The evangelical electorate at the heart of the Lula-Bolsonaro battle [OPINION]


In Brazil, the evangelicals, which represent some 30% of citizens, have become an electorate to be “conquered” at all costs. They will play a key role in the second round which will pit outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro against Lula on October 30.

To maintain this electoral base which largely supported him before and during his mandate, Jair Bolsonaro went in 2021 until appoint a “very evangelical” judge to the Supreme Court – an institution that has often opposed him since 2018 – and, in March this year, to declare to evangelical religious leaders (pastors, bishops, etc.) that he would “lead Brazil wherever they want”.

Lula, meanwhile, devoted part of his campaign to the reconquest of the evangelical electorate who turned away from the Workers' Party (PT) during the tenure of Dilma Rousseff; thus, very recently, he took part in a meeting with faithful and evangelical representatives in Rio de Janeiro, where he reminded those present of "all that the PT has done for evangelicals" and affirmed on several occasions that he was believer.

Voting and the Bible

If the two qualified candidates in the second round attach such importance to this electorate, it is because the particularity of evangelicals lies in the fact that, unlike Catholics, who represent between 48 and 52% of the population, and practicing other religions – about 10% of the population, all other denominations combined – they are, in general, more engaged in “faith activism” – in other words, they vote more often than others in based on their religious beliefs.

It has not always been the case. Indeed, until the 1970s, Brazilian Protestants mostly kept out of matters related to politics. The main explanation for this change is the fact that the most conservative Evangelical Churches perceived the social evolutions experienced by Brazil as a “moral crisis”. This notion of crisis has shaped the entire political history of the "Evangelical Bloc", since, as apoliticism has weakened, it is the most morally conservative evangelicals who have invested the most in the political field, in order to fight this moral crisis they perceived.

Voting for evangelical candidates – who, because of their religious affiliation, are expected to prioritize the interests of the churches, such as the spread and protection of the “traditional family” and religious morality – has often been featured in sermons delivered in churches as an obligation.

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The immense support given by evangelicals to Jair Bolsonaro when he was elected in 2018 – they were 70% to vote for him – shows that his conservative speeches and values ​​have succeeded in captivating this electorate.

Evangelicals seduced by Bolsonaro

To understand Bolsonaro's success in 2018, we must first recognize that Brazil was going through a complex and particular period at that time. Dilma Rousseff had been deposed in 2016, and the Brazilian political landscape was extremely tense with violent polarization. After almost 15 years in power of the Workers' Party, a large part of the population wanted a new alternative.

Jair Bolsonaro emerges in this landscape by building around him a simple imaginary – he is the messiah, a outsider anti-corruption that comes to save Brazil from the damage of the PT era. Catholic, he was baptized in 2016, in Israel, by an evangelical pastor who at the time was the president of the Christian Social Party. Political scientist Magali Cunha Explain the way in which Bolsonaro's speech reveals affinities with the "gospel culture" of Brazilian evangelicals, which promotes their ideological alignment with Bolsonarism, whose notions of "protection of the family" and support for entrepreneurship "respond to the imagination of simple people […] And also attract the middle classes, who are oriented on desires – the quest for harmony, stability and happiness – rooted in an idealized past of class privileges and appeal to meritocracy. »

However, the support of evangelicals for Bolsonaro is neither systematic nor infallible. If today he is presented once again as the candidate of the evangelicals, in December 2021 Lula appeared in the polls as the preferred candidate of this population. Can Bolsonaro still count on evangelicals to be re-elected?

The dispute over the “evangelical vote”

It would be wrong to assume that the “evangelical vote” would be homogeneous. First of all, because the evangelical movement is not a monolith – it is made up of different currents, different churches, with leaders who adhere to different ideologies. Second, evangelicals per se are a very heterogeneous group, with wide variations in income, in their social experiences, in their political and ideological sensitivities.

Because of the plurality inherent in the evangelical movement, despite their image as an ultra-conservative group, their electoral behavior is more moderate than one might expect. Indeed, being evangelical does not make them no more extreme than other conservatives. Thus, despite Bolsonaro's success with evangelicals in 2018, in the 2022 elections this electorate seems more divided than ever. At the moment, there are significant tensions within certain Evangelical Churches whose faithful - especially among young people, women and the most disadvantaged - resent the pressure exerted by their leaders who invite them to support Bolsonaro, sometimes to the point of leaving the Church.

If in 2018 Bolsonaro presented himself as an outsider and the antithesis of career politicians, cogs in an intrinsically corrupt system, in 2022 this rhetoric is no longer effective. This explains Bolsonaro's campaign insistence on mobilizing the religious argument, largely highlighting his wife, Michelle Bolsonaro, evangelical of the Baptist Church; and to construct a “diabolical” image of Lula – by bringing together Afro-Brazilian religions which are typically viewed very negatively by evangelicals in general, for example – so that voting for the PT is ultimately viewed as anti-Christian.

In response to this campaign, Lula began, for the first time, to speak directly to evangelical audiences. Thus, during his meeting with evangelicals in Rio de Janeiro, he hammered home that the various social programs put in place during his two mandates benefited "the family", while Bolsonaro himself dismantled the majority of these programs.

In doing so, Lula seeks to demonstrate his government's affinity with the values ​​of evangelicals, rehabilitating the left in the eyes of this electorate since he presents his social programs as ways of protecting families and therefore, ultimately, Christian values. During his speech, he did not at any time mention themes that could elicit a negative reaction from his audience, i.e. societal issues to which evangelicals are particularly sensitive, such as the rights of the population. LGBT or gender inequalities.

The religious vote

The sociological field has already produced many theories to explain the voting behavior of individuals, and it is generally accepted that today, the "heavy variables" (social class, age, religion, socio-professional category, etc.) are not very decisive in electoral behavior, and that, on the contrary, “the voter is neither totally free, nor totally determined, nor a prisoner of sociological variables, nor tossed around according to the situation. Its choice is the fruit of a process in which social and political, structural and economic, long-term and short-term factors mingle. […] Whatever the election, its stakes, the space where it is played, the candidates present, the practicing Catholics will be more conservative than those without religion, the workers more to the left than the bosses. But these potentialities are realized only within the framework of a particular ballot which leaves room for the specific strategies of the voters. »

This observation is completely valid for evangelical voters in Brazil. In study on religion and the Latin American electorate from 2015, Taylor Boas and Amy Erica Smith find that "religion makes the difference in electoral choice in a significant part of the region and, in particular, in Brazil, but the authors explain that it is necessary that this identity be “activated” through the mobilization of candidates and/or religious leaders, who thus politicize the voter's choice. »

This "activation" of the evangelical identity was totally successful by Jair Bolsonaro in 2018: in this election, in this election, evangelicals had 17% more chance to have voted for Bolsonaro than followers of other faiths and atheists.

Thus, the evangelical identity can be mobilized as a priority element in the choice of the candidate, and, within this framework, it is the moral argument which will determine the vote – this constitutes the “religious vote”. But other identities can also be mobilized despite the individual's adherence to an evangelical church. This explains the support of certain evangelicals for Lula – in particular women, young people and the disadvantaged, who will rather put forward aspects directly related to their living conditions and will vote for a candidate recognized for efficiency. of its social programs even if it does not share some of their conservative values.

However, the current socio-economic context in Brazil is deeply marked by the effects of the health crisis, the increase in social inequalities, inflation and unemployment. These social questions weigh more heavily on the debates than in 2018 – which is likely to favor Lula (including with evangelicals) during the second round, which will take place on October 30.

Ana Carolina Freires Ferreira, PhD student in sociology at the Center Émile Durkheim, University of Bordeaux

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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