Religion and Brazilian Democracy: Mobilizing the People of God

By Amy Erica Smith

April 2019, Cambridge University Press (Series on Studies on Social Theory, Religion, and Politics) (Find the book on

Protesters with a Cross in Front of the Brazilian National Congress
Photo: Pedro França/Agência Senado (Brazil)

*Brasileiros: Se você trabalha ou estuda numa universidade afetada pelo contingenciamento e a biblioteca não tem acesso ao meu livro, por favor me enviar uma mensagem.

In August 2014, about seventy evangelical clergy in the Brazilian city of Juiz de Fora gathered for the monthly meeting of the local Council of Pastors. The worship/meeting space was an unadorned hall with white-painted cinderblock walls and the stage at the end farthest from the street entrance. Two and a half hours into the meeting, the keynote speaker got up: the president of the Liberal Christian Party, who happened to be visiting from the Federal District. In his hour-long talk, Pastor Osésa listed the social and political threats facing evangelical churches. The LGBT movement loomed large among them. Gay couples were trying to infiltrate evangelical churches to gather material that would allow them to bring anti-discrimination cases. The LGBT movement also threatened public schools. It wanted to include “new genders” in public school curriculums, and to replace “Mother’s Day” and “Father’s Day” with “Caretaker’s Day.”[1]

A couple of months later, my research assistants and I sat in a small, one-room apartment in a poor neighborhood talking with several members of the Disciples of Love Catholic prayer community.[2] José Luiz, the group’s leader and founder, explained that, “People on the margins of society are our brothers.” Talking about his own rough past, he told us that, “Just from a [psychological] complex, I excluded myself [from church]….People call the child of God a vagrant, a prostitute, even though no one reaches out their hand to help that person.” Moving on to talk about legislation related to the LGBT movement, José Luiz opined that “as far as I understand, and what I understand from Jesus Christ, that doesn’t matter. If I were there [in government], I wouldn’t either sign it or block it.” The community accepts gays: “Our rule for life, our statute—we include the excluded.” Still, he said, homosexuality is a sin, a lifestyle that should be abandoned, but the church “can’t be moralistic.”

Social conflict over “culture wars” issues is on the rise in democracies across both the developed and the developing world. In Brazil and elsewhere, polarization has arisen from the reaction of religious conservatives to rapidly changing public policy and attitudes with respect to sexuality and the family. Politicians, citizens, and clergy debate the social roles of gays; the morality and legality of abortion; and the proper relationship between religious groups and the state. Moreover, these conflicts extend into electoral contests.

However, one typical source of religious and political division is conspicuously absent in Brazil: partisanship. Brazil’s highly fragmented party system is known for its weakness at both mass and elite levels, notwithstanding the partial exception of the center-left Workers’ Party (Keck 1992; Mainwaring 1986; Samuels and Zucco, n.d.). Commentators often note that evangelical alliances are “pulverized” across a very large number of candidates and parties—ones chosen based more on personalistic ties, than clear ideological criteria (Dantas 2011; Freston 1993; Lisboa 2010).

The absence of partisan links in Brazil’s culture wars contrasts with mobilization over issues such as abortion in developed Western democracies. Hunter (1992) first popularized the term “culture wars” to describe a period of heightened cultural tension in the United States initially triggered by political and cultural changes of the 1960s. While Hunter saw the combatants in this “war” as “orthodox” and “progressive” religious groups, subsequent scholarship shows that intensifying polarization and the rise of the Christian Right have been driven by politicians and parties; citizens have followed political elites’ leads (Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope 2005; Hetherington 2001; Layman and Carsey 2002; Layman, Carsey, and Horowitz 2006; Layman and Green 2006; Mason 2015). Studies of other Western democracies ranging from Canada to the Netherlands also show that the party system determines the extent of social mobilization around culture wars issues in those countries (Bean 2014; Studlar, Cagossi, and Duval 2013).

This book addresses two puzzles. First, how have Brazil’s culture wars developed, absent partisan leadership? Second, how have they shaped democracy in the post-1985 democratic period?

To answer both questions, this book takes a clergy-centered approach. Brazil’s culture wars are fought simultaneously on two fronts: between Catholics and evangelicals, and between religious and secular groups. As evangelical and Catholic clergy have responded to intensifying religious competition for bodies in the pews, and to a leftward drift in the national policy agenda related to sexuality and the family, their religious teachings on those issues have polarized. Citizens and politicians have reacted to the political stances of clergy. Pastors and priests influence congregants, yet widespread secular norms among citizens limit the scope of that influence and mitigate polarization. Meanwhile, in Brazil’s highly porous party system, religious leaders have great latitude to select candidates, and substantial influence over their candidacies. As a consequence, the issue priorities and stances of politicians elected with the support of congregations tend to match those of clergy to a greater extent than they match the attitudes of congregants in the same religious groups.

The democratic consequences of religious politics in Brazil are mixed. On the one hand, the great majority of congregations promote basic civic norms. In addition, the polarized politics of evangelical congregations and politicians have improved representation on issues related to sexuality and the family, since most legislators have been far to the left of their constituents on these issues. However, Brazil’s new era of religious politics has also brought less benign democratic consequences. First, evangelical legislators are poor representatives of their constituencies’ policy and partisan positions on issues other than sexuality and the family. Second, the clergy-centered nature of Brazil’s culture wars likely contributes to partisan fragmentation. Third, congregations also have uneven impacts on liberal democracy, eroding political tolerance for those who disagree on religion and politics. Meanwhile, clergy politicking contributes to widening affective polarization along partisan and religious lines.

The clergy-driven explanation of Brazil’s culture wars may have purchase not only for explaining the Brazilian context, but also in understanding cases such as mobilization around “gay death penalty” legislation in Uganda (Grossman 2015). More generally, the book contributes to comparative studies of representation and party systems. Finally, it is in dialogue with core debates in comparative religion and politics over the relative importance of supply-side and demand-side approaches, as well as theological ideas and organizational interests, in explaining clergy political behavior.

This project leverages a great deal of quantitative data spanning the period from 2002 to 2017. The richest data come from a case study of the city of Juiz de Fora in the southeast region of the country, in the state of Minas Gerais.[3] In 2008/2009, I conducted dissertation field work surrounding the city’s mayoral elections, in which evangelical congregations successfully mobilized to defeat the front-runner, a lesbian university professor. I returned to the same city in 2014 for an in-depth study of mobilization within churches in the run-up to the presidential election. The latter period of field work included quantitative surveys of clergy (augmented with surveys of clergy in Rio de Janeiro and Fortaleza); a citizen-level survey within eight congregations and nearby health centers; participant observation within congregations; and seven focus groups examining norms regarding church politicking. In June 2017, I once again made the journey to Juiz de Fora to reinterview many clergy whom I had first met in 2014 about their congregations’ reactions to the series of economic and political crises that have unfolded in the past two and a half years. Beyond these data from Juiz de Fora, analysis also incorporates various other national and local studies spanning the period from 2002 to 2014.

Various survey experiments enable a better understanding of congregational politicking. A rapidly growing new body of work applies experimental methods to core questions in religion and politics.[4] Experiments have several advantages. They improve on individuals’ self-reports of what their clergy say; they enable researchers to tease apart potential causal mechanisms for observed correlations; and they can eliminate selection bias. The present study is the first of which I am aware to apply survey experimental methods to study religious elites. Experimental methods are especially revealing in this case because clergy are particularly likely to self-censor, given that their public leadership roles entail moral suasion. For instance, though very few clergy openly admitted to declining membership, priming clergy to think about the threat of competition nonetheless affected the way they responded to subsequent questions.

[1] Following Brazilian usage, the term “evangelical” is applied as an umbrella category for members of historical (“mainline”) and non-denominational Protestant denominations, as well as Pentecostals. In the Brazilian context, all these groups tend to match common academic definitions of evangelicalism based on beliefs and practices.

[2] With the exception of public events, the names of individuals and religious communities are changed for the sake of confidentiality.

[3] This city has become a focus for a number of academic studies of social influence, analogously to the US social influence studies of South Bend (Baker, Ames, and Renno 2006; Smith 2016).

[4] For instance, see Albertson (2011); Ben-Nun Bloom, Arikan, and Courtemanche (2015); Boas (2014); Djupe and Calfano (2014); Glazier (2013); McClendon and Reidl (2015); Weber and Thornton (2012).