Bolsonaro’s Unholy Alliance Should Worry Davos Man

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When he lands in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum, Brazilian Economy Minister Paulo Guedes is expected to tell the captains of global enterprise that the worst is over for Latin America’s signature economy and that God, once again, is Brazilian. The problem is what some Brazilians are doing in His name.

Ask the guys at Porta dos Fundos, the irreverent comedians who released a Yuletide parody on Netflix featuring a gay Jesus. They saw their Rio de Janeiro studios firebombed on Christmas Eve by a gang claiming to have heard the call of the Lord. Now they can’t go anywhere without 24-hour armed guard.

Such violent choler is odd in Brazil and unheard of since the return of democracy 34 years ago. But with the economy torpid and politics polarized, the conviviality and tolerance Brazilians once took pride in are crumbling. The revanchist political establishment now in charge has emboldened the general fury, too often through shameless appeals to the most obscurantist doctrine.

This shifting sentiment has placed some of Brazil’s rising Protestant evangelicals on the front lines of the culture wars. With little use for the identity politics and rainbow sensibilities of the liberal order, ambitious pastors and their sponsors in public office seem hell-bent on engineering a social collision.

“Even in the most conflagrated times, Brazilians always preserved a tradition of mutual tolerance and concord that has kept the national conversation civil and prevented political violence,” said Bolivar Lamounier, director of Augurium, a Sao Paulo political consultancy. “But with the corruption that has destroyed political parties, fringe movements have grown and we’ve lost that attribute.”

This dalliance between power and proselytism isn’t entirely new. Ever since the first Portuguese voyagers stuck a cross in the sand five centuries ago, religion and politics have sailed together in Brazil. The  republican elite that toppled the Brazilian monarchy in the late 19th century – so, theoretically separating church and state – were devout Positivists. Conservative Catholic bishops drummed up popular support for the 1964 military coup. Yet faith and public policy arguably have never been so deliberately entwined as now, and that’s a big problem.

Check in with Guedes’s technocrats. Even as they toiled to fix the fiscal mess that engulfed Brazil in its worst recession since World War II, they were blindsided early this year by President Jair Bolsonaro’s draft executive order to subsidize electricity for religious institutions. Brazil’s fast-talking evangelical preachers, who keep the lights blazing and air-conditioning roaring in their megachurches day and night, were delighted. But a public backlash by taxpayers — who would have been out $7.5 million a year for the so-called “electricity tithe” — forced Bolsonaro to back down.

That was just Bolsonaro’s latest sally in his mission to launch faith-based politics, “delouse” (his campaign mantra) public service of godless lefties and replace them with conservative acolytes. Consider his pick for the secretariat for women, children and human rights, Damares Alves, an evangelical preacher, whose doctrinal prescription for stopping the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among youth is abstinence. The job description for the new head of the National Cinema Agency? A good Christian capable of declaiming “200 verses of the bible.” And who will get the nod for the next Supreme Court vacancy? Someone “terribly evangelical,” Bolsonaro assured evangelical lawmakers last year. After all, he added, “we are terribly Christian.”

Raised as a Roman Catholic, Bolsonaro has long courted the emerging Protestant hierarchy. In 2016, as he prepared for his presidential run, he was baptized by a Brazilian evangelical pastor in the River Jordan. Religiosity has been central to his political brand. He had no qualms about enlisting heads of evangelical churches to collect the nearly 500,000 signatures required to validate his new political party, Alliance for Brazil.

Whether out of conviction or calculation, his conversion resonated with the mostly conservative, family-values defending Brazilian middle classes who have filled the Protestant pews. Evangelicals now represent an estimated 30% of the population. Compare that with self-identified Catholics, once an overwhelming majority, now numbering just 51% of the population. With atheists and non-believers also on the rise, some analysts project a non-Catholic majority this decade.

As evangelical congregations have grown, so have their pastors’ ambitions. Neon-lit storefront temples spread like food trucks, especially in poorer neighborhoods where the scarcer Roman Catholic churches and their duller masses have lost allure. Gospel radio is booming. The nation’s second largest broadcaster, Record Network, belongs to Edir Macedo, founder of the aggressive Neo-Pentecostal order, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

No respectable politician can hope to win election without the blessing of headline evangelical pastors. Bolsonaro draws his most fervent support from the Bible caucus, a loose coalition of evangelical lawmakers that holds about a fifth (or more, according to the most ardent believers) of the national congress.

Yet what evangelicals as a group want is less clear. Though often conflated with the Brazilian right wing, evangelicals represent many churches and a broad political spectrum. Consider former presidential hopeful Marina Silva, a soft socialist and former environment minister, who clashed with Bolsonaro for his misogynist cant during the 2018 election and branded him an environmental predator. Many mainstream Protestants also look askance at Bolsonaro’s pro-gun policies, his sometimes scatological outbursts and his two divorces.

In that respect, evangelicals may not be so much the vanguard of Brazil’s new conservatism as its most visible symptom. “The evangelical churches have moved to the right just as Brazilian society has moved to the right,” Edin Sued Abumanssur, who studies the sociology of religion at Sao Paulo’s Catholic University, told me.

Still, evangelical leaders see something more in Bolsonaro’s rise — a chance to enhance their cachet. “They have no overarching vision or project for Brazil, just a generally shared moral sensibility. They want influence, to occupy choice jobs and to convert everyone to the faith,” said Abumanssur. “That leaves them at the mercy of the prevailing political winds, and for the moment, the wind is blowing to the right.”

Weather-vane politics may not be all bad. Most churchgoing Brazilians are too busy making ends meet to make holy war, an imperative that could help curb political extremism in the pews and on the street. Bolsonaro’s firing of his special culture secretary, who unleashed a public scandal by paraphrasing Goebbels on social media to the strophes of Wagner, suggests that even provocateurs understand reputation risk. The danger is that bottom-feeding ideologues make things worse by weaponizing religious convictions for partisan gain. 

Witness the exalted gang of believers who answered last Christmas’s Netflix spoof with Molotov cocktails. “Brazil has men, machos to stand up for Jesus Christ and the Brazilian homeland,” boasted one of the attackers in a video he posted on social media after fleeing to Moscow a step ahead of the police. (One doubtless unintended consequence for the comedy troupe was a windfall in viewers.) Neither Bolsonaro nor Justice Minister Sergio Moro said a word about the criminal attack (although Bolsonaro’s son and closest adviser, Eduardo, called the film “garbage”). Brasilia has yet to demand the extradition of the fugitive arsonist.

The extent to which this new incivility will damage Brazil’s international standing is as yet unclear. It may well chill the reception Guedes receives in the politically correct salons of the Davos Congress Center. But for a country struggling with a wan economic recovery, a widening gap between rich and poor, and deepening social fissures, a little ecumenical decorum would help to boost democracy. So would some old-fashioned regard for the boundaries of church and state.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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