How Brazil’s Lula Is Trying to Win Over Evangelicals Who Rejected Him

(Bloomberg) -- On a sweltering day in March in a scruffy Rio de Janeiro suburb, a group of hundreds of Christian pastors and their followers listened intently as Brazil’s top social policy official pleaded for help.

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“We need you,” Wellington Dias, Brazil’s minister for social development under President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, told the crowd.

Dias was making his case for a series of longstanding government initiatives designed to assist the neediest — from cash transfers to subsidized housing and medicines. He called on faith leaders to help reach people who could benefit from the programs but may not know how to sign up, or even that they exist.

Such measures had long been powerful tools to win votes in Brazil, where nearly a third of the population lives on less than $7 a day. Yet a rapid demographic change is reshaping the nation’s politics, and with his appeal, Dias was also trying to regain the trust of evangelicals, who are one of Brazil's fastest-expanding groups.

“I know that where the government doesn’t reach,” Dias said, “churches, missionaries, pastors and their members do.”

Evangelical voters broke from Brazil’s leftist Worker’s Party, known as the PT, a decade ago, driven away by its socially progressive positions and corruption scandals, which led to the imprisonment of top officials including Lula. They embraced Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right leader whose fierce rhetoric against abortion, LGBTQ rights and feminism resonated with their beliefs.

The shift was decisive in Brazil’s 2018 presidential election, when Bolsonaro won 11 million more votes from evangelicals than Worker’s Party candidate Fernando Haddad, according to DataFolha. Among Catholics, both men received roughly the same number of votes. In 2022, Lula narrowly prevailed over Bolsonaro to return to the presidency.

Evangelical Christianity is Latin America’s fastest-growing religious denomination and in Brazil its adherents have become a potent force. They account for about a third of the population and occupy 40% of the seats in the Lower House of Congress. Tens of thousands of the faithful took to the streets of Sao Paulo last week for the “March for Jesus,” Brazil's largest annual evangelical rally. The event drew leaders from the government and opposition parties. Researchers expect that Brazil, the world’s largest Roman Catholic country, will become minority-Catholic over the next decade.

Surveys show that Brazil’s evangelicals are predominantly poor and non-White and typically have received no higher education — the very sort of vulnerable Brazilians who are entitled to the social programs Lula created or expanded during his first two terms in office and have traditionally made up the base of his party.

Like their wealthier counterparts in the US, evangelical Christians in Latin America have rallied around issues such as restricting abortion. In 2016, conservative Christians in Colombia helped defeat an initial peace proposal with leftist rebels over language on gender, forcing changes in the final pact. In 2018, an evangelical singer was the runner-up in Costa Rica’s presidential race after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights said the nation should allow same-sex marriage.

Now Lula, a Catholic known more for visiting factory floors than church pews, is attempting a political reversal ahead of municipal elections in October that will set the tone for Brazil’s 2026 presidential race — and shape politics in the country for years to come.

Along with enlisting evangelical leaders to help combat poverty, Lula has backed expanded tax breaks for houses of worship. And he has added a Christian touch to his government’s image, launching a “Faith in Brazil” campaign to tout his administration’s economic record.

Still, he has had trouble overcoming the gains made by conservatives who have capitalized on voters’ religious beliefs and cultural anxiety.

The “fusion of evangelicalism with right-wing populism is what I think has made this such a complicated partnership to revive,” said Taylor Boas, a political scientist at Boston University. “The left is almost cast as diabolical.”

Polarized Politics

Lula’s government has focused its outreach on small evangelical and Pentecostal churches in city outskirts and shanty towns. It hopes to enlist church representatives to help register the needy for initiatives like Bolsa Familia, which gives cash to low-income families that educate and vaccinate their children. Participating churches can get financing for projects such as soup kitchens.

“Our job is to bring together as many people as possible,” Dias said in an interview. “Taking Brazil off the hunger map is no easy task.”

Since the government began publicly courting faith leaders late last year, about 500 people have been trained to help people navigate the process of signing up for assistance, according to the Ministry of Social Development. The government hasn’t disclosed whether there has been any resulting increase in registration for social programs.

In hyper-polarized Brazil, the PT’s support of legalizing same-sex marriage and abortion alienated conservatives. Graft investigations a decade ago that led to Lula spending more than a year in prison also fueled charges that he is morally corrupt, even though his conviction was overturned.

The attitude is “even if PT would improve my living conditions, if I chose them I would be committing a sin,” said Juliano Spyer, a Brazilian anthropologist who spent more than a year living among evangelicals in Bahia, a state in northeastern Brazil.

The divide between the ruling leftists and conservative Christians has been widened in part by the spread of false information. Days before the 2022 election, Lula issued a four-page open letter to the evangelical community stating his personal opposition to abortion and dispelling rumors that he planned to close churches. Earlier in the campaign, Lula had said abortion should be widely accessible.

At a school pavilion in the Rio suburb of Belford Roxo, busloads of pastors and their congregants gathered to hear Dias present the government’s plans. In tropical heat, they sang and swayed in prayer before Dias’s delegation arrived. Enoch Nazzari, a 52-year-old pastor of a Pentecostal church in the state of Minas Gerais, said he preferred Bolsonaro but had come to listen to Dias as a show of good faith.

“I came for the president to see the evangelical community is not his enemy,” said Nazzari.

Organizers say others have been less welcoming. Issan Almada, 34, a pastor and city official in Belford Roxo, said that church figures who agreed to help the administration have been shunned by fellow evangelicals or blasted on social media.

“They say we’re doing the work of the devil,” he said.

God Above Everyone

By promising to put “God above everyone,” Bolsonaro made evangelicals the bedrock of his conservative coalition. Bolsonaro, who still identifies as Catholic, is married to an evangelical and was baptized by a pastor in the Jordan River. In 2022, evangelical support nearly helped him win reelection, and lifted dozens of like-minded governors and lawmakers to victory.

Bolsonaro has since been banned from holding office for making false claims about the last election. Still, the leaders of some of Brazil’s largest megachurches remain loyal, appearing shoulder-to-shoulder with the former president at rallies.

At the same time, Lula has clashed with conservative lawmakers. The administration enraged the evangelical caucus when it rolled back a Bolsonaro-era tax benefit for religious leaders. In response, the government backed a constitutional amendment making its way through Congress that would expand tax exemptions for houses of worship to cover their upkeep as well as the charitable and social services they provide.

A May Quaest poll showed Lula’s approval rating was at 39% among evangelicals even though Brazil’s economy has outperformed expectations and indicators of living conditions have improved. The president’s popularity is at the lowest level of his term — a worrying sign ahead of October’s vote.

One challenge, according to Luciana Pereira, 50, a pastor in Belford Roxo, is evangelicals are bombarded with disinformation on social media and in chat groups that link congregations with their churches.

“They believe more about what’s said about the president than what he actually says,” she said.

Yet some evangelical leaders say the needs of their communities may ultimately force them to reengage. Romildo Dutra, a 59-year-old pastor in a gang-controlled slum in Belford Roxo, said the government’s initiative was a means to stretch his own outreach. Drugs are sold openly at the base of the hill leading up to Dutra’s church, and squatters inhabit an abandoned building, where he tries to help addicts break free of the grip of crack.

“To accomplish all that needs to be done I would need to multiply myself 30,” he said. “The state had never extended its hands to us before.”

--With assistance from Daniel Carvalho, Beatriz Amat and Matthew Bristow.

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