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A Trump-like politician in Brazil could snag the support of a powerful religious group: Evangelicals

By Sarah Pulliam Bailey
Dec. 1, 2017 at 11:11 p.m.

Pentecostal congregations have built enormous churches across Brazil. Amid Sao Paulo's high-rises is a re-creation of the biblical Solomon's Temple.

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Corruption scandals that have landed several of Brazil's leading politicians in jail have motivated voters to consider dark horse candidates for next year's presidential race. One of those, Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, who likens himself to President Donald Trump, could find support from a key group: Evangelicals, who have become politically powerful in recent years.

Bolsonaro, who represents Rio de Janeiro in the country's House of Representatives, has had his own controversies. He has said he'd rather have a dead son than a gay son, and he once told a congresswoman she wasn't worth raping. A former army parachutist, Bolsonaro praised the man who oversaw torture in the era of the Brazilian military regime when he justified his vote for impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff, who was tortured during that time.

Observers say that a widespread corruption probe involving politicians on both the right and the left has created an opening for nonestablishment candidates like Bolsonaro in Brazil, which is struggling to get out of its deep recession.

"Until recent months, the term 'right wing' was a bad word," Bolsonaro told The Washington Post, noting his longstanding opposition to Communist or socialist programs. "Suddenly the term 'right wing' became accepted again in Brazil."

In the United States, white evangelicals have been come under the political spotlight after 80 percent of them cast a vote for Trump, a thrice-married candidate who bragged about having sex with multiple married women and about grabbing women's genitals. And a recent poll in Alabama suggests a majority of evangelicals, who make up almost half of the state, are more likely to vote for U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused of sexual misconduct.

Evangelical influence in Brazil is arguably more powerful than it is in the United States, said Paul Freston, a sociologist and an expert in Pentecostalism in Latin America. American evangelicals tend to rally on a grass-roots level over conservative issues like abortion, but the movement is highly fragmented with no central leaders. Political candidates in Brazil run as Pentecostals, and pastors will directly tell people how to vote.

"The big churches can really engage politically from the top down by nominating their candidates," Freston said. "Party affiliation is secondary. The important affiliation is with the church."

Brazil's Catholic identity remains strong, but many are turning to Pentecostalism, a more charismatic form of evangelicalism that has become increasingly prominent in the country. "Pentecostals have been a decisive element in tilting the Brazilian agenda towards conservative views and policies," said Joanildo Burity, who researches Brazilian evangelicals and politics. "Politically they have been very successful at selling a view that they command the evangelical vote across the country."

A powerful "bullet, beef and Bible" caucus that represents the interests of security forces, agribusiness and evangelical churches helps give evangelicals huge influence in Congress, allowing them to block policies, such as a ban on discrimination against gay people. They tend to favor socially conservative issues, such as restricting abortion and stiffening incarceration for juvenile offenders. Progressive evangelicals who focus on issues like the environment and poverty have emerged in recent years, but they tend not to get attention in Brazil's media.

In both Brazil and the United States, evangelicals make up about a quarter of the population, and Pentecostalism is considered a subgroup. But in the United States just 3.6 percent of Americans describe themselves as Pentecostal, compared with about 70 percent of Brazil's evangelicals. American Pentecostal leaders, such as Paula White and Mark Burns, have been criticized for their close relationship to Trump.

In both countries, observers say, Pentecostals and other evangelicals are willing to vote for candidates they believe will focus on their priorities.

Brazil's previous President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was found guilty of corruption and money laundering and sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison but can still run for president while he appeals his case. In September he led the polls with 35 percent of the vote. Bolsonaro was in second place, garnering 16 percent. Polls show Bolsonaro's strongest support comes from evangelicals.

Bolsonaro has been described in Brazilian media as homophobic, racist and sexist, and he noted that Trump has been similarly labeled. "The American people didn't swallow that, and he was elected," Bolsonaro said. "In Brazil something similar is happening. I've been suffering these accusations for longer than he has."

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