Andre Penner/AP
Marina Silva, presidential candidate of the Brazilian Socialist Party, speaks during a news conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in September 2014.

As Brazil presidential candidate surges, focus turns to evangelicalism's clout

Within 24 hours of launching her presidential campaign, Marina Silva withdrew her support for bills recognizing gay marriage after public pressure from a leader of her evangelical Christian church.

It was "divine providence" last month that stopped Brazilian presidential candidate Marina Silva from getting on the plane that killed her running mate, Eduardo Campos, she said.

For the devout evangelical Christian – and the tens of millions of Brazilians like her – it will surely be God's hand guiding her all the way into the country's top office if recent polls predicting her victory over President Dilma Rousseff prove correct.

A former rubber tapper and renowned environmentalist, Ms. Silva has surged in popularity following Brazil's first presidential candidate debate late last month.

Polls show that the Socialist Party candidate is currently tied with incumbent Ms. Rousseff in the first round, with 34 percent of the vote, and would beat the president in a second round run-off.

The positioning of an evangelical Christian in the lead of Brazil's presidential election illustrates the dramatic rise of evangelicalism here ­– and will compound an already major influence on Brazilian law-making by religious groups in Congress. Within 24 hours of launching her campaign last weekend, Silva withdrew her support for bills recognizing gay marriage and supporting same-sex adoption.

She was publicly pressured to do so in a series of tweets by one of Brazil’s most controversial televangelists, Silas Malafaia, who is a leader of her Assembly of God Church.

"[Silva's] campaign is a shame when it comes to the gay cause," Mr. Malafaia wrote on Twitter. "I am going to wait for Marina to clarify her position. After, I will make my decisions."

The following morning the campaign issued a new manifesto with most of the LGBT-friendly elements removed, claiming there had been errors in the original text due to a "procedural failing."

"Thanks to everyone for the pressure," tweeted Malafaia, congratulating followers for putting down Brazil’s “gay agenda.” He later announced he would support Silva in a second-round run-off (his first round vote is going to Pastor Everaldo Pereira, another evangelical – but more conservative – candidate who polls predict will get about one percent of the votes).

"Evangelicals are really seeing Marina as their true representative, overcoming divisions between individual evangelical churches," says Mauricio Savarese, a political blogger. "The incident [on gay marriage] shows the evangelicals will be a key driver in this election."

A growing political presence

Over the past 30 years, the popularity of evangelical churches has soared in Brazil, a traditionally Catholic nation. 

While Brazil is still home to more Catholics than any other nation in the world, the proportion of the population identifying as evangelical rose from five percent in 1970 to 22 percent in 2010 – around 42.3 million people. By 2030, the number of evangelicals is forecast to account for 50 percent of Brazil’s population.

And evangelical lobbyists and politicians have worked relentlessly to cement and expand their grip on politics and media, with striking results. Evangelical Christian politicians gained 50 percent more seats in Congress in 2010, holding 63 out of 513 seats in the lower house.

The number of evangelical-leaning candidates in October's regional and national elections has risen by 45 percent since 2010, to 328 candidates.

The growth of the evangelical caucus,"makes an already very conservative Congress even more so," says Mr. Savarese. "The only thing that can happen is even more conservative reforms. [A Silva presidency] would make it extremely hard for Brazil to be liberal on civil rights."

'A solution' to Brazil's social problems

Silva, from an impoverished Amazonian family, was a fervent Catholic until the late 1990s, when she converted to evangelicalism.

Evangelicalism surged in Brazil in the 1980s, at a time when the Catholic Church and the country's economy were in crisis.

Liberation theology, a Latin American Catholic doctrine that preaches solidarity with the poor, was condemned by the Vatican in the 1980s. Liberationist priests were replaced by conservatives, and at the same time, millions of Brazilians plunged into poverty during a severe economic crisis. Evangelical sects were perfectly placed to fill the gap, entering the poor areas the Liberations had left behind. Between 1980 and 1987, evangelical church members almost doubled to 12 million.

"These protective communities became a very strong presence in the most dangerous areas in Brazil," says Ricardo Mariano, a sociology professor and expert on Brazilian religion, referring to evangelical Christian churches. "We have many social problems and the evangelicals ... promise a solution to them all."

Evangelical churches have also harnessed the power of the media. Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, founded by Edir Macedo in 1977, bought failing television station Rede Record in 1990 and turned it into Brazil's second biggest broadcasting network in less than 20 years. 

Across Brazil, there are now more than 600 evangelical radio stations and 128 record labels, with annual revenues from the gospel entertainment industry topping $1 billion.

Mr. Macedo, one of the country's most well-known religious leaders, has made a fortune from the faith. Estimated to have a personal worth of more than $1.1 billion, Macedo and his counterparts preach prosperity theology, which says God will reward his followers with material riches if they regularly give money to the church.

Malafaia, who pressured Silva on LGBT rights, has penned bestselling books including “Lessons of a Winner” and flies on a private jet emblazoned with the words "Favor of God." His personal wealth is estimated at around $150 million.

The promise of riches can serve as a draw for potential evangelical followers, particularly among Brazil's poor population, says Savarese. It offers a religious edict that contradicts the Catholic teaching that poverty and suffering must be endured.

"In a country where so many people have so little, the idea that getting rich is God's will can gain a lot of popularity," Savarese says. "The evangelicals have profited from the idea that Catholicism and liberation theology are not enough to deal with the problems of day to day life in Brazil."

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