“Why does Brazil feel so much like Texas?” I wondered. My family and I were in the first weeks of a yearlong family sabbatical in South America, which we started in Brazil.
We came for the tropical climate, gorgeous natural areas, and to volunteer at Eco Caminhos, a permaculture farm. During my time in Brazil, I’ve also been observing the leadup to and aftermath of one of the most polarizing and contentious elections in Brazil’s recent history.
First, a bit of background about the country. Brazil gained independence from Portugal in 1822, but instead of becoming a democracy, Brazil kept its own king until 1889, right around the same time it finally abolished slavery. Waves of military coups and shaky republics followed one after the other until a military dictatorship took over from 1964 to 1985, under the guise of fending off communism. Since the late 1980s, Brazil has been holding democratic elections.
In October, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, representing the leftist Workers’ Party, ran against incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. Many observers have argued that Bolsonaro’s policies and personality disturbingly mirror those of former U.S. President Donald Trump. In many respects, Bolsonaro’s presidency has felt like a reply to the fall 2020 elections in the United States: COVID-19 misinformation running amok, Bolsonaro claiming the election was rigged, and political divides deepening to the point of neighbors and friends refusing to speak to one another. In the Oct. 30 runoffs, Lula won by a sliver, capturing 50.9 percent of votes.
This election is just the most recent manifestation of deeper social divides in both the U.S. and Brazil. Benjamin A. Cowan, a historian at the University of California San Diego, notes that, since the 1980s, both countries have experienced a coalescing of “moral majorities” and right-wing populist groups, often with conservative Christians on the front lines. In Brazil, like in the U.S., certain affinities are grouped together. In the United States, a political slogan like “Jesus, guns, babies” attracts conservative constituents. In Brazil, conservatives rally around “beef, Bible, and bullets.” No wonder it feels like Texas.
In Brazil, all Protestants are generally considered evangelicals. Media coverage of this group — which makes up 31 percent of the nation’s population — repeats patterns seen in U.S. media coverage: Though Brazilian evangelicals include a wide range of nondenominational churches, Pentecostal groups, and denominations like Methodists and Baptists, the news portrays evangelicals as a monolithic group, all riding the wave of “Bolsonarism” — Brazil’s version of Trumpism. On the day of the second round of elections, for instance, The New York Times ran the headline: “In an evangelical church, attendees pray for a Bolsonaro victory.”
But the picture on the ground is more variegated than the bird’s-eye view. On the one hand, United States’ observers can see disturbing parallels between Brazil’s divisive political and religious climate and that of the United States. But on the other hand, we can also learn from Brazil as activists and religious leaders attempt to mend divides.
With the ultra-right wave that has swept the country in recent years, Brazilian citizens have become scared again, João Lotufo told Sojourners, recalling the culture of fear during the military dictatorship. Lotufo is an evangelical who runs an urban gardening program in the favelas of São Paolo.
Many Brazilians feel that the country is still trying to find firm footing as a democracy, and Christian nationalists, like Bolsonaro, aren’t helping matters. “People don’t discuss politics. We don’t have this as a cultural practice,” Lotufo said. “To discuss politics during the military government — you would go to jail.”
Since the rise of Bolsonaro and his brand of heavy-handed Christian nationalism, some Christians who think differently have also been afraid to speak up in churches. They fear becoming outcasts or even being attacked by their fellow Christians, said Lotufo.
Nilza Valéria Zacaria is a journalist and Brazilian of African descent who leads a movement of Christians resisting Bolsonarismo. The movement started in 2016 following the impeachment of then-president Dilma Rousseff, which they felt took place extralegally and against established court processes. Frente de Evangelicos pelo Estado de Direito (Evangelical Front for the Rule of Law) is now over 20,000 members strong according to Zacaria. They advocate for human rights, legal process, social justice, and care for the poor. “We feel that feeding and clothing people and giving dignity to the basic needs of life is part of the project of God,” Zacaria told Sojourners.
During the recent elections, Zacaria’s group established a pastoral hotline for Christians experiencing persecution from their churches for supporting Lula. They also focused on forming a sense of citizenship among people in poverty, whose political leanings may otherwise be swayed by a 600 reais (about $120) monthly government stipend (the program, called Auxilio Brasil, was instituted by Bolsonaro two months before the elections). Zacaria estimates that, among the 60 million votes cast for Lula in the Oct. 30 election, over 7 million came from evangelicals.
Though Brazil is a fairly new democracy, the aftermath of the country’s recent election has gone more smoothly than the 2020 U.S. elections. Leading government officials, including the Senate President Rodrigo Pacheco and Attorney General André Mendonça, announced the results together on television immediately after the votes were in. Bolsonaro himself was silent for two days. But as the legitimacy of his claims of election fraud weakened, he agreed to transfer power, though he has not formally conceded.
Bolsonarismo will continue to be a force to reckon with in Brazil. Ultra-right movements here and in the U.S. have built transnational alliances that exchange strategies, messaging, and literature. These connections give both Bolsonarismo and Trumpism staying power, as they feed on the fears and anger of followers. But leaders resisting these movements are also forming transnational ties. Zacaria, for one, hopes to visit Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in the coming months and dialogue with civil rights leaders in the United States. “We are different, but we speak of the same God, same Christ, same Bible,” Zacaria told Sojourners. “It is important for us to connect with American churches at this point, especially Black leaders working on issues of social justice.”
Hearing from leaders like Zacaria and observing some of the differences between politics in Brazil and the United States expands my sense of what is possible. For example, when it comes to the environment, a recent study found that evangelical and Pentecostal affiliation in Brazil is not associated with reduced environmental concern, as it is in the United States. Brazil’s former minister of environment Marina Silva, who is expected to be appointed to the position again by Lula, is a member of the Pentecostal evangelical denomination Assemblies of God.
For those of us discouraged by the recent trends in U.S. politics, looking to Brazil shows us that the narratives and dividing lines are not as entrenched as they may seem. There are people in both countries and around the world working to build bridges between opposing social groups and bolster the foundations of a healthy democracy. It is, as Lotufo said to me, “trabalho de formiguinha” — the work of ants. But ants move mountains. With the Spirit’s help, we can too.