In a Catholic Stronghold, Evangelicals Flexing Their Political Power

RIO DE JANEIRO—Pastor Silas Malafaia, the megawatt televangelist and leader in Brazil's Pentecostal Assemblies of God church, did not get his preferred choice in the country's presidential election. He wanted Marina Silva, a fellow member of the Assemblies of God, to finish in the top two, sending the evangelical Christian into Sunday's runoff.

She placed third, but that hasn't stopped Malafaia from wielding hefty political clout.

Malafaia, who has also published dozens of books on faith and espouses a socially conservative platform, is forbidden by law from politicking from the pulpit, but he has continued to use his standing to message against the incumbent Dilma Rousseff, head of the center-left Workers' Party. Malafaia is warning voters of the economic and social consequences of extending the party's 12-year rule (in a recent video, he even warned that schools were teaching homosexuality). Rousseff is leading challenger Aecio Neves, a member of the center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party, in polls ahead of the final round Sunday.

That the views of Malafaia and other evangelical preachers are being closely watched in Brazil is a result of the growing political and social power of Assemblies of God, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, the Brazilian Baptist Convention, and other evangelical churches in the world's largest Catholic country. The number of citizens identifying as evangelical grew from 7 percent to 22 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the percentage of Catholics dropped from 74 percent to 65 percent, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.

Especially in large cities, it's not uncommon to see increasing numbers of evangelical churches tucked into city blocks, mostly in nondescript buildings. In Sao Paulo, Universal Church founder Edir Macedo is trying to rival the beauty of the traditional Catholic cathedrals with his massive Temple of Solomon, a larger replica of the original Israeli temple that opened this summer. Services that include speaking in tongues, chanting, or megachurch tropes like rock music and massive TV screens are on the rise.

That boom comes even as evangelical numbers and influence in the U.S. are starting to dip. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical church in America, has reported steadily declining conversions and attendance, and nationally the population of evangelicals has either stayed stagnant or dipped slightly in surveys. And the crush of states that have approved gay marriage (and the Republicans who are either supporting the issue or staying neutral) is seen as evidence of a declining influence of the Religious Right.

Writing in The Atlantic, Public Religion Research Institute CEO Robert Jones says that those changing demographics are cutting into Republican majorities in the South by taking away the "most stalwart of GOP supporters."

But the evangelical boom in Brazil hasn't created the opposite scenario, since churches haven't hitched their wagons with one party or political ideal. The multiple parties and traditions of Brazilian politics mean that evangelicals function largely as free agents. They make up a sizable bloc of the legislature—experts estimate the evangelical alliance is the third-largest in the legislature—but generally ally only on social issues like gay marriage and abortion.

And that means that Brazilian national players are increasingly looking to get in with churches and evangelical pastors.

The growth in the church wasn't enough to translate into a win for Silva, the surprising contender who went from a vice presidential slot on a fringe ticket to threatening to unseat Rousseff. She finished in third place with just 21 percent of the vote, not enough to make a second round, and has endorsed Neves in the final round (he trails Rousseff in polls). But it marked the rise of the first serious evangelical contender for the presidency; by contrast, the more traditional evangelical pastor Everaldo Pereira netted less than 1 percent of the vote.

It's on the state level where evangelicals are flexing their muscles.

The Evangelical Parliamentary Front, a legislative caucus made up of evangelical-backed candidates, is up to 80 members after the latest round of elections brought in evangelical members from wealthy states like Parana and Espirito Santo. Marcelo Crivella, a Universal Church bishop and nephew of Macedo, is in a high-profile runoff to be governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro.

Rousseff, a Catholic, has appeared in events with Crivella in his gubernatorial race. She also attended the opening of the Temple of Solomon with Macedo this summer and has made small overtures to that church (in what many saw as a move to appeal to the evangelical population, Rousseff appointed Crivella to a cabinet post overseeing fisheries, and named fellow evangelical pastor Eduardo Lopes to succeed him). It remains to be seen if that will translate to more evangelical support or whether those voters will side with Neves, also a Catholic but politically more to the right.

Leonardo Almeida, a researcher at Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro, said that the electoral system in Brazil and a tradition of voting for "people, not parties" makes it easier for evangelical churches to push for preferred candidates and get them elected to the legislature (states elect a certain number of legislators depending on population, and candidates run from a broad set of parties).

"If a bishop or a pastor says to vote for a candidate because he's a man of God or has a good family, then the church votes for him and he will probably get elected," said Almeida. "I think that shows our political system works well" in representing the population.

But that also means there's less political cohesion in a country where social and political stances don't always go lock-step. Rodrigo Franklin de Sousa, a professor of religious studies at Brazil's Mackenzie University, said that evangelicals now hold the third-largest bloc in the legislature, after the business and landowners' groups. But outside of a few core conservative social issues like abortion rights, gay marriage, and the restriction of drugs, de Sousa said that voting bloc is more fluid.

"They will tend to work toward issues which are dear to their constituents, but there is no expressive contribution in the sense of tackling social or economic issues. Perhaps this is partly due to a lack of consistent visions and programs regarding these issues," he said.

On some core issues, however, they are making a splash, with a pushback against gay-rights gains (Silva even had a 24-hour flip-flop on gay marriage, reverting to a more conservative position after Assemblies of God leaders blasted her platform this summer). A poll this summer by Ibope, a national public opinion institute, found that 53 percent of Brazilians opposed legalization of gay marriage (nationally, marriage is legal but is being challenged in a federal court), while nearly 80 percent said they opposed full legalization of abortion and marijuana.

In part, that's because "evangelical" is a broad descriptor in Brazil, encompassing a range of churches from small rural outlets to megachurches like the Universal Church, where Macedo owns the nation's second-largest TV station and asks for tithes even higher than 10 percent. Even the Assemblies of God, the nation's largest evangelical church, isn't a monolith, and pastors of individual churches are encouraged to go their own way.

"Brazilian evangelicals who are politically conservative will side with conservative candidates, regardless of their belief. The same is true for left-wing evangelicals," said de Sousa. "Candidates who want to court evangelical voters will have to appeal to particular niches."

Outside of an Assemblies of God service in Sao Paulo before the first round of elections, parishioners were excited about the prospect of having someone with Silva's faith in the race, saying her beliefs were in line with theirs. But at a polling station in Rio de Janeiro on the Oct. 5 first round, voters seemed less interested in religion as a dividing factor. Angela Freitas, who identified as Protestant, said she was voting for Silva but that religion didn't influence her vote.

"I don't see religion as important even on things like gay marriage," she said. "All I think is that the country needs a change."

Jason Plautz reported from Brazil on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project (IRP).