BUENOS AIRES — As tens of thousands of his constituents packed Brazil’s famed Sambodromo for last week’s Carnival extravaganza, Rio de Janeiro Mayor Marcelo Crivella was touching down 6,000 miles away in Frankfurt, Germany, to shop for law enforcement equipment.
Beyond the distance and 40-plus degree temperature difference, the jarring image of a mayor voluntarily skipping the most important cultural and tourist-drawing date on his city’s calendar offered a metaphor for the rift between Cariocas and Mr. Crivella, a devout evangelical Christian who was snubbing their trademark celebration for the second time in as many years as mayor.
It’s also a symbol of the increasing political success of Protestant evangelical movements across the region, a rise that has unnerved the long-dominant Catholic Church and mainstream politicians who are unused to challenges from social conservatives.
In Costa Rica this month, evangelical Christian singer Fabricio Alvarado stunned the political establishment by finishing first in a crowded political field, earning a place in the runoff almost entirely on his promise to roll back recently legalized same-sex marriage. Evangelicals have rallied against gay marriage in Peru, Mexico and the Dominican Republican. Evangelical opposition is even credited with defeating the first peace deal with Colombia’s FARC guerrillas because it was thought the accord was too supportive of feminism and gay rights, The New York Times reported.
An evangelical preacher and bishop in the 12-million-member Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, the 60-year-old Mr. Crivella is an unlikely figure to govern Brazil’s self-styled party capital. But in 2016, at the height of the country’s major political crisis that would cost President Dilma Rousseff her job, his anti-establishment credentials helped turn him into the “neo-Pentecostal” movement’s first big-city mayor.
Fiscal and public safety emergencies have since sent his approval ratings plummeting, and Mr. Crivella did not help his case when he tried to halve funding for Rio’s traditional samba schools — which in turn brutally mocked him in last week’s parade.
But with all his troubles, the Protestant preacher’s political rise — in a country still home to world’s largest community of Roman Catholics — remains astonishing. And with Brazil’s political and economic crisis far from over, some now wonder if evangelical forces might soon be able to replicate his feat on a national level.
The prospect of Brazilians electing their first-ever evangelical head of state in October, in fact, seems less far-fetched by the day, in part because of the likely disqualification of front-runner and popular former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — sentenced to a 12-year prison term over corruption — and in part because of the emergence of yet another evangelical leader from Rio.
Jair Bolsonaro, a 27-year veteran of the Chamber of Deputies and member of no fewer than eight political parties during his career, has emerged as a viable contender in early opinion polls. Nominally Catholic, he has made a point of attending services at a Baptist church for the past 15 years.
It’s that kind of alignment with — but no outright link to — evangelical circles that makes the 62-year old such an appealing presidential contender, said Francisco Borba, a sociologist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo.
“Bolsonaro is a pretty particular case because he represents [evangelicals] but doesn’t directly come out of religious leadership,” Mr. Borba said.
Far from being a disadvantage, Mr. Bolsonaro’s more secular law-and-order credentials help him expand his base and appeal to evangelicals worried about a perceived larger cultural decay.
“In a society that is turning extremely insecure [because of] crime, economic insecurity, insecurity surrounding moral values, when someone tells you, ‘I will bring back security … and, furthermore, punish those who took away your peace,’ that rhetoric becomes very captivating,” Mr. Borba said.
The evangelicals’ political power has risen in tandem with the movement’s success in attracting converts over the decades. In 1970, 90 percent of Brazilians were Catholic and 5 percent were evangelicals. Today, the Catholic percentage has fallen to about 50 percent, while evangelicals are estimated at about 30 percent.
Among Brazil’s progressives, the alarm bells are ringing. A Bolsonaro presidency, warned women’s rights activist Debora Diniz, would set her country back a decade.
“Concerning human rights, concerning the rights of women and sexual minorities especially, the growth of evangelicals has had a tremendous impact,” Ms. Diniz said. “Controversial topics — women’s rights, gay and gender [issues] — easily spur tensions.”
But Ms. Diniz, a visiting fellow at Yale Law School, also acknowledged that the congressman’s cross-constituency appeal was particularly shrewd — and threatening.
“Bolsonaro is a strong name … but he is not a [traditional] religious guy …,” she said. “There are people who are very involved in the church who turn to politics to guarantee [a voice for] their view of life, and there are people who use religion as a platform.”
The Costa Rica election is another race firing evangelical voter fervor.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, Mr. Alvarado skillfully used an unpopular court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage to catapult himself from also-ran to front-runner, ultimately capturing 24.9 percent of votes. He now faces progressive Carlos Alvarado — no relation — a traditional politician and former government minister who came in second, at 21.7 percent.
Fabricio Alvarado owes his success not just to a largely socially conservative society, but also to evangelicals’ tapping into growing anti-establishment sentiment amid the lower and lower middle classes, said Maria Jose Cascante of the University of Costa Rica’s School of Political Sciences.
“Peru, Brazil [and] Costa Rica … are countries where politics is concentrated within the elites and where parties don’t have a strong base across the whole of society,” Ms. Cascante said. “That makes it very easy to move the faithful toward political decisions, as is the case with Fabricio Alvarado and his party.”
The evangelicals’ political clout expresses itself in different ways in different countries.
In once staunchly Catholic Peru, where a law making Oct. 31 a National Day of Evangelical Churches marked a key symbolic victory last year, for instance, leaders of the growing community are still mostly focused on campaigns outside of party politics.
“It’s not like Brazil with its evangelical [congressional] caucus,” said Veronique Lecaros y Gauthier, author of a recent book on conversions to evangelicalism. “Nevertheless, we’ve had this very strong ‘Don’t Mess With My Kids’ movement” — a staunchly anti-gay, anti-feminist example of a pragmatic if often uneasy coalition with conservative Catholics.
Even if evangelical political forces have scored relatively few outright wins at the polls, traditional parties of all stripes now compete to court church members, complete with token representatives, said Ms. Lecaros, who teaches at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.
“More than anything, we now see this tactic of having a well-known evangelical in each political party,” she said. “The idea is a little bit like, ‘We’ve got to have women, we’ve got to have physically challenged people, we’ve got to have an evangelical,’ so as to say, ‘We don’t have a problem with evangelicals, here they are in our party.’”
But whether it’s evangelicals wooing voters or candidates wooing evangelicals, across Latin America, little is left of what Ms. Lecaros said was once a distinctly Protestant distaste for party politics. And so even a once-apolitical pastor like Rio’s Mr. Crivella has long since changed his tune.
“I told God I wouldn’t … move a son from the altar to politics, but I confess I was wrong,” Mr. Crivella told supporters during his campaign. “One day, this nation will elect an evangelical president, and then … we’ll take the Gospel to all nations of the Earth.”