The evangelical world is fading somewhat in the U.S. The nation is more atheist than it has ever been. But those who are religious are more intensely religious and connecting that with extreme right-wing politics. The Lutherans and Presbyterians and Congregationalists are effectively dead or dying, but the big suburban megachurches telling you God wants you to be rich are doing just fine. But if that politics has reached its limits in the United States, it most certainly has not in Latin America, where the incredibly poor job of the Catholic Church in serving the basic daily needs of its largely poor constituents has left a huge vacuum that evangelicals are rushing in to fill. These people are the core base for Jair Bolsonaro and the recent coup attempt there to restore him to power is a playbook taken straight from January 6 here in the U.S.
The Brazilian insurrection — a violent threat against the country’s democratic institutions — has received global attention, with much reporting on the ties to its American antecedent. Yet an essential part of the story is being overlooked. The populist conservative political movements in both countries have been strengthened by major sectors of the same group: evangelical Christians.
Most evangelicals in Brazil — as in the United States — are committed to conservative theology and right-wing politics, often steeped in an interconnected Christian nationalism. Their numeric growth in Brazil consolidated an indispensable voting block and helped embolden an evangelical right wing, whose convictions were shaped considerably by U.S. evangelicals. The strong evangelical reaction against social justice and policies of inclusion in both countries reveal their shared political leanings; the Christian imagery present in the “sister insurrections” is not accidental. A century of transnational evangelical cross-pollination has seeded shared theologies, social imaginations and strategies that help explain the right-wing authoritarian impulse in Brazilian and American politics.
Between 1964 and 1985, the military dictatorship that ran Brazil boosted the evangelical movement, further strengthening it. It suppressed a liberal Catholic opposition and marginalizedleft-wing resistance movements within Protestant churches, while granting evangelicals radio and television licenses, which became vital tools for disseminating conservative religious and political ideologies.
By the time Brazil emerged from the dictatorship in 1986, evangelicals had sufficient numbers and visibility to form a muscular political bloc. The first elected constituent assembly featured 32 evangelical Congress members.
Over the next two decades, evangelical Christianity — and its political influence — steadily grew. By 2003, the number of evangelical members in the Brazilian legislature had grown to 51 out of 594 total seats, reflecting the evangelical growth in the general population.
And this growth has continued unabated since then. Reflecting this, by 2022, the evangelical caucus in the legislature had grown to 115 members of Congress. Although there is diversity among these elected officials, they are predominantly socially conservative. As evangelicals continued growing, the transnational connections of Brazilian evangelicalism also strengthened, facilitated by new transportation and communication technologies. Religious products inspired by U.S. evangelicals, such as books, Christian music, theological manuals and virtual theological courses, flooded the Brazilian evangelical market and helped train leaders countrywide.
Today, there are over three times as many evangelicals in Brazil as in 1980, and some projections suggest that the country will become predominantly evangelical in the next decade. The denominations that predominate share a legacy with the evangelical Christianity that has grown increasingly politically important in the United States over the same 40 years.
That’s scary stuff given the politics. Again, the Catholic Church deserves a ton of blame here. There’s a reason people are looking for other options in Latin America and it’s not primarily about politics. That comes later, after the daily spiritual and community voids are filled. But the political upside is extremely dangerous for the nation’s future. And while Brazil is the most evangelical nation in South America, evangelicalism is spreading basically everywhere in the region.