In the Agua Blanca Baptist Church in São Paulo, there’s more rock music than religious doctrine. “Your love never fails, your love never ends,” sings the choir, made up mostly of Afro-Brazilian women. Most attendees are around the age of 30. As soon as the song ends, the pastor - a hipster, dressed in skinny jeans and a black button-up shirt - takes the stage and rails against society’s neglect of the most vulnerable.
Unlike other evangelical groups that have adopted a very active position in favor of the re-election of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, there are no calls to vote here. Agua Blanca is an oasis for believers who voted for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva - popularly known as “Lula” - in the first round of Brazil’s elections.
Lula. who governed Brazil from 2003 until 2011. has performed significant outreach among evangelicals. On October 19 - in response to false and transphobic messages being spread by the Bolsonaro campaign - Lula published an “open letter to Christians,” in which he vowed to protect religious freedom and not impose unisex bathrooms in public places. On the issue of abortion, he claimed to be opposed to the right to choose but he was quick to remind anti-choice voters that this issue was in the hands of Congress, not the executive branch.
In the pews of Agua Blanca, Maria Nilda, 53, and Rebecca Quintinho, 23, sway, clap and sing the songs from memory. Both of them say that they will vote for Lula. Neither believes any of the fake news that has been put out by the Bolsonaro campaign: closure of churches if the Workers’ Party wins? “Lies, that would be unconstitutional!” Persecution of Christians and pastors? “Ha! The persecution is within the churches, from Christians against Christians.”
The mother and daughter came to Agua Blanca after leaving a neo-Pentecostal group, another branch of the evangelical belief system. “It was oppressive. There was no freedom to be ourselves,” says Nilda.
Quintinho, a student of Portuguese literature, explains how she was expelled from her previous church by a pro-Bolsonaro pastor who didn’t approve of a post she made on social media, which read: “Whoever sings, scares evil away.” He apparently saw a subversive tint to the phrase, which came from Xuxa, the pro-Lula singer, whom he referred to as “the devil.”
26-year-old Gustavo Vilela is another example of an evangelical who was made to feel unwelcome in his community. He was once a member of the Assembly of God, the largest evangelical congregation in Brazil. One of its leaders, Pastor Silas Malafaia, presided over the wedding of Jair and Michelle Bolsonaro. Malafaia once said that “murder is worse than rape,” in reference to a legal abortion that was performed on a 10-year-old girl who had been impregnated by her rapist.
Vilela, a computer science student, decided to leave the Assembly of God in 2018, when he noticed that the pulpit was no longer preaching the gospel, but was instead pushing partisan slogans in favor of Bolsonaro, who ended up winning that year’s presidential elections thanks to substantial support from evangelicals.
Vinicius do Vale, a professor of political science, says that the politicization of the evangelical churches in Brazil “is a real phenomenon with unpredictable consequences.”
“Because of the propaganda and the pressure to vote for Bolsonaro, many evangelicals are abandoning their churches of origin and moving to other groups,” he says.
Brazil’s spiritual divide
According to Brazil’s last census, carried out in 2010, about 108 million Brazilians identify as Catholic, while around 65 million - a third of the population - are evangelical Christians. However, with the last decade having seen a substantial expansion of evangelical churches, it’s expected that, by the 2030s, Protestantism will have replaced Catholicism as the principal Christian denomination in Brazil. About 14,000 evangelical churches are opened in Brazil each year; the equivalent to one every hour. About two-thirds of adherents support Bolsonaro’s social conservatism.
The evangelical vote for Lula is concentrated in the northeast of the country. It is also, above all, female. While these voters generally don’t support abortion rights - a key policy of the Brazilian left - they also don’t believe what Bolsonaro says about Lula.
“[These voters] oppose the crude manners and misogynistic rhetoric of President Bolsonaro,” Do Vale explains. “They also have bad memories of how he handled the pandemic. That’s why a lot of the votes for Lula come from women, who had the hardest time taking care of their families during the worst days.”
Graciela Leite is a writer, born in Petrópolis, a city of around 200,000 inhabitants in the State of Rio de Janeiro. She grew up in the Baptist church and plans on voting for Lula in the runoff election on Sunday.
“Some evangelicals have fallen prey to pastors who manipulate their faithful to vote for Bolsonaro. But these pastors aren’t concerned about the faithful, they just want power, they want to increase their own influence.”
At the Agua Blanca Baptist Church, Pastor Eduardo Fetterman distances himself from politics. “We would never say: ‘Vote for A or B.’ I’m not worried about the president’s religion. I care more about his proposals for healthcare and education.”
Before becoming a pastor, Fetterman, 37, was a journalist for a local newspaper. His office is filled with books, including one of his favorites, titled Subversive Spirituality. To explain why most evangelicals support Bolsonaro, Fetterman points to the fraught relations between the evangelical churches and the left:
“In recent campaigns, the right had a stronger religious message. The left maybe didn’t realize that it was losing ground. And maybe the churches were closed to the left.”
When asked how pro-Lula evangelicals can harmonize their religious beliefs with some of the left’s policies - many of which are contradictory - Leite answers that “Brazil is not a country of evangelicals. It’s a country of poor and rich, black and white, from all over the world. When I vote, I don’t think only of myself.”
Many young evangelicals such as Quintinho and Vilela were able to attend university thanks to the quotas that Lula established for disadvantaged youth during his presidency. “In such an unequal country,” Quintinho says, “there are more things to worry about than a unisex bathroom.”