Crosses and Culture Wars: Evangelicals, Catholics, and the Construction of Brazilian Democracy

Book Manuscript in Preparation

Tattoo of Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio, a Symbol of the Brazilian Nation

Tattoo of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer

How do the citizens of new democracies construct their understandings of citizenship and their own political preferences, and mobilize to seek representation? I argue that since Brazil’s transition to democracy in 1985, Catholic and evangelical churches have served as ubiquitous and powerful, though often underappreciated, sites of political socialization. Scholars have noted the inadequacy of many common forums in which citizens learn about politics in Brazil. Parties, particularly ones of the right, have limited and non-ideological linkages to the electorate, while schools are underfunded and have uneven capacity for civic education. The structure of church communities is relatively propitious for political socialization; contacts are frequent and reinforced throughout social networks, while political messages are delivered in the context of teachings on matters of ultimate significance. Moreover, churches, like parties, can serve as a vehicle for socializing elites as well as masses.

This book tells the story of the type of democracy constructed by Brazil’s evangelical and Catholic churches, using a wealth of data from a dozen studies conducted since 2002. Churches generally improve the quality of democratic representation. First, they promote the norm of informed electoral participation in a relatively neutral way. Second and more significantly, as the agenda of left-leaning parties has moved increasingly leftward on issues related to sexuality and the family, evangelical churches in particular have promoted representation by serving as a nexus for elite and mass coordination on ideologically conservative policy positions; Catholic churches, by contrast, have often sought to shore up membership by reducing discussion of issues of sexual morality. Thus, churches have been an engine of what we might call a Brazilian version of the “culture wars”— polarized and emotional ideological conflict over what are sometimes termed “moral values” issues related to gender, sexuality, and the role of religion in public life.

However, these Brazilian culture wars have deviated from the pattern found in the US. First, gender/sexual traditionalism has not been coupled to right-leaning positions on the economy and social spending. Second, there has been no effective church-party alliance akin to the evangelical-Republican linkage in the United States. Evangelical churches have some limited success in campaigning for or against individual politicians, but most evangelical and, to an even greater extent, Catholic churches are reticent about direct involvement in the electoral fray. In Brazil’s highly fragmented party system, and given the diffuse nature of evangelical leadership, no party of the right or left has been able to capture effectively Brazil’s growing religiously conservative base.

Ultimately, churches promote participatory and majoritarian democracy in Brazil. However, they have more uneven impacts on liberal and deliberative visions of democracy. Both evangelical and Catholic church attendance is associated with political intolerance, or willingness to deny basic political rights to those with whom one disagrees about religion or politics; the effect is stronger among evangelicals. And while churches can, at times, serve as sites for deliberation across lines of difference, more frequently church attendance leads to homogeneity in political views and distrust of those with opposing beliefs. Still, in Brazil’s relatively religious social climate, for the large majority of Brazilians the shared premises of core religious beliefs contribute to common terms of political discourse, while religious institutions shore up symbolic attachment to the Brazilian nation-state.