In the first days of Jair Messias Bolsonaro’s presidency, a video surfaced of an inauguration party held by Damares Alves, Bolsonaro’s new minister of women, family and human rights and an evangelical pastor and attorney. In the video, Alves crowed delightedly that she and Bolsonaro would inaugurate a “new era” in which “boys wear blue and girls wear pink.” At the time, Alves seemed to symbolize many evangelicals’ faith that Bolsonaro could help return the country to a time of simpler, clearer norms related to gender and sexuality.
This hope – plus the misguided fear that his opponent, the Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad, might liberalize sexual education and force homosexuality and transgender identities on their children – seems to have rooted evangelicals to Bolsonaro in Brazil’s 2018 presidential election. Analysis suggests Bolsonaro would likely have narrowly lost the presidency without their support.
One hundred days into Bolsonaro’s presidency, though, many evangelicals appear uprooted. In late October, Bolsonaro received 69% of the evangelical vote. But in a Datafolha poll conducted earlier this month, only 42% of evangelicals said Bolsonaro’s government is doing a “good” or “great” job, while 49% described him as “authoritarian.” This level of approval is similar to the 41% positive evaluation of Bolsonaro’s government among evangelicals measured by Ibope in mid-March, though the same Ibope survey found that 56% of the group continues to say they trust Bolsonaro himself (the man, as opposed to his government).
There are two ways to spin these numbers. On the one hand, evangelicals continue to be Bolsonaro’s most supportive religious group. In the April Datafolha poll, Bolsonaro’s 42% among evangelicals contrasts with his 32% positive evaluation in the population as a whole, or his 27% among Catholics. Evangelical leaders in Congress smell a political opportunity in these numbers, threatening that if Bolsonaro fails to meet their demands, his support will sink further. Arguing that Bolsonaro should take his evangelical supporters more seriously and his eccentric, expat guru Olavo de Carvalho less seriously, celebrity pastor Silas Malafaia asked reporters indignantly, “How many voters does Olavo have here in Brazil?”
But on the other hand, 42% is lower than one might have expected in January. Many evangelicals who voted for Bolsonaro in October now rate his administration neutrally, at best. Comparing Bolsonaro with his two immediate elected predecessors, former Presidents Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, highlights how low Bolsonaro’s numbers are. Even in his strongest religious base, Bolsonaro’s support is lower than Rousseff’s 49% among all voters at the same point in her first term, and on par with Lula’s 43%.
What happened? Why is the flock straying from the politician middle-named Messiah?
The explanation lies with three different groups – the administration, evangelical leaders, and voters. First, the administration: Bolsonaro’s first 100 days have been hard. His governing challenges include upheaval in the Ministry of Education, inability to establish a legislative coalition, and high-profile bickering and uncertainty over pension reform. And then there are the scandals: from an inquiry over the president’s oldest son Senator Flávio Bolsonaro’s ties to militias in Rio, to Bolsonaro’s party’s involvement in campaign finance schemes. Evangelicals may have been particularly sensitive to some of the news: for instance, Bolsonaro’s controversial series of pornographic tweets following Carnival, and the violation of his campaign promise to move the Brazilian embassy in Israel from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, opting instead for a “commercial office” in the Holy City. Contrary to the media market in the United States, in Brazil evangelicals largely watch the same TV news and read the same newspapers as everyone else. So it’s no surprise their support for Bolsonaro has declined in parallel with other groups.
Second, disharmony among evangelical and other rightist leaders likely also dissipates Bolsonaro’s approval. The wave of right-leaning social movements that swept Bolsonaro into office involved unprecedented unity among evangelical churches. But now the wave appears to have broken into many wavelets. The contest for president of the evangelical caucus in Congress was unusually conflictual, as representatives of various religious factions vied for power.
Meanwhile, evangelical leaders maneuver and jockey to influence Bolsonaro’s agenda in complex terrain, perpetually looking for advantages vis-à-vis an “anti-globalist” camp headed by Carvalho, and a center-right camp incorporating technocrats as well as military leaders. This sectarian struggle helps to explain why evangelical leaders have kept Bolsonaro at arms-length, refusing to join a permanent legislative coalition with his government.
Third, evangelical voters may simply be harder for Bolsonaro to reach these days. In the heat of the 2018 election, evangelicals were mobilized by deep distrust of the PT and by fear of what a Haddad administration might do. Without the specter of a PT-led communist and gender-dysphoric dystopia to contrast Bolsonaro with, evangelical voters may view him more critically.
Where is evangelical support headed? Though 100 days is too short a period to estimate trends accurately, Bolsonaro’s evangelical support appears to have been more or less stable since mid-March. In the short term, re-engaging evangelicals will likely require Bolsonaro to do two things. First, he needs to figure out the messy, boring business of governing – building coalitions, stimulating economic growth, and selling a much-needed but unpopular pension reform to Congress and the Brazilian people. And ideally, he needs to do all that without too much scandal. Second, evangelicals in particular will pay keen attention to what Bolsonaro says and does about their core issues: gender, sexuality, and the rights of evangelical churches.
But what about the long term? In the spirit of full disclosure, Bolsonaro’s hemorrhaging evangelical support seems to contradict what I wrote in AQ in November. At the time, I argued that “Brazil shows the playbook for a long-term base for rightist politicians in Latin America.” In the “new Christian right,” I said, “Coalitions between rightist politicians and evangelical and Pentecostal groups are likely to be anchored in mutual opposition to liberal ideas about gender and sexuality.”
Has this new rightist coalition broken up so soon? Though time will tell, I suspect the disintegration of 2018’s rightist wave is temporary. As the next elections approach, fear of leftist victory could draw evangelical leaders and voters back together, leading the wave to coalesce again.
Smith is associate professor of political science at Iowa State University, and author of Religion and Brazilian Democracy: Mobilizing the People of God (2019, Cambridge University Press). Her research focuses on public opinion and political culture in Latin America, and particularly Brazil.