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Jair Bolsonaro’s overwhelming victory in Brazil’s presidential elections last October has provoked a flood of reactions ranging from disbelief and unrest, to surprise and confusion, given Bolsonaro’s controversial, and sometimes aggressive, views on the LGBT community, women, and ethnic minorities, amongst others. To be sure, Bolsonaro won in a fair election. Analysis shows that the four main issues that catapulted him to victory were: unemployment, deep crises in the parties of the left, and high murder rates and citizen insecurity.
But Bolsonaro’s meteoric rise to power is also explained thanks to the support of Brazilian Evangelicals, who make up, according to some surveys, 26 to 27% of Brazilians, a figure that has shot up in the past two decades. “The president-elect’s proposals with respect to his aggressive social conservatism, among them his opinions and attacks that can be considered sexist, racist, or homophobic, have coincided fully with some ideas and social views of the Protestant evangelical community,” says Richard Ladder, a Latin America researcher at Chatham House in London.
The impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff in 2016 was also supported by, among other factors, the solid, bloc vote of 90 Evangelical congressmen. Although the rise of Evangelical communities has been noted generally, in recent years its influence has spread internationally, especially in the Americas. To what extent then has this rise of Evangelical Church become a critical factor in influencing state politics, either through elections, as in Brazil, or as a lobby group on power?
While the phenomenon has expanded throughout the Christian world, the Evangelical church’s influence is greatest in the Americas. The examples are varied and, in some cases, have already occurred. In Ecuador and Peru, former Presidents Abdalá Bucaram and Alberto Fujimori, respectively, benefited from the support of this religious community during the 1990s.
Now this phenomenon has spread further. In Venezuela, Evangelical ex-pastor and successful businessman (his name appears in the infamous Panama Papers that listed the names of holders of secret bank accounts) Javier Bertucci ran against Nicolás Maduro in the country’s presidential election last May, receiving more than 10% of votes in a discredited election. Venezuela has a population of just over 30 million inhabitants, of which, the Maranatha Evangelical Church claims to have the support of about ten million. All told it is estimated that the Evangelical movement in Venezuela, still growing, makes up about 17 to 19% of the population.
The recent presidential election in Costa Rica has also been marked by religious influence. Although center-left Carlos Alavardo won the second-round presidential elections by a large margin (more than 60% of the vote), it was Evangelical pastor Fabricio Alvarado who received the most votes during the first round of elections. In both rounds, voting patterns aligned with the religious breakdown of the population, where 62% of the population is Catholic, and the growing Evangelical Protestants make up 25 percent.
But there are examples of countries that are close to having an Evangelical majority, such as Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. In Guatemala, President Jimmy Morales, a former actor and Evangelical pastor, swept the 2016 presidential election with 67% of the vote. Now, his administration is being defined by ongoing controversies, including the arrest of his brother and son for corruption and money laundering in 2017. Morales’ approval rate collapsed from 80% two years ago, to 10 percent.
However, there are other striking cases that show that the influence of Evangelicals is not necessarily driven by a high number of followers. For example, in Colombia, where Evangelicals fall short of 15% of the total population, according to the Independent Institute, it is widely accepted that Evangelicals played a fundamental role in the victory of the “No” vote on referendum on the country’s peace agreement with the FARC. An estimated four million Evangelicals voted in the referendum. President of the Evangelical Confederation of Colombia, Edgar Castaño, said the mobilization was a result, among other causes, of the “intolerable approach to gender” proposed in the text of the accord…” The peace agreements included brief but concrete language on “equality so that men, women, homosexuals, and heterosexuals and people of different identities, participate and benefit on equal terms.” According to Castaño, “the agreement violates Evangelical principals such as family, especially when it comes to balancing the rights of women with those of these groups.”
In Chile, there are also electoral movements defined by the growing influence of Evangelicals. During the 2017 elections, presidential candidate Juan Antonio Kast spared no effort in mobilizing the Evangelical community (13 to 14% of the country) through messages very similar to those of Bolsonaro in Brazil. While Last received significant support, it was not enough to win the first round election. However his campaign highlights some striking changes to the voting pattern. Rural and worker areas, traditionally from the left, change their vote to a much more conservative one, persuaded by Kast’s traditional family message, according to Álvaro Vargas Llosa, director of the Center for Global Prosperity of the Independent Institute.
It’s evident that, although there is an unbalanced level of influence depending on the country, the Evangelical community demonstrates a dynamism and relevance that demands notice. Especially when political and electoral interests realize the power of the Evangelical voting force. That’s because Evangelical voters, according to experts, vote according to their values and faith, rather than their ideology.
For Javier Corrales, professor of political science at Amherst College, “The rise of Evangelical groups is politically disturbing because they are fueling a new form of populism. Conservative parties are giving voice to voters who do to belong to the elite, which is good for democracy, but these voters are usually uncompromising in matters related to sexuality, which generates cultural polarization.” Corrales continued, “The right-wing parties in Latin America used to gravitate toward the Catholic Church and to despise Protestantism, while Evangelicals remained aloof from politics. It is not like that anymore. Intolerant inclusion, which is the classic populist formula in Latin America is being reinvented by Evangelical Protestant pastors.”
Indeed, the most traditional and conservative parties have always orbited around Catholics. Now this trend has changed. Today Protestants are Conservative’s best partners, albeit the relationship has shifted, from the second to the first instead of the other way around. It is this religious fervor that feeds off one of the greatest weaknesses of traditional parties: the inability to mobilize the masses. “Historically, the right-wing parties were mainly nourished by the upper social classes. Evangelicals are changing that scenario. They are getting voters among people of all social classes, but mainly among the marginalized. They are managing to turn these right parties into the people’s parties. Political parties were conceived as the essential brake of the region against populism, this is no longer the case. Parties are realizing that joining pastors generates excitement among voters, even if its only among those who attend services, and emotion is equivalent to power,” added Corrales.
Beyond the raw quantitative factor (approximately one in five Latin Americans identify themselves as Evangelical), the rise of Evangelicals can be explained by other reasons, many of them starting at the turn of the century. The first reason was the migration of people from rural areas to cities. They brought with them the traditions instilled by the small Evangelical churches that had a stronghold outside the cities.
Moreover, the church’s message itself seems to have adapted to the moral needs of its audience. In this sense, it understood that social segments that seek to prosper from humble origins fit perfectly with the pastoral messages of personal improvement, economic success and social climbing. Along the same lines, many sermons and homilies are dedicated to new life in the city, political and social changes, as well as doubts about the viability of traditional state
On the other hand, Evangelical pastors and churches have simplified profound social debates such as abortion and gay marriage to one of good versus evil. We can see this in the Latin American and African cases. As Andrew Chestnut of the Pew Research Center said “there are several reasons that allowed Pentecostalism and Protestantism and, in general, the Evangelical religion, to have the relevance and acceptance it does in Latin America: it has absorbed Latin American culture. For example, the music heard in Christian churches resembles the rhythms that people enjoy beyond religion. In just one century, Evangelical churches have become Latin Americanized much more than Catholic churches in four centuries. On the other hand, some people convert to Pentecostalism in times of health crisis because this religion places great emphasis on healing through faith. Often, pastors are illiterate and speak to their congregation in the same way that people talk to each other on the street. In the Catholic Church, on the other hand, priests usually sound like part of the elite, and often they are.”
The popular decline of Catholicism (which is still the overwhelming majority) is another cause, according to the Pew Research Center. Dominated by distant elites, the Latin American Catholic hierarchy seems to have become a regular partner of Evangelical activity. Sometimes, both churches have mobilized, jointly, to defend the traditional family model and denounce unacceptable proposals for them.
It is not surprising, then, that the Catholic Church has established its own strategy based on subtle collaboration rather than direct confrontation. This is largely because, according to the Pew Research Center, since the 1970’s, Latin America has witnessed a drop in its Catholic population. The numbers are resounding, from 92% of the population declaring itself Catholic only a few decades go, to only 69% of Latin American citizens considering themselves Catholic today. Meanwhile the number of Evangelicals has grown exponentially, with today more than 19,000 churches in the continent, and 100 million parishioners, according to the data from the Latin American Geopolitical Strategic Center. It seems like the Catholic Church looks beyond the surge in Evangelicals to what they consider a more serious threat agains the church: atheism, and, to a lesser extent, other religions.
Thus, even assuming the enormous number of factors that can influence a vote, it seems clear that the Evangelical boom has spilled over into the political sphere in many countries in Latin America—a trend that is likely to expand. It is not yet an overwhelming and massive movement, but its impact on the regions politics is real and deserves more analysis. What is certain is that the Evangelical community has positioned itself with strength and creative relevance in elections and domestic politics. It is a movement that, without being a majority, has become crucial when it comes to influencing the direction of social issues given their growing electoral weight.