Tonhis cathedral The Universal Church of the Kingdom of Heaven in Salvador, a city in impoverished northeastern Brazil, is so large that it can be seen from miles away. Built in the style of a neoclassical temple, it could have been a huge convention center or a casino. On a recent Friday afternoon, its outbuildings, which can seat up to 3,000 people, were packed. This success hints at an increasingly important force in Latin American politics.
Evangelical Christianity is the fastest growing religion in the region. Polls on religion vary widely, but about one in five Latinos identify as evangelical, up from one in 10 in 2002. In Guatemala and Honduras, they will replace Roman Catholics as the dominant religion by 2030. This could happen in Brazil in the mid-2030s as well. Over the past decade, a new church has opened almost every hour in Brazil, 80 percent of which are evangelical.
In the 1970s, enterprising pastors, inspired by American pastors, introduced an idea known as Neo-Pentecostalism. This preaches the “prosperity gospel,” a radical reinterpretation of the Bible, which claims that earthly wealth is a sign of divine blessing.The founder of the Universal Church, Edir Macedo, is considered a multi-millionaire and has the second most views television Brazil channel.
These teachings proved especially attractive to poor, ambitious people who immigrated to the cities. (Eighty percent of Latin Americans live in cities, up from 60 percent in 1975.) In Colombia’s capital, Bogota, a megachurch is offering financial literacy classes based on Bible teachings. It uses textbooks written by American evangelicals to teach parishioners compound interest, how to save and how to create a household budget.
In a social media-savvy region, evangelicals are also spreading their teachings online. On the image-sharing platform Instagram, eight of Brazil’s top 10 most-followed Christian influencers are evangelicals, including Deive Leonardo, a 32-year-old preacher with more than 13 million followers (Pope Francis has 9 million). . “In the past, churches used to talk about Jesus in squares, in streets … today you talk about Jesus through social networks,” said Pedro Franco of InChurch, a startup that provides software to churches. Almost all of his customers are evangelicals.
All of this makes evangelicalism a powerful political force. Over the past few decades, Guatemala has had three evangelical presidents. Politicians elsewhere are chasing the religious vote. Days before Brazil’s October presidential runoff, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who narrowly won by 1.8 percentage points, published an open letter promising not to close churches , and said he opposed abortion. That’s for one-third of evangelical or born-again Christian voters. His rival, incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, spends the first 40 percent of his campaign time visiting with evangelical churches. Fans of Mr Bolsonaro have also spread rumors that Lula (as we all know) is in collusion with the devil.
Several things could explain the rise in religious turnout. In the mid-2010s, Brazil launched a corruption investigation that engulfed dozens of political parties in Congress. Economic mismanagement under Dilma Rousseff, a leftist president hand-picked by Lula (who himself was president from 2003 to 2010), led to a recession. In 2016, Ms Rousseff was impeached. Caio Barbosa of the University of São Paulo said evangelicals promote the idea that Brazil is experiencing a “moral crisis caused by a lack of connection with Christian values.” In 2018, 70% of evangelicals voted for Mr Bolsonaro, a Catholic married to an evangelical.
Bolsonaro has cemented the role of evangelicals in politics. He was the first president to nominate an evangelical Supreme Court justice. Churches get tax breaks. The evangelical group in this Congress is still being formed; but after the 2018 election, some 84 evangelical lawmakers sat in the Commons, a record number.
Fears of lax abortion laws and “gender ideology,” or a more liberal view of sex, have increased evangelical influence. Many are now also allied with conservative Catholics. This is a relatively new phenomenon. In the 2000 elections in Chile, most evangelical leaders supported the socialist candidate Ricardo Lagos for president because his opponent was a member of Opus Dei, according to Boston University’s Tyler Boas. It is a conservative Catholic secular group. But in the 2021 election, evangelicals are backing José Antonio Kast, a Catholic, because he opposes abortion and opposes same-sex marriage. Evangelicals also recently helped elect the mayor of Opus Dei in Peru.
The importance of this religious vote will only increase. José Guadalupe of the University of the Pacific in Lima, Peru, noted that evangelicals are underrepresented across the region. In El Salvador, he estimates, just 6 percent of congressional representatives are evangelicals, out of more than a third of the population. In Colombia, they make up 16% of the population but only 4% of the seats in Congress.
Lula’s open letter is not the first time he has courted the religious right.He has a good relationship with Mr. Macedo, and his television Channel receives increasing government advertising to offset dominance of Brazil’s main media Globo television Channel, this is a criticism of Lula. Mr Macedo backed Lula’s campaign in 2002, but backed Mr Bolsonaro in 2018 and 2022.
But some evangelicals don’t. Last year, Bolsonaro’s vote among them fell to 63%. Even as Mr Bolsonaro campaigns on gender ideology, many parishioners – who tend to be poorer women and blacks – are outraged by his disastrous handling of the pandemic, where more than half a million people live killed in a pandemic. Politicians cannot rely solely on evangelicals to save themselves. ■