatened” by diversity policies.

But Mendonça’s appointment to the Supreme Court still marks the beginning of a new era of increased evangelical influence in Brazil. Throughout Bolsonaro’s presidency the Supreme Court served as the final, and sometimes only, line of resistance against deeply conservative, and at times discriminatory and dangerous, policies supported by evangelicals on issues like minority rights, abortion access and drugs regulation. Mendonça’s arrival to the bench will likely inhibit the court’s ability to resist such policies and allow evangelicals to increase their influence over Brazilian politics further.

However, Bolsanaro alone can not be held responsible for the growing power of evangelicals in Brazil. In their attempts to expand their support base and further consolidate power, seemingly secular administrations of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff also helped the evangelical movement become the influential political force that it is today.

During his tenure, for example, Lula started to give federal funds to Record TV (then known as Rede Record) – a TV channel owned by the influential evangelical denomination Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (IURD) – in an effort to reduce the influence of the country’s leading commercial news channel, TV Globo.

Rousseff, meanwhile, gave several important ministerial positions to evangelical politicians, such as IURD bishop Marcelo Crivela, during her tenure. Crivela soon became an important member of the Evangelical Parliamentary Front of the National Congress, a powerful multi-party bloc that enthusiastically supports conservative policies based on religious beliefs and routinely hinders efforts to increase rights protections for marginalised groups. During her re-election campaign in 2014, Rousseff also appeared at the IURD’s Temple of Solomon alongside prominent evangelical leaders and even quoted psalms such as “Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord” in an attempt to secure the evangelical vote.

In other words, while Bolsonaro finally made the evangelical movement a leading political force in Brazil by giving an evangelical pastor a seat in the Supreme Court, it was left-wing politicians such as Rouseff (and Lula) who paved the way for the movement to increase its influence over Brazilian politics over the past two decades. And the Brazilian left in general still appears to play an important, albeit passive, role in the growth of evangelical power in the country to this day.

A 2020 survey by the private institute Datafolha showed that the percentage of Catholics in Brazil is on the decline (around 51 percent of the total population) while the percentage of evangelicals is rapidly growing (around 31 percent). This signals a major transformation in a country where more than 90 percent of the population identified as Catholic in 1970.

According to Brazilian anthropologist Juliano Spyer who specialises in evangelical Christianity and who lived for 18 months among a poor and highly evangelical community on the outskirts of Salvador, the capital of Bahia, as part of his doctoral fieldwork in 2013-14, this transformation is based on something a lot more complicated than the Brazilian population suddenly taking a right-wing turn. He says understanding the role evangelical temples play in the lives of the faithful is crucial to understanding the increasing power the movement has in the country today.

He says these temples serve as support networks for those in need – they offer literacy courses,  activities for children and even financial support for struggling families. He explains that evangelical temples have become the backbone of many poor communities across Brazil, taking over a role previously played by the Catholic Church and left-wing social movements.

Indeed, while the majority of the prominent left-wing movements in Brazil appear to be – much like their US counterparts – stuck in their own identity-based agendas and immersed in so-called “culture wars” the evangelicals are actually doing the leg work, and changing the lives of Brazilians living in poverty for the better. This, in turn, is allowing them to transmit their conservative message further and gain the ability to invite those who they help to participate in organised political action to further their agenda.

With an evangelical judge on the highest court of the country, the evangelical movement in Brazil is stronger today than ever before. With the left seemingly unable to enter into a meaningful dialogue with the growing number of evangelical Brazilians, Bolsonaro has used his relationship with this constituency and especially its leaders to subdue the last remaining institution resisting his authoritarian agenda: the Supreme Federal Court. Only time will tell whether Mendonça will indeed use his new role to protect the president and his administration. But it is certain that evangelicals are now a key political actor in Brazil and they are here to stay.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.