“It is not a sin to vote for Lula”: The left and Evangelicalism in Brazil

Evangelicals are a crucial voting block in Brazil but they are in no way a homogeneous group. Progressive Evangelical groups and people’s movements are campaigning to dispel misconceptions and bridge the gap between the community and the left

September 29, 2022 by Zoe Alexandra
Evangelicalism in Brazil
Popular Struggle Committees walking in a São Paulo neighborhood. Photo: Junior Lima

Ahead of the historic election in Brazil on October 2, campaigning is in its final stage. Across the country, parties and supporters are organizing mass rallies, parades, festivals, motorcycle processions, social media campaigns, and more to promote their candidates and their vision of the country.

One of the major groups which candidates and their campaigns have attempted to court in this campaign is Evangelical Christians*. According to a survey by the Datafolha Institute, Evangelical Christians are one of the fastest growing religious groups and today account for at least 31% of the population. In the 2018 elections, 70% of voters that identified as Evangelical Christians voted for Jair Bolsonaro and were  the decisive vote that helped Bolsonaro achieve victory.

While Bolsonaro defines himself as Catholic, he is one of the most prominent political figures supporting Evangelicalism. He himself was baptized in 2016 by Pastor Everaldo from the Social Christian Party and the Assemblies of God Church and his wife is an active Baptist in the mega-church Igreja Batista Atitude. Throughout his presidency and during the campaign, Bolsonaro has demonstrated and proclaimed his support for Evangelical churches, whether it be through meetings with pastors, participation in “Marches for Jesus,” or using Christian concepts in his campaign rally speeches.

However, leading up to the 2022 elections, the support for far-right candidate and incumbent president Bolsonaro has decreased among Evangelicals. A Datafolha survey indicated that 48% of Evangelical voters support Bolsonaro, while 31% support Workers’ Party candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Recognizing the importance of reaching out to this broad section of the population, various progressive organizations such as the Evangelical Front for the Rule of Law, the Popular Struggle Committees (formed to reactivate grassroots political work ahead of the elections), the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST), the Movement of Workers for Rights (MTD), and others have been organizing dialogues and targeted campaigns to engage with this sector of the population and attempt to bring some of the Evangelical vote to the left.

Angélica Tostes, theologian and researcher from the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, told Peoples Dispatch during a “Dialogue with Evangelicals” event, “We often say that in politics there are no empty spaces. So if we are not talking with at least 31% of the population, we are not talking with a big group.”

Addressing misconceptions

For these organizations, the process of swinging the Evangelical vote begins with breaking down the misconceptions among the left of who Evangelicals are in Brazil.

“The majority of Evangelicals do not fit the profile of what the media shows us – the white middle class man, those pastors who call for violence,” the Tricontinental researcher told Peoples Dispatch. “We are usually talking about poor, Black women from working-class neighborhoods who are at the base of the capitalist pyramid and are the most affected by these policies of neoliberal dismantling.”

It is essential that the left not homogenize this section of the population, Tostes said. “Not all Evangelicals are fundamentalists, nor are all of them conservative. So, when we dismantle this idea that Evangelicals are the same, we can better understand this field, which is complex…because nobody has just one identity. They are Evangelicals but they are also people who are facing racism and gender inequality, and struggling – especially the youth – to find jobs.”

She concluded, “We need to understand a little more of our working class, which today is Evangelical.”

Tostes helped compile a report published in February 2022 by Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research called “Resisting with Faith,” which through interviews and research sought to explain some of the key questions surrounding the growth of Evangelical Christians in the country, such as: Who are Evangelicals today in Brazil? What drives people to go to Church? What do they look for there? What are their perspectives on the left?

Looking left

Another central focus of the grassroots work between Evangelicals and progressive movements is to convince those who attend Evangelical churches of the importance of a people-centric, left political project, which in these elections is represented by the presidential candidacy of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party.

As the Evangelical Front for the Rule of Law explains in its mission statement: “Brazil is going through a religious transition and is witnessing the rise of the Evangelical Right. Its groups are organizing a parliamentary caucus, blocking the advance of human rights, manipulating huge groups through moralistic agendas and selling false solutions to the people. This has also been the case in several other countries around the world. However, we discover, day after day, that there is growing space for the political awareness and organization of this segment. Unfortunately, part of the popular-democratic field still does not recognize the need to approach the evangelical people, except on electoral occasions.”

Lívia Martins de Carvalho, a pastor of the Pentecostal Evangelical Church of Jesus Christ and Bishop of the Iglesia Antigua de las Américas who participated in the “Dialogue with Evangelicals” event told Peoples Dispatch that the coming together of progressive spaces and the church is natural. She said, “When we are talking about the question of the progressive sector, we are talking about something more oriented to the people, something more focused on social issues. And I see this a lot in the actions of Jesus, the social issues, the people, this act of giving food, and multiplying, of caring for those who are oppressed by the State because they are despised.”

Carvalho, who belongs to a “garage church”** in São Paulo’s periphery, pointed out that, “the importance of the Church entering into dialogue with progressive sectors is there, with the people, with the social issues.”

However, she points out that there are still significant challenges, and while the majority of Evangelical churches are independent and not affiliated to the conservative mega-Churches, those politics of the latter still permeates. This, she explained, largely has to do with the high level of desire to attend Church services amongst Evangelicals. “You visit one church one day and then the other. If there is no service in your church on Tuesday, you go to the church that has one. If there is no service on Wednesday, you go to the other one…Because of this flow, you have many more fundamentalist, more conservative thoughts, which end up reflecting in my community, for example. My community has people that are Bolsonarists, those who are already PTistas (Workers’ Party supporters), and then there are others from the center. It is very diverse in this sense, and we coexist.”

Carvalho emphasized that the crucial element here is to increase spaces of dialogues and exchange. “I believe that more meetings like this one will help us so that the dialogue will grow and the actions will grow.”

In the lead-up to the October 2 elections, the Evangelical Front for the Rule of Law published and distributed campaign material in diverse formats to engage in this crucial dialogue and address right-wing messages that are often held up by faux-religious arguments. Their “Believers Do Not Fight With Human Weapons” pamphlet provides Christian arguments against the Bolsonarist gun drive. They produced a music video directed towards believers called “It is not a sin to vote for Lula”.

Whoever says it is a sin to vote for Lula doesn’t know what he is talking about. 

He doesn’t read the Bible correctly and doesn’t even know what democracy is.

To vote for Lula is a right of every Brazilian, whether a believer or not.

A president of the Republic must govern for all, not only for a group of religious people.

Rest assured, my brother, my sister, it is not a sin to vote for Lula. It is a sin to promote death and destruction.

* Evangelicalism is a broad movement within Protestant Christianity focused on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, spiritual rebirth, and spreading the “gospel” or good news.

** Garage churches refer to the self-organized churches that are often created in response to community members’ desire to worship. They are often not linked to the larger Churches.