Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Why Brazil Lacked Faith in Marina Silva

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At the front of one of Paraná’s largest Pentecostal churches, beneath a ceiling of glowing neon tiles arranged in the pattern of a giant cross, are two ornately framed pictures: one is of a new $300 million, 10,000-seat temple in São Paulo, and another is of a future $122 million, 5,000-seat structure here in downtown Curitiba.

Brazilian evangelicals are looking to the future—but Marina Silva, despite being the sole Pentecostal presidential candidate in the election, is not a part of their plans.

“What we want is someone who can open doors for the church,” Alessandre Freitas, a lead pastor of this congregation of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, told me after delivering a fiery two-hour sermon Sunday night that left his voice hoarse. “I think with Dilma it will be better.”

That conviction bore out Sunday when many evangelicals voted for President Dilma Rousseff—who is nominally a Catholic, but also a strong ally to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination after the Assemblies of God (to which Silva belongs). Both are charismatic Pentecostal faiths where pastors and laypeople alike invoke the name of Jesus to heal the sick and chase away demons.

Rather than being motivated by faith to support Silva, many evangelical Christians voted with the conviction that what’s best for the church is a strong and powerful ally in Palácio do Planalto. That meant voting for Dilma Rousseff, who won 41.5 percent of the overall vote, while center-right candidate Aécio Neves took 33.7 percent and Silva captured only 21.3 percent. Because no contender garnered an outright majority, Brazilians will return to the polls October 26 to choose between Rousseff and Neves.“The evangelical electorate remains fragmented, and like other Brazilians, many of them vote on pocketbook issues—which, for a sizeable contingent, would mean a vote for Dilma,” said Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies focused on Latin America at Virginia Commonwealth University.

While many commentators have surmised that Brazilian evangelicals were turned off by Silva’s flip-flop on gay rights, in reality there was no one thing that caused Silva to lose the evangelical vote—much less the whole election. Rather, the election result underscores how Brazil’s fast-growing evangelical population is a divided voting bloc that has yet to coalesce like the well-oiled “religious Right” movement of the United States.

Evangelicalism is growing fast in this Roman Catholic nation, today accounting for nearly a quarter of the population, while Catholicism’s share has declined to less than two-thirds. But the community is also divided between the two largest Protestant denominations. Silva’s Assemblies of God is led by the millionaire pastor Silas Malafaia, while the Universal Church is led by the billionaire telecoms magnate Edir Macedo, a supporter of Rousseff.

This year, Macedo stopped airing Malafaia on his television network in what was seen as a political move to support Rousseff, who attended the July inauguration of Macedo’s $300 million rendition of Solomon’s Temple in São Paulo while also endorsing his nephew’s bid for governor of Rio de Janeiro state (Macedo’s nephew, Marcelo Crivella, advanced to the second-round runoff).

That divide underscores how far Brazil is from forming its own version of the “religious Right”, according to Rodrigo de Sousa, a professor of religion at Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie in São Paulo. “The idea of a unified evangelical voting bloc, or the equation of evangelicals with the ‘religious Right,’ has more to do with an artificial image projected by the media than with reality,” he told Americas Quarterly.

And still some explanation for the divided evangelical bloc traces back to Silva’s reversal on gay rights. Her initial government platform supported a constitutional amendment guaranteeing gay marriage, which was retracted and reworded as a call for same-sex partners to enjoy the same legal rights as married couples. The episode caused Silva to lose the confidence of both conservative evangelicals and liberal voters—as well as the support of the Hulk (Hollywood actor Mark Ruffalo).

But to focus on that episode alone is losing the forest for the trees. Rousseff and Neves both identify as Roman Catholics and are advocates of gay rights—yet they still won support from Brazil’s estimated 42 million evangelicals. 

Back at the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God’s Curitiba congregation, 71-year-old Zolina Perreira, who identifies as both black and evangelical, told me that she had voted for Rousseff—underscoring how Silva hadn’t just failed to inspire the evangelical vote, she also never seemed to galvanize Brazil’s sizable black population or the 70 percent of voters who said they sought change. Silva described herself as a candidate who happened to be evangelical and happened to be black—even though she would have been the first Brazilian president to clearly identify as either.

“It is not possible to pinpoint a single group as the cause for Marina Silva’s demise,” Chesnut said. “It seems to me that she lost support from multiple segments that originally rallied behind her.”

Tags: Brazil, Marina Silva, Religion
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