WSJ pins Brazil's swing to right on evangelicals, but the truth may be more complex

Brazil is definitely taking a swing to the right, so who should we credit for that?

Let's think logically about this. Law and order folks? Business owners? Evangelicals? Pentecostals? Politicians? 

The societal transformation of this once-majority-Catholic country to a majority-Pentecostal republic is fascinating to watch and there's been a procession of mainstream reporters going to Brazil to check it out. You can see the latest here: a Wall Street Journal piece on how all this may pan out. 

NIOAQUE, Brazil -- It looks like a scene from Marlboro Country. Cattle ranchers drive their Chevy pickup trucks to the local rodeo. Cowboys in washed-out jeans entertain the crowds.
In fact, it is Brazil’s conservative heartland, a 14-hour drive from the nearest beach and a world away from the country’s reputation for liberal hedonism.
Over much of the past 15 years, Brazilian conservatives have watched the rise of socialism in this continent-sized nation with unease. They’ve seen farmers go to jail here for defending their land against indigenous tribes; they’ve recoiled as same-sex couples starred in their favorite soap operas; and they’ve grumbled at the local shooting club about high taxes, high crime and the corruption scandals in two successive leftist presidencies…
Conservatism is making a comeback here. It is already playing out in the battle over women’s health and across politics, religion and the arts.

Sounds a bit like Texas, does it not?

Brazil is witnessing the political rise of a fiery army captain-turned-congressman named Jair Messias Bolsonaro, who speaks fondly of the country’s 1964-1985 dictatorship in which he once served. The blue-eyed nationalist, whose middle name means “Messiah,” is a devout Christian who was recently baptized in the Jordan River. At 63, he is running for president on a pro-gun, antiabortion and anti-gay-rights platform.

This next paragraph is the crux of the story.

Two major phenomena are driving the conservative shift. The first is the rise of evangelical Christianity. Now comprising a third of Brazilians, evangelicals are on track to outnumber Catholics by 2035, according to pollster Datafolha. The second is growing exasperation with lawlessness, from corruption to a homicide rate so high that over 61,000 people are slain here each year, a toll that would wipe out Cincinnati in five years.

Now these aren’t just any evangelicals. These are a subset: Pentecostals. The distinction was made clear last October with this story by former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey who traveled to Brazil to write it up for the Washington Post

So the Journal should specify who exactly these evangelicals are.

Brazil’s evangelical bloc in Congress, accounting for a sixth of lower-house deputies, played a central role in the 2016 impeachment of left-wing President Dilma Rousseff, Mr. da Silva’s handpicked successor. Along with other conservatives, they form the self-styled “Bible, Beef and Bullets” lobby that has helped her replacement, Mr. Temer, stay in power, partly in exchange for loosening controls over logging and ranching in the Amazon rain forest.

Temer, by the way, is a Lebanese Maronite Christian, according to this Post piece. Sounds like these evangelicals are a mixed bag.

I wish the reporter could have said more about the religion divide. Was Brazil’s past leftist slant influenced more by liberal Catholics who are now out of favor? How about charismatic Catholics, who are very similar to Pentecostal Protestants? Are they a factor? Brazil’s Catholic bishops have the charismatics to thank for stanching the flow of Catholics (which are still 52 percent of the population) out to Pentecostal churches.

And one of the new conservative thinkers she quotes, Bruno Garschagen, appears to be Catholic. So is this conservative move across doctrinal lines?

Conservative bills to relax Brazil’s strict gun laws, reduce the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 and ban abortion even in cases of rape are gaining momentum in Congress. In September, a federal judge in Brasília overturned a watershed 1999 ruling that banned psychologists from offering gay “conversion therapy,” raising fears among activists that other courts will support the controversial practice.
Evangelical groups have been waging a culture war nationwide, forcing Santander Bank in September to shut down an exhibition on sexual diversity. An angry mob staged a violent protest during a recent visit by American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler, burning her in effigy and calling her a “witch.” Brazil now boasts evangelical fashion stores, dating sites, cruises and sin-free video games.

The Journal is not the first publication to talk about this. If you can't breach the Journal's paywall, then read this very similar story, out in January, from the Atlantic. That article has some interesting background on the involvement of the (pentecostal) Assemblies of God in politics. Bolsonaro is also Catholic, we learn, although getting re-baptized in the Jordan River sounds like a pretty definite break from that church to me. 

I can’t help but wonder if evangelicals and Pentecostals will have any effect at quelling that orgy of Mardi Gras excess and sexuality in Rio de Janeiro known as the Carnivale. I’ll definitely believe that Brazil is a bastion of conservative Puritanism if that ever happens.

Until then, we have articles on Bolsonaro, like this New York Times piece on the candidate being cited for hate speech. It ran Sunday. If Bolsonaro pulls out a come-from-behind victory next week, will it be at least partly due to the support of evangelicals and Pentecostals? 

Near the end of the Journal story, there’s an interesting anecdote that illustrates how the conservative churches are the ones now doing social action; something the political left was known for.

“To be a great nation, Brazil needs an honest, Christian and patriotic president,” Mr. Bolsonaro said in Congress last year while casting a vote to put President Temer on trial for corruption—a motion that failed. Even now in his seventh term as a federal lawmaker, Mr. Bolsonaro remains unblemished by the country’s major scandals.
Across Brazil’s dusty savanna, that kind of talk resonates with voters.
Churches are already reshaping society here, filling in for the cash-strapped public health system by funding rehabilitation centers for drug addicts hooked on Bolivian cocaine. At The Life Squad, a farm near the town of Batayporã, dozens of men work to get clean and learn the gospel.

Years ago, I interviewed a Hispanic woman who had just moved to Houston from a place –- either Central or South America –- where the only game in town had been the Catholic Church. Then she began hearing radio broadcasts from Jimmy Swaggart. She became an evangelical Protestant, she said, because she now knew she had a choice.

All of South America has had that choice for several decades now and it's fascinating to see where they're going on it. How will the Protestantization of these countries affect them socially? Morally? Politically? The Marxism of the 20th century has been cast aside for something else. It will take lots of discerning reporting to learn what that will be.

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