Former far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has officially left office in Brazil, but his legacy will continue to impact the country for years to come. One key element he maintained until his final days was the presence of religion in his speeches and public appearances.
Previous to the inauguration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's government, on Jan. 1, Bolsonaro travelled to the United States to avoid passing the sash. In a Facebook live on December 30, he repeated his motto: God, land, family, and freedom.
Just weeks before, the same day leftist Lula was certified as president-elect in Brazil, on Dec. 12, Bolsonaro appeared to supporters who gathered in front of the Alvorada Palace, the official presidential residence in Brasília, having by his side a Catholic priest.
On the same day, bolsonaristas tried to invade the Federal Police building, in the federal capital and smashed and burned cars and buses, clashing with the police. Since the election, they have been promoting protests and vandalism across the country disputing the results and asking for military intervention.
Bolsonaro had broken over a month of silence only three days prior, with a speech encouraging them to carry on. But on Dec. 12, he listened, while the priest compared him to Saint John The Baptist and his supporters repeated the sentences in prayer, according to news outlet Metropoles.
Religion has been an element explored by Bolsonaro in speeches and alliances for a while now, which grew stronger after he became president. And the weight of the religious vote was a strong element in the election, with both campaigns trying to capitalize on it even harder in the run-off.
It was then that violence and political harassment within churches gained prominence, registering scenes of discussions between religious followers and priests, attacks during religious events, and denounces of religious leaders pressuring the vote in certain candidates.
In the weeks closer to the election day, posts shared on social media involving electoral campaigns inside Brazilian churches intensified, leading to actions in electoral justice. The events often involve Evangelical churches and Bolsonaro supporters, escalating the polarization of the ideological dispute and marking the 2022 dispute.
‘Mass electoral manoeuvre’
“I saw religious leaders in the pulpit offering election campaign material and making pro-Bolsonaro speeches without fear. It was very clear to me that the place that should be my church was instead a mass electoral manoeuvre spot,” said Luiz Otávio, 18, an Evangelical from General Carneiro, Paraná in southern Brazil.
He told Global Voices in a WhatsApp conversation that he has gone to Evangelical churches since he was a child. Having already attended different temples in the city, the last one was The Foursquare Church, a Pentecostal denomination. Yet, he recently abandoned this custom, denouncing harassment for not agreeing and not accepting the Church’s political positions.
“They have always said the ‘left’ is the enemy, that they would close the churches. But listening to a pastor on top of the altar praying for God to free Brazil from communism was the final straw,” he said.
A similar situation happened with Guilherme Sampaio, who claims to be an assiduous attendee of the Evangelical Church ‘Vinde a mim’ (Come to Me, in English) since 2020. The campaign among pastors of the congregation intensified during the elections, and the worship became a constant platform of the electoral campaign for Bolsonaro.
“They also started posting on the Church's Facebook page that a Christian does not vote for Lula. That he defends things that are contrary to Christian thinking, such as abortion,” he told Global Voices via WhatsApp. The posts, however, appear to be deleted from their Facebook page after some time.
Attacks on Sampaio's private social media profile were also constant, which led him to leave the Church.
“On the day of the first round election, I made a (political) post on my Facebook and the church members commented attacking me in various ways. Even saying I had no right to enter Israel (a trip I would do with the church in November). I had to leave the church because of that, but they keep posting things to attack me.”
The ideological and conservative debates spread easily among Evangelicals, who represent one-third of Brazil’s population and overwhelmingly prefer the far-right Bolsonaro to Lula.
Brazil, a secular state
Lula published an open letter addressed to Evangelicals during the election campaign to counter claims such as one that he would close down churches. The letter was also an attempt to reduce his rejection among this electorate.
Over twenty paragraphs, it emphasizes the growth of Evangelical churches during the previous governments of the Workers’ Party (PT) and policies enacted by the party in support of religious people. It also highlights the secularity of the State, as indicated in the Brazilian Constitution.
The country's most recent Federal Constitution, from 1988, written after 21 years under the military dictatorship, maintains the idea that the State cannot manifest itself religiously and guarantees religious freedom. Thus, under Brazilian law, pastors or priests cannot ask for a vote in the church.
More than 30 percent of Brazilians now identify as Evangelicals even though the majority still remains Catholic. In many countries, including the U.S., these Evangelical churches and their believers are becoming an increasingly important political force throughout Latin America.
Bolsonaro invested significant campaign time in a robust agenda for campaigning within religious spaces. In the run-off, these appearances intensified, causing turmoil and controversies in the places where events were held, as in the celebration of ‘Our Lady Aparecida’ the Patroness of Brazil on October 12.
Bolsonaro went to the mass at Aparecida's Basilica and was caught under fire for stirring up and encouraging political campaigns inside the sanctuary. After he was gone, one of the priests conducting the mass remarked that it was not “a day to ask for votes, it is a day to ask for blessings.”
A few days later, also in São Paulo, a woman interrupted a priest after he mentioned names of human rights defenders murdered in Brazil, like Marielle Franco, a Rio Councillor murdered in 2018, as well as Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and journalist Dom Philips, both killed in the Amazon region this year.
Even São Paulo's Archbishop, Cardinal Odilo Scherer, had to explain on Twitter why he dresses in red — a color often linked to the left in politics — a traditional outfit for his position:
Se alguém estranha minha roupa vermelha (perfil), saiba que a cor dos cardeais é o vermelho (sangue), simbolizando o amor à Igreja e prontidão ao martírio, se preciso for. Deus abençoe a todos. Mas… ninguém machuque ninguém!
— Dom Odilo Scherer (@DomOdiloScherer) October 16, 2022
If anyone finds strange my red outfit (profile), know that the color of the cardinals is red (blood), symbolizing love for the Church and readiness for martyrdom if needed. God bless you all. But… no one hurts anyone!
After Lula's victory on Oct. 31, some of the most influential Evangelical leaders who supported Bolsonaro began to change the opposition speeches they made to the future president.
Silas Malafaia, one of Bolsonaro's toughest campaigners in this election, hasn't spoken to the president since November 1, according to Metropoles. Edir Macedo, leader of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, who also declared his support for Bolsonaro, said that church members should “forgive” Lula. He also affirmed that Lula's triumph represents the “will of God.”
Lula took office on Jan. 1.