Religious Wars Hit Brazil's Ballot Box

Protestants haven't lost their chance at clout in Brazil.
There are still some believers left in Brazil.

When Marina Silva was knocked out of the Brazilian presidential race this month, evangelical Protestants lost their best shot at clout in the world's most Catholic country. But what voters taketh, they also giveth back.

Silva won 22 million votes in the Oct. 5 elections, finishing third behind two powerful machine politicians, President Dilma Rousseff (43 million votes), of the Workers Party, and runner-up Aecio Neves (35 million), of the Social Democracy Party.

Still, the religious wave Silva personifies -- she's a devout follower of the conservative Assembly of God -- is just starting to swell. Driven by fervent Pentecostal voters, candidates calling themselves "Crentes" -- "Believers," in Portuguese -- scored big across Brazil.

The Evangelical Parliamentary Front, a faith-based congressional caucus, saw its members rise from 71 to 80 legislators. Evangelicos, as Brazilians call them, were some of the biggest winners in rich southeastern states like Espirito Santo and Parana, and Alagoas and Piaui in the poor northeast.

Few fared better than Marco Feliciano, a popular Sao Paulo pastor, known for his anti-gay litanies, who was reelected to Congress with 400,000 votes, almost double his haul of four years ago.

Fellow Sao Paulo lawmaker Celso Russomano, a former television host, is Roman Catholic, but his Brazilian Republican Party is controlled by the rollicking Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, that helped reap him 1.5 million votes, more than any other legislator.

Evangelical politics has risen on a sectarian earthquake rumbling this continent of cathedrals. In 1995, eight in 10 Brazilians still called themselves Roman Catholics, according to a poll by Latinobarometro. Now less than two-thirds go to mass, and even they are losing their ardor.

Padres are falling behind pastors, who beckon believers to brightly-lit mega churches and services throbbing with gospel rock, speaking in tongues and faith healing.

Their firepower was evident in the first round of voting when Assembly of God leader Silas Malafaia, with 814,000 followers on Twitter, lashed out at Silva after her Socialist Party backed same-sex marriage. In 24 hours, Silva backtracked.

The Oct. 26 runoff between incumbent Rousseff and Neves could be seen as a proxy battle between two competing evangelical orders, argues Andrew Chesnut, a religious studies scholar at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Though both Rousseff and Neves are Catholics and soi disant social liberals, they know when to kneel. Rousseff attended the inauguration of the IURD's new $300 million megachurch, Solomon's Temple, while Neves welcomed the endorsement by alpha "Crentes" like Malafaia and Feliciano.

The Protestant wave plus the declining clout of trade unions and social movements are conspiring to push Brazilian politics to the right. The new national Congress may be the most conservative since 1964, when the armed forces took power with the blessings of the Catholic hierarchy, according to Diap, a union-funded think tank in Sao Paulo. That means socially liberal banners such as allowing gay marriage, or decriminalizing marijuana and abortion, are sure to lose traction in Brasilia.

Don't look for a Brazilian Tea Party, though. Evangelicos may share some values with gringo Bible belters, but they are -- like Brazilian society itself -- far more eclectic and less organized. Scattered among Brazil's 28 political parties, Evangelicos tend to flock defensively, to thwart moves to "corrupt" family values.

And when pork and perks are on the line, they bow to more earthly authority. "Political parties have a poor national image, but they rule in Congress," says political scientist Carlos Pereira, of the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. "On roll call votes, legislators obey party bosses, not religion or ideology."

No matter the mega-churches they flock to on Sunday, for now, at least, Brazil's multiplying Protestants still spend the rest of the week rendering unto Caesar.

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