SALVADOR, Brazil (AP) — Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been waging an all-out campaign to shore up the crucial evangelical vote ahead of Oct. 2 elections.
Evangelicals helped carry him to power in 2018, and he proceeded to tap members of their churches for important ministries and for a Supreme Court nomination. But in this electoral cycle, Bolsonaro initially found more difficulty winning their favor.
The campaign involves the first lady and keyboard crusaders. Influential pastors and politicians are also warning their followers, on Facebook and in pulpits, that the race’s front-runner, leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, would close Christian churches — which he vehemently denies. Users are liking, sharing and commenting in what appears a concerted tactic to distance evangelicals from da Silva, according to Marie Santini, the coordinator of NetLab, a research group at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro that monitors social media and has focused on evangelicals.
“They want to make this election a religious war,” Santini said.
Self-declared evangelicals make up almost a third of Brazil’s population, more than double two decades ago, according to demographer José Eustáquio Diniz Alves, a former researcher at the national school of statistical sciences. He projects they will approach 40% by 2032, surpassing Catholics.
Many poor evangelicals fondly remembered da Silva’s 2003-2010 tenure as time when they could afford to buy meat and pay their bills, according to Esther Solano, a sociologist at the Federal University of Sao Paulo who conducts polling of Bolsonaro voters and evangelicals. Some moderate evangelicals felt Bolsonaro used them politically and isn’t a real Christian.
Since May, however, various polls have found that many evangelicals migrated from da Silva to Bolsonaro, a shift attributed to the incumbent’s campaign to portray Brazil as spiritually ill and argue only he can safeguard Christian faith. Overall, d a Silva still leads all polls against the incumbent.
Santini said religious and political disinformation websites have been generating content that candidates, pastors and politicians redistribute via social media. It set the news cycle for weeks, with TV pundits calling the race a holy war.
Brazil’s presidential palace and campaign declined to comment on strategy.
Michelle Bolsonaro avoided the spotlight during most of her husband’s presidency, though there were glimpses of her faith. One video showed her repeating “glory to God,” speaking in tongues and hopping joyfully after the Senate approved his evangelical Supreme Court appointee.
Over the past two months, however, she has become the leading evangelical voice from Bolsonaro’s camp. She has said she prays at Bolsonaro’s chair and that, before his presidency, the palace had been consecrated to demons.
At a recent March for Jesus in Rio, she pumped up a crowd that buzzed with energy. Belting out gospel songs, she made heart signs and blew kisses.
“We will bring the presence of the Lord Jesus to the government and declare that this nation belongs to the Lord,” she declared. “The doors of hell will not prevail against our family, the Brazilian church or our Brazil.”
That sort of fervent display of faith resonates with many evangelicals. Political scientist Bruno Carazza likens Michelle Bolsonaro’s deployment in the home stretch to a “secret weapon.”
“She communicates very well with that public because she is authentically evangelical, unlike Bolsonaro who says he is Catholic and embraces evangelicalism because of political opportunism,” Carazza said. “She literally speaks the tongue of evangelicals.”
The digital campaign also entails associating da Silva with Afro Brazilian religions. One video shared in evangelical circles this year was edited so he appeared to say the devil was speaking to him and taking control. The video influenced evangelicals’ perceptions at the time, according to Solano, who interviewed dozens of them.
In a campaign appearance Sept. 7, Bolsonaro told the crowd they should compare da Silva’s wife with his own — “a woman of God, family and active in my life.” Days earlier, a photo circulating in pro-Bolsonaro social media showed da Silva’s wife standing before figures of Afro Brazilian religious deities.
Brazil has seen efforts to promote interfaith respect. In 2007 da Silva signed into law a national day for combating religious intolerance, in memory of a priestess who was denounced as a charlatan by a prominent evangelical church’s newspaper.
Government data show there have been more reports of religious intolerance this year.
There has been a particular surge in the digital realm: 2,918 reports of online incidents in the first eight months of 2022, up from 516 in in the same months in 2021, according to the Salvador-based nonprofit SaferNet, which fields complaints via a hotline it runs with the prosecutor-general’s office.
The content is being more widely shared and reaching a far greater audience, therefore garnering more reports, according to SaferNet’s director, Juliana Cunha.
“Debate is polarized, the mood is tense,” Cunha said. “There’s a trigger. Something reinforces your perception, you pass it along.”
Bolsonaro’s support among evangelicals has climbed to 50% from 39% in May, while da Silva’s tumbled, according to a survey pollster Datafolha conducted Sept. 20-22.
The former president’s camp has recognized he has lost ground; earlier this month da Silva held a much-heralded meeting with evangelicals in a stuffy gymnasium on Rio’s outskirts.
Da Silva told the crowd his rise from poverty to the presidency is testament to God’s existence, but did not expand upon his spirituality. He has said he wishes to treat all religions with respect, including Afro Brazilian faiths, and repudiates religious rivalries or anything resembling holy war.
“I learned that the state shouldn’t have religion, the state shouldn’t have church. It should guarantee the operation and freedom of however many churches people want to create,” he said.
Conservative evangelicals took to social media to portray his remarks as an attack on Christian churches.
One of Bolsonaro’s most fervent backers is Silas Malafaia, a popular pastor who presided over the president’s wedding to the first lady, his third wife. Malafaia boasts millions of social media followers and regularly blasts da Silva, known universally as Lula, and his party.
At one service this month, Malafaia spent 15 minutes discussing the election. He expressed astonishment that believers might “rip up the Bible in their heart” by voting for a candidate who, he argued, hates their principles, is indifferent to defending traditional families and supports leftist leaders who persecute churches.
“I’m not going to go easy on them,” Malafaia said in an interview afterward. “It is a brand of lying, of cynicism to deceive the people. It’s ‘Lula, peace and love’ on the outside and the devil on the inside.”
“We are not fools. That time is over,” Malafaia continued. “Social networks ended the monopoly of information.”
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.