- - Monday, October 22, 2018

RIO DE JANEIRO — If the polls hold true and Brazilians elect right-wing maverick Jair Bolsonaro as president Sunday, then they will have not only turned their country’s political order upside down, but they also will have clinched the clout of Christian evangelical voters as Brazil’s most critical electoral bloc, powerful enough to elect one of their own in South America’s most populous nation.

Born-again Christians, whose numbers have grown exponentially since the 1980s and who today account for roughly 1 in 4 Brazilians, have long wielded huge political clout. They propelled leftist labor leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to power in 2003 and 13 years later helped topple his hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff.

Now estranged from their onetime Workers’ Party allies on the left, evangelical leaders have used their pulpits, church rolls and massive media outlets — the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God owns Brazil’s third-largest television station — to unabashedly push Mr. Bolsonaro’s upstart candidacy.

The former army captain has long been a vocal critic of legalized abortions, same-sex unions and comprehensive sex education. Maria das Dores Campos Machado, a religious scholar at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, noted in an interview that those views appeal to conservative Christians.

But crucial endorsements from Bishops Jose Wellington, head of the 22-million-member Assemblies of God, and Edir Macedo, his counterpart at the 8-million-member Universal Church, may go way beyond a common purpose on social and moral issues.

“I believe there are great interests behind this support for Bolsonaro. It’s not just in terms of ideals or religious beliefs, but also mixes with economic interests,” Ms. Campos Machado said. “It’s a pragmatism that has to do with always being in power, or trying to be in power.”

At Rio de Janeiro’s Atitude Baptist megachurch, the spiritual home of Mr. Bolsonaro’s third wife, Michelle, the fusion of faith and commerce is hard to miss.

As they enter the sprawling campus, visitors are greeted by a bookstore selling such titles as “The Little Princess’ Devotional Bible” and “The Bible for Minecrafters.” Most everybody, whether employee or lay believer, wears apparel emblazoned with the church logo, which can be purchased at the gift shop next door.

Harder to find is the worship hall, which looks more like a hotel conference room than a church. Ubiquitous posters, though, promote an in-house “seminary” offering members classes ranging from a “bronze” to a “platinum” level.

Church officials are tight-lipped about their activities and note that only lead pastor Josue Valandro can accurately express their mission. Mr. Valandro does just that when he incorporates Mr. Bolsonaro’s “My party is Brazil” slogan into his sermons.

Walking a fine line

Like many other evangelical leaders, Mr. Valandro walks a fine line to stay on the right side of local election laws, Ms. Campos Machado said.

“In Brazil, campaigning inside churches is illegal, but there is no systematic control,” she said. “It’s a group that assembles thousands of people for weekend services, and during these services you see an exchange of political information that benefits Jair Bolsonaro.”

Detailed membership rolls and weekly attendance generate a treasure trove of voter data and access, a fact not lost on political hopefuls from left to right, University of Sao Paulo scholar Ricardo Mariano told The Times.

“Parties create specific committees to deal directly with pastors, with priests, with bishops,” Mr. Mariano said. And during election season, “various churches [themselves] work like electoral campaign committees.”

Snacking at Atitude Baptist’s coffee shop, 23-year-old Caique Jeronimo said he backed Cabo Daciolo — a self-declared “messenger from heaven” who spent the final weeks of campaigning for the Oct. 7 presidential vote on a mountain retreat. Mr. Jeronimo now plans to vote for Mr. Bolsonaro, the rightist, law-and-order candidate who came from far back in the pack to take some 46 percent of the vote in a field of 13 candidates, barely missing an outright win.

With evangelicals firmly in his corner, Mr. Bolsonaro, often seen as a Brazilian version of Donald Trump, is strongly favored in the two-candidate runoff with Workers’ Party nominee Fernando Haddad, the former mayor of Sao Paulo.

“It’s all in the Bible,” said Mr. Jeronimo, who works and practices at the church.

When it comes to politics, “we talk among ourselves,” he said. “Everybody has an opinion, and we conserve and exchange ideas.”

Chatting with fellow churchgoers in the courtyard, Eric Campos, 31, suggested that he shared Mr. Bolsonaro’s social conservatism but his vote was just as much a determination to keep da Silva’s Workers’ Party from coming back to power.

“I believe in a family project; I believe that maintaining normal values is better than not,” he said. “But for me, the main reason [to vote for Mr. Bolsonaro] is [to force] power-sharing and changes in the economy.”

In fact, the Workers’ Party is widely seen as having virtually no chance of making inroads with evangelicals before the runoff, Mr. Mariano said. Polls show Mr. Haddad trailing Mr. Bolsonaro by 34 percentage points among the group.

“It’s a huge difference, and it’s getting bigger now in the second round,” he said.

Witness to growth

A seven-term congressman representing Rio de Janeiro, Mr. Bolsonaro has been a witness to the growth of the “evangelical bloc” in the House — which now has 84 out of 513 representatives — and the 2016 election of Universal Church Bishop Marcelo Crivella as his hometown mayor.

“Rio has been a kind of laboratory,” Ms. Campos Machado said. Evangelical candidates found political success elsewhere in Brazil, she said, “but in the case of Rio, you see religious identity as an electoral attribute.”

Mr. Bolsonaro last week made a point of visiting with Rio’s archbishop, Cardinal Orani Tempesta, and signing a letter promising to “defend the family” and religious freedom, and to oppose the legalization of drugs and abortions.

The move underlines that in a country where more than 170 million still subscribe to the Roman Catholic faith, courting Catholics remains a political necessity. Ms. Campos Machado said that holds no contradictions.

Mr. Bolsonaro “has support from the ‘Christian right’ — not just from evangelicals, but also from the Catholic right,” she said.

The intimate links between faith and politics, and the tilt of influential denominations toward the right, meanwhile, mimic the 1980s “moral majority” in the United States, Mr. Mariano said.

“The number of both evangelical politicians and pastors who define themselves more and more as ‘right wing’ and ‘conservative’ … [is] what’s known as the ‘Christian right’ in the United States,” he said.

Mr. Bolsonaro has pledged to that bloc that if it helps him move into Brasilia’s presidential Planalto Palace, then he will advance socially conservative legislation that includes limiting the rights of same-sex couples and a bill to fight “ideological indoctrination” in public schools.

At least for Atitude’s Mr. Valandro, those promises seem to have biblical endorsements.

“Let a patriot be elected today, an honest person who loves the nation, the family and the people,” he said as he summed up his sermon. “Let the prophecies made about Brazil be fulfilled.”

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