Evangelical churches are proliferating throughout Latin America. Twenty percent of Latin Americans identify as Evangelicals compared to 3 percent 60 years ago—and are providing a new impetus and new votes for conservative ideas and right-wing political parties.
Brazil is a prime example of the ever-increasing power of Protestant congregations.
The Evangelical parliamentary group in the Brazilian Congress, with more than 90 members, has in previous years blocked proposals for laws securing the rights of the LGBT population, and has played an important role in the dismissal of (or rather soft coup against) the former president from the Workers’ Party, Dilma Rousseff.
Last year, the popular Evangelical leader Marcelo Crivella was elected mayor of Rio de Janeiro, one of the world’s most tolerant cities towards the gay community (and was then elected senator last Sunday, beating the candidate of the Left). Around 26 percent of the votes secured by Jair Bolsonaro are Evangelical voters who support his violent rejection of any form of sexual diversity (“I would be incapable of loving a gay son. I’d prefer that he die in an accident.”). And these votes (around 10 million) don’t come from the white elites, the expected base of support for the far-right candidate, but largely from the lowest social strata, including the mixed-race population that Bolsonaro himself speaks of with contempt as the dregs of Brazil.
“The successes of the Brazilian Evangelical churches are so impressive that Evangelical leaders from other countries want to imitate the ‘Brazil model,’” says Javier Corrales, a professor of political science and co-author of Dragon in The Tropics: The Legacy of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
And they have been successfully applying this model, causing a shift to the political right for the majority of the Protestant communities.
For the past few weeks, Evangelical churches in Cuba have openly fought against an article in the draft of the new Constitution because it includes equal marriage, defined as the union between two people and not between a man and a woman. They have not only made public statements and press releases—in agreement with most of the local Catholic bishops—but have organized events in which children were made to march in front of the Protestant churches with signs that glorified “natural marriage.” Such a form of protest is mostly unprecedented on the island.
In recent years, with the assistance of Catholics, Evangelicals have organized marches against the LGBT communities in Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Peru and Mexico. In Paraguay and Colombia, they have asked the Ministry of Education to ban books that spoke about sex. Moreover, in Colombia they mobilized to sabotage the peace agreement with FARC, the largest guerrilla group in the country, on the grounds that it secured additional rights for feminists and the LGBT community, and they made an important contribution this year to the election of a right-wing president, Iván Duque (himself opposed to the agreement).
The rise of Evangelical congregations is politically worrying because they are feeding a new form of populism and are providing conservative parties in Latin America with an electorate that doesn’t belong to the elites and that hasn’t supported them before.
For this reason, the Latin American conservative parties, historically allied with the Catholic Church, are re-focusing towards the radical Evangelical groups. These groups are essentially changing the political landscape of the subcontinent, as they are able to gradually convert right-wing parties into “people’s parties.” In abstract, this could be a good thing for a modern democracy—however, this support is accompanied almost always by intolerant positions on sexuality and generates cultural polarization. “The Protestant pastors are reinventing intolerant inclusion, which is the classic populist formula of Latin America,” says Corrales.
The alliance of pastors with political parties is not, however, an authentic Latin American development. It is rather part and parcel of a new type of US colonialism, exported from a country where the Christian right has for decades been the most reliable electoral base of the Republican Party, ever since the Reagan administration. Donald Trump himself—who is far from embodying any Biblical values—based his campaign on an essentially Evangelical platform.
Thus, Latin American Evangelicalism has its true cultural-religious “base” in the US—which is often also its source of funding, particularly in Cuba.
According to Javier Corrales, in addition to establishing alliances with political parties, the Protestant denominations imported from North America “have learned to make peace with their old rival, the Catholic Church. At least with regard to sexuality, the pastors and priests have found a new common ground […]: the opposition to what they have called ‘gender ideology.’ This term is used to label any effort to promote the acceptance of sexual and gender diversity.” On this basis, the professor says, “we may be witnessing a historic truce between Protestants and Catholics in the region.”