With evangelical candidate, Brazil's politics interest European media

Need evidence that you should follow more than one news outlet? Look south to Brazil, where the presidential race is drawing media attention even from Europe.

Both the London-based  Reuters and Paris-based Agence France-Presse (AFP) have produced recent indepth articles on the race for the top office for the 200 million people in Brazil. But although the Reuters piece is nearly twice as long, it isn't twice as good.

Reuters tries hard to make the campaign into a Religious Right power grab, relying largely on demographics and the support by the Assemblies of God for one of the candidates:

Marina Silva, an environmentalist running neck and neck in polls with incumbent President Dilma Rousseff, is a Pentecostal Christian who often invokes God on the campaign trail and has said she sometimes consults the Bible for inspiration when making important political decisions.
Some 65 percent of Brazil's 200 million people are Roman Catholics but evangelicals are rapidly gaining followers and power.
They grew from 5 percent of the population in 1970 to more than 22 percent in 2010 and the trend has continued. Evangelical groups have made particular inroads among urban working Brazilians who benefited from economic prosperity over the last two decades and are now demanding a greater say in politics.

I'll shun the urge to get sarcastic that Reuters makes an issue of consulting the Bible. The article later reports that Silva says she makes decisions on a "rational basis." More significant is that the article tries hard to make Pentecostals look like they're taking over -- and obsessing on the familiar American issues of abortion and gay marriage.

Funded by the tithes their followers are asked to pay, the more successful evangelical churches are increasingly turning their newfound wealth into political influence.
They have bought up radio and television stations across Brazil and financed campaigns to elect evangelical candidates, including many pastors, to seats in Congress.
The evangelical caucus in Congress showed its muscle in May by forcing Rousseff to revoke authorization for public health service abortions in exceptional cases of pregnancies caused by rape and of fetuses with brain defects.

Now, Reuters doesn't totally bash evangelicals and Pentecostals. It acknowledges the churches' "vibrant song and prayer." It reports that some believers have improved their neighborhoods; in Brasilia itself, "two theaters that used to show porn films are now churches." And it notes that Silva is an environmentalist and, like her opponent Rousseff, advocates "robust" social welfare.

The article also offers several facts against the view of a right-wing evangelical monolith. One is that Rousseff has the backing of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, the second-largest evangelical group after the Assemblies.

Another interesting datum: "One major goal of evangelicals is to keep expanding their caucus in Congress, which has grown from 17 in 1985 to 76 today - about 15 percent of the Chamber of Deputies." If evangelicals make up 22 percent of Brazilians and 15 percent of the Chamber of Deputies, their influence still doesn't match their numbers.

Reuters persists in calling the Roman Catholic Church merely influential even while acknowledging that Silva wants to "push through legislation granting evangelical churches the same tax benefits as the Catholic Church." I.e., the Catholics have long had a politico-monetary advantage over the Protestants. ("Push," BTW, is a bit of slant.  Good guys work for something. Bad guys push.)

And in a major oversight, Reuters slips up by missing Silva's relationship with Leonardo Boff, the famed theologian and pioneer of Catholic liberation theology. Boff publicly endorsed Silva's candidacy with the Green Party in the 2010 presidential race. If Brazilian evangelicals look so much like the American Religious Right, why did a renowned leftist endorse their most prominent public leader?

Now to the  AFP piece. It's shorter and less sweeping. But for striking a balance and staying on topic, it's a better article.

AFP agrees that evangelicals are gaining numbers and "clout" -- a popular word in such articles, apparently -- but adds that the trend doesn't point straight to the "win" column: "The challenge for Rousseff and Silva has been to carefully navigate Brazil's traditional Catholic heritage, while also heeding the financial and political muscle of media savvy evangelicals."

The French story also contradicts Reuters in some matters. It says that both candidates are now avoiding controversial issues like gay marriage and abortion, a sticky point between religious and secular voters.

Interestingly, AFP uses the same academic source as Reuters -- Andrew Chesnut of Virginia Commonwealth University -- but with different results. Reuters quotes him drawing parallels with the Religious Right in America. AFP quotes him saying, "Most Brazilian evangelicals don't pay much heed to the political preferences of their leaders."

For those and other reasons, AFP draws the logical conclusion that Reuters resisted: Religion is not the key to the president's office in Brazil.

Sociologist-economist Marcelo Paixao from Rio's Federal University thinks that religious affiliation is overblown as a factor in how Brazilians cast their vote.
"I think they will both draw support from both camps," sociologist-economist Marcelo Paixao from Rio's Federal University tells AFP. "Voters don't really vote along religious dividing lines."

AFP typically falls in coverage behind Reuters and the Associated Press. But in this case I'll say, "Vive la France."

Photo: Marina Silva campaigning for president of Brazil in June 2010. Photographer: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom of Agência Brasil. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil License (CC BY 3.0 BR).

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