King's Evangelical Divinity School

4 October 2010

Pentecostals and Brazilian Politics

It looks like the former Marxist rebel, Dilma Rousseff, poll favourite and heir apparent to Brazil's President Lula da Silva, is going to have to face a runoff ballot for the Brazilian presidency next month. Despite a series of opinion polls suggesting she commanded well above the 50% of support needed to avoid a runoff, instead a last-minute surge of support for the Green candidate Marina Silva, who secured nearly a fifth of total ballots cast, resulted (as things stand at the moment) with Rousseff some 2-3 % shy of what she needed for an outright victory.

This result - if confirmed - is significant for Evangelicals for various reasons. First, Brazil counts one of the largest Evangelical - predominantly Pentecostal - populations in the world, with figures of between 40% and 50% regularly cited by commentators (though it is important to treat with care some of the inflated figures often bandied about, usually by Marxists and Catholics fearful of an Evangelical invasion, or else driven by Pentecostal triumphalism). Such a powerful bloc cannot be ignored in any election, and it seems in this instance Rousseff failed to convince Brazil's Pentecostals that she planned to liberate the country's abortion laws, together with introducing other social policies which Pentecostals would have found hard to swallow. Interestingly, many Evangelicals switched support to Marina Silva, likely explaining in part her surge of support at the last minute.  Significantly, the Green candidate Marina Silva is herself a Pentecostal belonging to the Assemblies of God.

Thus, Brazil's weekend poll yields several interesting issues for those interested in Evangelical engagement with the political sphere. First, despite the claims by some sociologists and political scientists in the 1960s and early 1970s that religion was in terminal decline as an important determinant of political outlook and behaviour, among Latin America's Pentecostals this has proved far from the case. Indeed, the explosion of Pentecostalism across the continent since the late 1970s has been instrumental in leading many social scientists to ditch secularisation theories.

Brazil's poll also yields another interesting story, namely, that any attempt to stereotype all Evangelicals as reactionary and on the political right lacks nuance. A case in point is how over the weekend many of Brazil's Pentecostals switched their support for a leftist government to another leftist presidential candidate from the Green Party. Clearly, then, Brazilian Pentecostals have little problem voting for someone on the left. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that such a situation is far from new, at least as far as Latin American Pentecostals are concerned. Take, for example, 1970s Chile, during which time many Pentecostal leaders supported General Pinochet. However, in the early 1970s the evidence suggests that the majority of grassroots Chilean Pentecostals instead supported the Marxist Salvador Allende. Meanwhile, in Sandinista Nicaragua, depite the bulk of classical Pentecostals remaining apolitical or eschewing the revolution, nonetheless there remained a hardcore of 30% of Pentecostals who supported it. Thus, this weekend has demonstrated yet again the evolving and increasingly diverse nature of Evangelical politics.

For those interested in exploring these issues further, our M.A. in Theology at King's explores the nature and theology of the movement, including a module entitled History, Thought and Expressions of Global Evangelicalism, together with additional case study modules rooted in a survey of the movement in Asia, Northern Europe and North America, Africa and Latin America. Further details of the M.A. programme are available here.

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