Buda Mendes/Getty Images
RIO DE JANEIRO — In front of about 500 worshipers of an evangelical Christian church in a working-class Rio neighborhood, Pastor Abner Ferreira goes into a frenzy describing the power of God to save souls.
But he is just as keen on politics.
During the nearly three-hour service, Ferreira eulogizes Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and displays photos of him alongside the right-wing leader on a giant screen displayed behind the altar.
Later, in an interview with NPR, he said evangelicals are drawn to Bolsonaro because he promotes conservative family values and opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.
Caio Guatelli/AFP via Getty Images
As the president seeks another four-year term in the Oct. 2 election, Ferreira predicts, “I’m sure evangelicals will overwhelmingly vote for Bolsonaro.”
Bolsonaro is counting on their support to pull off the surprise. He trails his main challenger in the race, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in all polls, mainly due to the stagnation of the Brazilian economy.
In the last election, evangelicals, who now make up nearly a third of Brazil’s population, demonstrated their influence. Nearly 70% favored Bolsonaro ahead of the 2018 presidential run-off, helping him to an easy win, according to Brazilian polling firm Datafolha.
Nearly a quarter of Brazil’s Congress is made up of evangelicals, while Bolsonaro has appointed them to his cabinet. In December, he nominated the first-ever evangelical pastor, André Mendonça, to the Supreme Court. As soon as the announcement was made, first lady Michelle Bolsonaro, a devout evangelical, was over the moon, jumping for joy as she shouted “Hallelujah!”
This is a huge change for Brazil, which has long been the largest Catholic country in the world. For a time in the 1800s, Catholicism was its official religion while other faiths were not allowed to open churches, says Juliano Spyer, a Brazilian anthropologist who studies the evangelical movement.
Evangelicals – conservative Protestants who generally believe that the Bible is the ultimate moral authority and that lives are to be changed through a “resurrection” experience – made up only a tiny fraction of the population.
But amid the massive migration from the countryside to Brazilian cities that began in the 1950s, evangelical churches began to sprout in poor urban neighborhoods.
“People came from all kinds of places. They were disconnected from their families. And the church became that substitution for a family,” Spyer says.
He remembers working in the field in a poor village near the city of Salvador, on the Atlantic coast. There was one Catholic Church and 80 Evangelical Churches which, due to reduced internal regulations and bureaucracy, are easier to open. In impoverished areas ignored by the government, he says evangelicals have stepped in to provide everything from spiritual counseling to daycare and after-school sports programs.
Maria Magdalena Arrellaga for NPR
“If you lose your job, there is an infrastructure for you to get help. If your child is involved in drugs, you can find a lawyer. So it’s a huge attraction to be part of this organization,” he said.
Among the faith’s best-known projects are drug rehabilitation centers, such as the Desafio Jovem Ebenézer facility about an hour west of Rio. There, 128 resident patients receive religious instruction and classes in auto mechanics and other technical training as they recover from addictions to cocaine, heroin and alcohol.
One of the supervisors, Carlos Faria, is a former drug addict who was treated here. He was living on the streets of São Paulo when evangelical pastors invited him to a church. Soon after, he was admitted to the rehab center where, Faria says, with God’s help, he quit his cocaine addiction.
“I was going through very difficult times,” Faria says as she walks around the grounds of the treatment center. “But I have found refuge in Jesus Christ.”
Evangelicals now make up 31% of Brazil’s population, according to a 2020 survey by Datafolha. They still outnumber Catholics, who make up around 51%, according to the survey, but Evangelicals are growing at a much faster rate.
Looking ahead, José Eustaquio Alves, a demographer formerly at the government’s Institute of Geography and Statistics, told the Infobae news service that evangelicals will match the Catholic population by 2032.
“In 10 years, Brazil will cease to be a Catholic country,” said Fabio Zanini, columnist for Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that has covered the rise of Bolsonaro and the religious right, told NPR.
However, not all evangelicals are conservative. Many are poor single mothers of African descent, and have often voted for left-wing political candidates because of their economic proposals, says Anna Virginia Balloussier, a Brazilian journalist who is writing a book about the country’s evangelical movement.
Lula, as the leftist former president is known, is Catholic, but he also tries to appeal to evangelical voters, who analysts say are often more politically active.
Maria Magdalena Arrellaga for NPR
“The evangelical community is more engaged in everything they do. And so it’s easier to engage people in evangelical churches right now,” Balloussier told NPR.
Bolsonaro is working hard to prevent evangelicals from defecting to Lula. At a meeting with evangelical pastors last month, Bolsonaro said true Christians don’t vote for leftist candidates. At another meeting in May, he told the pastors that God had entrusted him with a difficult mission – the mission to lead Brazil.
Pastors responded with a standing ovation for Bolsonaro – then praying for him.
Ton Molina/Getty Images