Jair Bolsonaro could not have won the presidency without the support of one very important group: Evangelical Christians. There is, perhaps, no other group that Bolsonaro has so vocally courted, or that has been so loyal to the president—And they remain key for Bolsonaro’s hopes of recapturing the presidency this year.

This is Brazil on Fire, a podcast about Brazil’s descent toward fascism under President Jair Bolsonaro. Over these six episodes we look at Bolsonaro’s far-right government that has set the country ablaze, and how the United States helped him do it. We’ll visit the birthplace of Brazilian Nazism, evangelical churches, and Indigenous villages in the Amazon. 

Hosted by Latin America-based journalist Michael Fox.

This podcast is produced in partnership between The Real News Network and NACLA.

Sound design by Gustavo Türck.

Theme music by Monte Perdido.


Transcript

Michael Fox:  Before we get started, I want to say that some of the interviews and portions of today’s episode were previously aired in a series on nationalism and religion that I recently produced for PRI’s The World. I want to thank them for allowing me to incorporate this material into today’s episode. You can hear that series or others about how these issues are playing out elsewhere at PRI’s The World. Just search for Sacred Nation. You can also find the link in the podcast description. OK. Here’s the show.

It’s early January 2019. Jair Bolsonaro has just been inaugurated. And to head his new Ministry of Women, Human Rights, and Family, he chose this woman: Damares Alves. That’s her. She’s standing in the middle of a room flanked by supporters. She wears a white shirt and jacket. Bobbed shoulder-length hair. Glasses.

Damares Alves:  Attention everyone. It’s a new era in Brazil. Boys wear blue and girls wear pink!

Michael Fox:  She repeats this twice to make sure they have a good cell phone recording. The video goes viral. 

Her statement is a perfect symbol for the incoming Bolsonaro government. Its embrace of fundamentalist Evangelicals and its plan to restructure Brazilian policies with a so-called moral agenda of putting family values first.

Damares Alves would lead the charge. She’s one of the newest faces waging the culture war crusade in Brazil, unleashing a slow broiling attack on feminists and the LGBTQ community. And she is doing it from the top, in the name of Christian family values. Damares Alves underscores this mission during her inauguration speech.

Damares Alves:  This is a secular country, but this minister is terribly Christian.

Michael Fox:  Alves is a lawyer who helped to found an anti-abortion group. She worked for twenty years as a congressional advisor and political aid to numerous lawmakers. She is also an Evangelical pastor. Here she is speaking to a packed church about how Jesus saved her from committing suicide when she was a child:

Damares Alves:  Your children can also have extraordinary experiences with Jesus, because I had my experience with Jesus when I was 10, and it was incredible.

Michael Fox:  Damares Alves is only the most visible figurehead of a much larger phenomenon. See, Evangelicals are a huge block of support for Bolsonaro. They voted en masse for him in 2018, lifting him to power, inspired by his campaign slogan: “Brazil above all, God above everyone”. Bolsonaro has made good on his promise to fight for their values.

This is Brazil on Fire, a podcast about Brazil’s descent toward fascism under President Jair Bolsonaro. This podcast is produced in collaboration with The Real News and NACLA. I’m your host, Michael Fox. I’m a long-time radio reporter and multimedia journalist. I’ve lived in Brazil for years and I’ve covered Bolsonaro and his government closely. Over these 6 episodes, I’m taking you on a journey to understand the story of Bolsonaro’s rise and his far-right government that’s set the country ablaze. The last two episodes, we looked at Bolsonaro’s rise to power. Today, we’re diving into one of his most loyal groups of supporters: fundamentalist Christians. Bolsonaro would not have won the election without them. He has fought diligently for their cause. And once again, the United States is part of the story.

This is Episode 3: “God Above Everyone: Good versus Evil”

Several years ago, I took a reporting trip to Rio de Janeiro. Now, most of the stories I was there to work on involved the rise of Evangelicals. Their numbers have been growing exponentially in Brazil in recent years. According to some estimates, they now make up a third of the country. And this is huge, considering that Brazil has long been regarded as the largest Catholic country in the world. Well, not for much longer. Experts say that within a generation, Evangelicals will be the majority.

One thing that is important to point out from the start is that, in Brazil, the term Evangelical is actually used to describe any non-Catholic Christian. So, in other words, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians — They are all considered Evangelical. Pentecostals, who make up about two-thirds of the Evangelical community, are the most vocal. They set the agenda and dominate the Evangelical caucus in Congress, which controls almost a third of the members of the Lower House. What that means is that although there is a smaller group of what’s known as “progressive Evangelicals” in Brazil, the more fundamentalist Christians lead the way. 

This is transforming culture. And it’s transforming politics and policies. Or at least… that’s the goal. Here in Rio de Janeiro, it’s where the Evangelicals and Jair Bolsonaro intersect. See, Bolsonaro is from Rio. Well, actually, he grew up in a small town in the state of São Paulo, but he’s lived in Rio de Janeiro for decades, ever since he left the military and entered politics. And here, there was one place in particular I was excited to visit…

Down a pretty generic street in a working-class neighborhood on the North side of Rio de Janeiro is a huge block-long mega-church that has been making waves across Brazil. It’s called the Assembly of God Victory in Christ Church. From the outside, it’s just a big box-like building with the name lit up across the side. But inside, it is on fire.

7-piece band. Light show. 3 huge screens televise close-ups of the lead singer and images of clouds or the night sky. The stadium style-seats are packed with churchgoers who sing along with their eyes closed. Arms lifted into the air. The music is powerful and emotional. Many in the audience break down in tears. It is clear why the number of Evangelicals is rising across the country. This is a rock concert for Jesus. And of course, this is not the only mega church in Brazil. Not by a long shot. There are many and they are powerful. But this one is special, especially for Bolsonaro.

See, its founder, Silas Malafaia, is a firebrand televangelist and one of the most outspoken Pentecostal pastors in the country. He has 1.5 million subscribers on YouTube. He’s also one of Bolsonaro’s more ardent supporters. He actually married Bolsonaro and his current wife Michelle. Malafaia campaigned hard for Bolsonaro in 2018. And folks here are big Bolsonaro supporters, like pastor Diego Valentin da Silva.

Diego Valentin da Silva:  Bolsonaro’s against abortion. He defends family values, so we see in him someone who is embracing our cause.

Michael Fox:  Leaders at the Assembly of God Victory in Christ Church are not afraid of throwing their weight around to influence politics. In fact, unlike at some of the other Evangelical churches I’ve visited, they see it as their civic duty. I briefly interviewed Silas Malafaia in a back hallway behind the stage.

Silas Malafaia:  I have the right to put my opinion out there. I have the right to vote for the people who are related to my principles and values, because that’s how the democratic game works. We have to make our citizenship count.

Michael Fox:  And at Malafaia’s church, that is exactly what they are doing.

During electoral season, the youth group members are active. They’re out in the streets every day of the week. Two teams, twenty people to a team, hitting up different churches across the city. One member of the youth group said it’s a marathon.

Youth Group Member:  We always have two people running for state deputy. And during this period, we go from church to church and we spread their proposals, the pastor who will fight for our families and our Biblical principles. Since we are from the church and we are supporting state deputies who are our people, they receive us with arms open.

Michael Fox:  Of course, since 2018, Bolsonaro has been the big man on their ticket. Their strategy shows how Evangelicals like Malafaia have a clear vision for where they’re headed and how they’re going to get there. And they are not shy about setting their sights high.

One evening at the Assembly of God Victory in Christ Church, I had a chance to speak with youth pastor Samuel Amorim. He is young. Thin mustache. Jean jacket over a simple black shirt.

Samuel Amorim:  Within five to ten years, we want to have a profound influence on all sectors of Brazilian society. We want to be involved in the economy, politics, sports, science and culture.

Michael Fox:  And under Bolsonaro, they have had access like never before.

Damares Alves is not the only Evangelical pastor who has had power to set the political agenda. Presbyterian pastor Milton Ribeiro ran the Ministry of Education for two years. At the same time, Bolsonaro has allocated millions of government dollars for ads on TV Record, owned by billionaire televangelist Edir Macedo. He’s opened his doors to top church leaders, marched with Christians in Brasilia, and, in late 2021, appointed André Mendonça as the country’s first Evangelical Supreme Court justice. In a viral video, Bolsonaro’s wife, Michelle, a devout Evangelical, celebrated Mendonça’s appointment by crying and speaking in tongues.

There is, perhaps, no other group that Bolsonaro has so vocally courted, or that has been so loyal to the president.

“Evangelicals have never had so much space in a presidency,” says political scientist Victor Araujo. “This explains why Bolsonaro still has so much support in this percentage of the electorate.”

“It’s really good to be among those who have God in their hearts,” the president told crowds in mid May at the March for Jesus in Curitiba, the largest annual Evangelical mobilization in the country. “Today, you have a president and a government that believes in God,” he said, “and defends Brazilian families.”

Bolsonaro’s religious discourse is unprecedented for a Brazilian head of state. Previous presidents, including Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, developed solid relationships with church leaders. But Bolsonaro has lifted Evangelical language and values to the fore.

Vinicius do Vale:  This kind of moral agenda is the easier way for Bolsonaro to talk to people, because he doesn’t have anything to show in economics or politics.

Michael Fox: That’s Brazilian political scientist Vinicius do Vale. He works at an institute called the Evangelical Observatory, and he has an important analysis of Bolsonaro’s relationship with Evangelicals and his moral and religious discourse. He says that despite the country’s financial instability, rising poverty, inflation, and unemployment, Bolsonaro believes this is how he can continue to win people’s hearts… And votes.

Vinicius do Vale:  He has to talk about the moral agenda: divorce. Abortion. Family. Men, women. Marriage. And God, God, God, God. We are talking about a religious battle. You don’t have an opponent. You have an enemy, and you have to eliminate this enemy.

Michael Fox:  This is where the culture war issues that we talked about in the first episode really hit home. The idea that there is a battle for the soul of the country, and that one side of that battle is rooted in fighting for fundamental Christian values. In other words, there is no room for democratic debate. There is only right and wrong. And Bolsonaro and his wife Michelle are taking this to a whole other level.

“It’s a war between the good and the bad,” Michele Bolsonaro told a packed church in August, her arm linked inside her husband’s. “But I believe that we will be victorious, because Jesus was victorious on the cross for us.”

“We are strong because God is on our side,” she said to applause.

lt’s common for Brazilian politicians to visit churches on the campaign trail. But Vinicius do Vale says Michelle Bolsonaro’s speech, with her religious rhetoric and her eyes closed in prayer, was unprecedented, blurring the lines even further between religion and politics.

Vinicius do Vale:  It wasn’t just a political speech. It was a religious speech. It wasn’t a part of the ceremony. It was the ceremony itself.

Michael Fox:  This is important. Because although Bolsonaro speaks the language of Evangelicals, he is not one. He’s Catholic. But his wife Michelle is devout. Everyone knows it. And she has been very vocal.

Vinicius do Vale:  So what Michelle Bolsonaro is saying, people are listening to, and they recognize Michelle as like one of them, and it’s very important.

Michael Fox:  But this religious war of good versus evil is having dangerous repercussions. That in a minute.

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Michael Fox:  This video went viral a few years ago. The man filming is forcing a spiritual leader of a Rio de Janeiro Afro-Brazilian temple to break her saints. In the video, you see her picking up her ceramic figures and smashing them to the floor. He shouts behind her, calling her a demon queen. “Break it all. Break it all,” he says. “All of the evil needs to be undone, in the name of Jesus.” This is not an isolated case.

Afro-Brazilian religions like Umbanda and Candomble are what they call in Brazil, “religions of African roots”. They’re descended from African religious traditions, and often blended with elements of Christianity and Indigenous Shamanism. The faithful believe in spirits called Orixás, which they say influence everything on the planet. But in recent years, Umbanda and Candomble have been hit with waves of attacks against their places of worship. Fundamentalist Pentecostals are behind most of the violence.

Vinicius do Vale:  We are talking about almost a religious war.

Michael Fox:  Rio de Janeiro has been ground zero, in part due to increasing ties between narcotraffickers and some fundamentalist pastors. 

On that same reporting trip to Rio de Janeiro, I visited this man. His name is Marcio De Jagun. He says, “Brazil lives the myth of religious tolerance. It never existed.”

At the time I spoke with him, he was the head of the Rio de Janeiro State Council in Defense of Religious Freedom, the first such body set up in the country to protect communities against what they call “religious intolerance”. That’s another name for a hate crime in Brazil that’s aimed at attacking someone’s religion. 

De Jagun himself is a priest in the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé. His office is on the 9th floor of a large downtown building that houses the Rio de Janeiro State Secretary of Human Rights. When I met with him, he wore a white shirt and a checkered sweater. His tone was grave.

Marcio De Jagun:  What we are seeing is that a religious genocide is taking place. Several Afro-Brazilian temples are being decimated each year. And with the intensity of this aggression and destruction, there is no power to reconstruct these places of worship.

Michael Fox:  Since I spoke with him, the number of cases of religious intolerance have only risen, bolstered by Bolsonaro’s violent religious rhetoric and his disciplined support for Evangelicals. Last year, there were 1500 cases of religious intolerance in the state of Rio de Janeiro alone — 10% more than in 2020.

The attacks are both religiously and racially motivated. I heard this from everyone I’ve interviewed, including this woman, Mae Flavia Pinto. She’s a young Umbanda spiritual leader who practices her faith in one of Rio’s poorest communities.

Mae Flavia Pinto:  They persecute us, saying that we are the image of the devil. This is a completely racist belief, where all customs that aren’t Euro-Christian are satanized.

Michael Fox:  For Marcio De Jagun, this is part of a clear religious political strategy.

Marcio De Jagun:  There is a strategy for power on the part of some determined neo-Pentecostal leaders. There is no doubt.”

Michael Fox:  In other words, De Jagun explains, Evangelical pastors are using the crusade against the practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions to increase converts to their churches. And with new converts comes more money and more power.

The battleground is in Brazil’s poorest communities. The favelas that line Rio’s majestic hillsides. Here, most residents are Black or Brown, and they have a deep history of Afro-Brazilian culture and religion. But Brazil’s poorest communities are also the place where Evangelical churches have seen an explosion of growth in recent decades, and where they are still hoping to gain more followers.

Evangelicals say Brazil’s Afro-religions go against the Bible. That’s what youth pastor Samuel Amorim told me during my visit to Silas Malafaia’s church. That they harm biblical principles by making people worship individual spirits instead of one God.

The church’s religious language demonizing Candomble and Umbanda has a profound impact on many faithful Evangelicals. This really hit home for me when I met Juceir Soares.

She’s a street vendor in downtown Rio de Janeiro, where she sells coconuts for a living. She is short, middle-aged, in a rose-flowered dress and her dark hair pulled back. She’s also a devout Christian. She’s been going to a Pentecostal church for more than a decade. And she is very clear how she feels about the country’s afro-religions.

Juceir Soares:  For me, you should wipe those religions from the Earth. They’re lies. They’re for the devil. If they are not talking about God, they’re for the Devil. It’s just one road or the other. Either it’s good or it’s bad.

Michael Fox:  Good versus Evil. God versus the Devil. This is the language to win converts and conquer your opponent. It has been used prolifically in Brazil. And the United States has helped push it along.

On a morning back in August 2019, a very tall former NBA player stood with his hand over his heart as Brazil’s national anthem played. He was in a congressional building in Brasilia for the launch of a new weekly Bible study program that his group Capitol Ministries was kicking off in the Brazilian Capital. His name was Ralph Drollinger, and at the time, he had gained notoriety as Donald Trump’s White House Bible Study pastor. Every week he shared the Evangelical gospel with Trump, his cabinet, and elected leaders on Capitol Hill.

He has also been spreading the good word to politicians across the country and around the globe. That is, after all, the mission of Capitol Ministries, a 25-year-old organization that has a presence in most state capitals in the US and dozens of countries around the globe. Here is Drollinger speaking with the Christian Broadcasting Network a few years ago.

Ralph Drollinger:  Why not go right to the fulcrum of power and get them into the gospel and present the gospel to them? Because everything will permeate much more quickly…

Michael Fox:  In Brazil, he enlisted Brazilian pastor Raul Jose Ferreira Jr., who now leads Capitol Ministries’ Bible Study in Brazil’s congress.

“Ralph Drollinger always says that reaching the top echelon, the leaders, that’s how we are going to be able to rebuild our nation with an Evangelical perspective,” Ferreira said during the launch. Drollinger says they are not lobbying, just spreading the gospel. And his message has been embraced by many Evangelical groups, North and South.

But with Drollinger’s teachings comes Capitol Ministries’ own analysis of political and cultural issues from a conservative Evangelical perspective. Here he is shortly after Trump appointed conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Ralph Drollinger:  Great things are happening here. I think we’re at a watershed moment this week. It’s interesting that you would be here praying, because I think we might be seeing the  top of the bell curve and watershed issues of going down the other side now toward righteousness in our nation. We’ve got an oligarchical Supreme Court that’s liberally bent.

Michael Fox:  I recently spoke with Rodrigo Tapia, an international affairs student at the Federal University of Rio Grande, who has been researching Capitol Ministries closely.

Rodrigo Tapia:  From looking at their Bible studies, we see a vision of the world where it’s clear that they are culturally conservative, with strong rhetoric against abortion, against LGBTQ rights. And for the freedom of the economy. They are importing their vision of the world from the US. Importing their ideas. But this is not new.

Kristin Kobis Du Mez:  That history goes way back.

Michael Fox:  That’s Kristin Kobis Du Mez. She’s a professor of history at Calvin University. Her book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation is coming out in Portuguese in September in Brazil.

Kristin Kobis Du Mez:  You can also go all the way back to the 19th century and see the influence of conservative white American Evangelicalism on Brazilian Christianity. In the years after the American Civil War, you have Baptist Missionaries from the American South heading over to Brazil starting churches, starting organizations, and so the roots go way back. More recently, we see this real expansion of Evangelicalism in Brazil, and it’s both influenced by American Evangelicalism. Not just through missionaries and pastors, but through popular culture.

Michael Fox:  Particularly since the growth of Evangelicals in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, Brazilian Pentecostals have taken cues from their Northern brothers and sisters. Kristin calls it cross-pollination. I saw this up close during one of my visits to Silas Malafaia’s church.

Pastor:  In coming to Brazil, God spoke to me and he said, tell the church in Brazil…

Michael Fox:  A US pastor from Texas was preaching that night, simultaneously translated into Portuguese.

Donald Trump:  I think we can say now that Brazil and the United States are as close or closer than they have ever been.

Michael Fox:  And, of course, the tight relations between President Bolsonaro and former president Donald Trump only helped to boost ties between US and Brazilian Evangelicals. And Evangelicals will be key in this year’s presidential election.

There’s a quick story I want to bring in here, because I think it helps to really underscore what Bolsonaro means for many of Brazil’s faithful. Back in early 2020, I was on my way home from a reporting trip in the Amazon, when I met Cleide Lima. She and her family had been stuck for days at several airports as the country began shutting down in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. They had traveled for a family vacation and just couldn’t get back home to Manaus amid canceled flights and new restrictions. I stayed in touch with Cleide over the last couple of years. She’s a really good example of someone who is a devout Evangelical and who is excited to vote for her president again. I reached out to her recently to ask her how she sees things now.

She said a major reason she voted for the president four years ago was that he recognized that God was above everyone – That was literally Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan. “He defends the family,” Cleide told me. “And today, the family is being destroyed. I know he’s lost some votes, but I’m going to vote for him again.” As are millions of conservative Christians up and down Brazil.

Lula leads all polls for the presidential election in October, and he is making some inroads among the faithful, particularly those who are poor. But as of mid-August, roughly half of Evangelicals said they were going to vote for Bolsonaro. Evangelicals largely lifted him to the presidency in 2018, and he’s hoping they can do it again.

There’s one more thing I want to say before we go, because I think it’s really important to tie religion and Evangelicals into one of the larger themes of this podcast: Bolsonaro’s push toward fascism. I mean, even after all of this reporting, I was left with this question: what role does religion, especially Christianity, play in fascist movements? I asked historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:  You can have fascism without religion and fascism without Christianity, certainly. Christianity, when wedded to fascism is a very powerful force, because it taps into this kind of private personal devotion. It taps into beliefs long held in families, in churches, in communities. But then it applies those beliefs in new ways or in more extreme ways, and you don’t just have the connection between devotion. And in rooting this quest for power in a cosmic good versus evil worldview you also have the very familiar rhetoric of, you need to fight against the emasculation of society, and we need strong men who are willing to fight pro-military, pro-law and order. Violence is necessary, righteous violence, in order to ensure social order. This kind of rhetoric dovetails with religious views of gender…

Michael Fox:  She says this rhetoric and propaganda is what we saw under Nazi Germany. And in many ways, we’re seeing it today from the Christian right in both the United States and Bolsonaro’s Brazil.

Far-right and white supremacist groups have been emboldened by president Bolsonaro. That is the sound of a neo-Nazi group marching on Brazil’s Supreme Court in an evening torch-lit rally that was reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan. And that’s exactly where we’ll go next time: into the racist attacks, Brazil’s complicated history with Nazism and fascists, and how those groups have found ample ground for growth under Bolsonaro. That’s next on Brazil on Fire.

This podcast is produced in collaboration with The Real News and NACLA. The theme music is by my band Monte Perdido. I’m your host, Michael Fox. See you next time.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a Latin America-based freelance multimedia journalist, filmmaker, radio reporter, and former editor of NACLA.