Jair Bolsonaro, Pentecostalists, and Brazil’s dangerous drift. J. J. Kourliandsky

J. J. Kourliandsky

While national evangelism prevails throughout Latin America, it deserves to be studied in the specific context of Brazil, a country where Jair Bolsonaro, a presidential candidate with intolerant and authoritarian statements full of references to God, got elected.

The importance of going beyond anathemas

All the explanations we hear about Bolsonaro’s presidential victory tend to reject it on moral and/or ideological bases. Many people tend to see the president of Brazil as what they call a demagogue, a populist, a “tropical Trump” or even a fascist.
This vocabulary may contain a part of the truth, but it also reflects a militant stance rather than a pedagogical one; it does not help us understand why a deputy that was seen as feeble and folkloric ended up in power. It is also important to focus on the religious factors that made this victory possible.
All those that followed – even superficially – Brazil’s last presidential elections noticed the big number of biblical references that prevailed in Bolsonaro’s speeches. The first page of his presidential program refers to God by stating the following: “God above everything”. At the bottom of the same page, a quote from the Gospel of John reads: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free”. On the evening of October 20th, 2018, while his victory was announced, Jair Bolsonaro’s first words referenced God: “I have never been alone, I felt beside me the presence of God”. While Bolsonaro pronounced these words, we could see him holding the constitution in one hand, and the Bible in the other…
By using a biblical redirect, Bolsonaro probably wanted to thank the Pentecostal shepherds that had backed his candidacy. He was raised in a Catholic family, yet it is from Israel that he had launched his electoral campaign in 2016. On May 12th, 2016, Bolsonaro was christened in the water of the Jordan river by Evaristo Pereira, the shepherd of the Assembly of God and the leader of the social Christian party. This ceremony was filmed and broadcasted on YouTube. Bolsonaro’s choice to be christened in the Jordan river was further proof of how central Israel is to Pentecostal evangelists. Deputy Jony Marcos, a member of the Brazilian Republican Party who is also part of the Evangelical Parliamentarian Front, gave us further proof of this on December 7th, 2017, when he declared to BBC Brasil: “Jerusalem has been the Holy City of the Jews and the Christians since forever”. Also, Jair Bolsonaro’s electoral program included references from the Pentecostal doctrine, particularly relating to education, family, and the condemnation of the so-called “gender ideology”.
This was the moment that secured Bolonaro Pentecostal evangelist support. Many shepherds who supported and voted for this candidate made it very clear the importance of “defining family”. Even the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God ended up putting its TV stations at Jair Bolsonaro’s disposition.

A political speech with an evangelical spirit

But the most important thing may be lying elsewhere. Candidate Bolsonaro’s behavior, in general, had been very evangelical. He used a very clear and specific language on a wide range of issues that included social, economic and diplomatic topics. He suggested following “Truth”, a path that he saw as “decent, liberal, centered on individuals, on family, on armed forces”. “He opposed this same ideology to those that he saw as “perverse ideologies”, whose only followers were adepts of “cultural Marxism”, of “Gramsci”, of “the Left”, of “the Workers’ party”, or even of the Foro de São Paulo. Bolsonaro chose to abide by a binary religious discourse similar to the one that evangelists use specifically when talking about politics. His campaign ended up being more prophetic than rational. His references to the notion of personal salvation allowed him to legitimize market economy and private property, both of which he sees as sacred. Bolsonaro also demonized his political challengers, using an intolerant tone similar to the one that Pentecostals adopt towards other beliefs. He saw himself as a depositary for Truth: therefore he considered that he did not need to debate with the other candidates since they were following the wrong path. Jair Bolsonaro did not take part in the last aired TV debate organized by TV Globo which occurred right before the first round of the presidential elections; instead, he chose to speak alone, at the same time, on Record TV, the TV channel owned by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

A president with a National-Evangelist inspiration

Jair Bolsonaro is either convinced by his ideas or driven by opportunism. In any case, he is willing to rule as the representative of a far-right trend that is close to national evangelism. Many of his conceptions come from the radical right: authoritarianism, sectarianism, westernism, anticommunism, and economic liberalism. At the same time, Bolsonaro sends all these ideas back to a Pentecostal origin. This allows him to claim then that he represents a regime that would be “national evangelist” by nature. This stance is copied from the one based on “national Catholicism” that prevailed under the Franquist regime (1939-1975).
The first measures that President Jair Bolsonaro adopted were in line with the promises he made during his campaign. The day he took office, on January 1st, 2019, he chose Prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu as his first guest, confirming, therefore, the central importance Israel holds for Pentecostal evangelists. Three of the ministers that Bolsonaro chose for his government (Foreign Affairs; Education; Women, Family and Human Rights) defend national evangelist ideas. From the day shepherd Damares Alves took office as the Minister for Women, Family and Human Rights, she declared that she would be working following a path that would be “terribly Christian”. The minister of education, Ricardo Veléz, a man with Colombian origins, ended up being fired because he wanted to force school students to use “God above everything”, an expression that Bolsonaro had used during his campaign. With that said, Veléz’s successor, Abraham Weintraub, happens to share the same kind of ideas. As for the minister of Foreign Affairs, Ernesto Araujo announced on the day he took office that Brazil’s diplomacy would be placed under the sign of John the Apostle. His words came as follows: “I would like to start with a sentence that I find fundamental. Gnosesthe ten Aletheia kai he Aletheia eleutheosei humans. You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free”.

Creative sectarian evangelist groups invested considerable financial means to win elections. Their strategy aimed at having a maximum impact on the unconscious of the majority of the people. Beyond Brazil, this situation also exists in many Latin American countries as well and in various regions of the world, particularly in Africa. Pentecostalists are growing because they are instrumentalizing fears in a context where democracy is in crisis and secularism is eroding. Their control of mass communication means and their militant use of social networks facilitate in return their spreading of convincing stories. At the same time, Pentecostalists end up harming notions such as democratic reason, as they put a limit to dialogue and constructive arguments.
Brazil is in a situation where social gaps that are artificially masked threaten to go deeper. In the long run, these fractures can only lead to eruptive social explosions.

Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky is a researcher on the Iberic world at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS). He is also the director of the Observatory of Latin America at the Jean Jaurès Foundation.

This article is part of a partnership project between the Observatory for Contemporary Crises and the Observatory of Latin America – Jean Jaurès Foundation. It is an adapted translation from a previously-released article in French.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:

Jean Jaurès Foundation (2019).“Jair Bolsonaro, Pentecostalists, and Brazil’s dangerous drift”, Observatory on contemporary crises, September 26, 2019, URL: https://crisesobservatory.es/jair-bolsonaro-pentecostalists-and-brazils-dangerous-drift-j-j-kourliandsky/