“I would be incapable of loving a homosexual son,” Jair Bolsonaro told Playboy magazine in 2011. “I won’t be a hypocrite: I prefer a son to die in an accident than show up with a mustachioed guy. He’d be dead to me anyway.”
Brazil’s far-right presidential candidate hasn’t moderated his rhetoric much since 2011, and he seems to have little incentive to do so. A new Ibope poll puts Bolsonaro’s lead over his opponent, Fernando Haddad of the center-left Workers’ Party, at around 18 points, despite — or perhaps because of — a public persona shaped by racism, nationalism, and an authoritarian affection for Brazil’s military. Bolsonaro has said that some black Brazilians aren’t “fit for procreation,” that a female politician is “not worth raping, she is very ugly,” and that the country’s violently repressive military dictatorship was “a period of glory for Brazil.” The politician, who has served in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies since 1991, has been compared to Donald Trump repeatedly, and for obvious reasons.
If Bolsonaro does win October 28’s runoff election, he won’t just score a victory for Brazil’s right wing. A Bolsonaro presidency would also provide new strength to an increasingly powerful, global far-right movement. In Poland, 60,000 right-wing nationalists marched through Warsaw streets chanting slogans like “pure blood, clear mind” and “Europe will be white or uninhabited” in January. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán consistently stokes anti-immigrant sentiment. Italy’s populist far-right gained new power in the country’s last general election, and immigrants, again, bear the greatest burden. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new interior minister, recently demanded the removal of all refugees from the town of Riace. And then, of course, there is Trump.
Right-wing strongmen like Bolsonaro don’t win power without learning to manipulate a particular set of interconnected prejudices. Religious voters, usually conservative Catholics and Evangelicals, have repeatedly aligned themselves with nationalist leaders, who in turn deploy religion to justify their policies. Italy’s Salvini, a Catholic, recently said he would “exert all the power possible” to “defend the natural family founded on the union between a man and a woman.” The Russian Orthodox Church provides key support for Russian president Vladimir Putin. Polish president Andrzej Duda, another conservative Catholic, has taken steps to tighten the country’s already-restrictive abortion laws and in February, he signed a new law criminalizing speech that asserts systemic Polish participation in the Third Reich’s crimes against Jews. (After an international outcry, Duda signed an amended version of the law that did not criminalize speech.) In May, Hungary’s Orbán announced to parliament that “the era of liberal democracy is over” and added, “Rather than try to fix a liberal democracy that has run aground, we will build a 21st-century Christian democracy.” Orbán’s vision of Christian democracy bears little resemblance to German chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union; as the New York Times noted at the time, Orbán’s concept stems from his personal conviction that Christianity is in mortal conflict with Islam. And while Trump hardly behaves like a regular churchgoer, he would not have won the presidency without the overwhelming support of white Evangelical voters. That bloc remains committed to him despite his moral scandals.
Right now, it looks like the thrice-wed Bolsonaro can also rely on the support of his country’s Evangelical voters. Though he is Catholic, Bolsonaro maintains close links to Brazil’s powerful Evangelical movement, which spans a wide range of Protestant denominations and traditions, like neo-Pentecostalism. His wife and son are both evangelicals, as The Atlantic reported in January, and Bolsonaro himself says he attends an Evangelical church. Sixty-six percent of self-identified Evangelicals say they’ll vote for him over Haddad. He leads Catholics, too, but by a much smaller margin; 48 percent say they intend to vote for him on the 28.
“As in the United States, Evangelicals and devout Catholics are brought together by their common opposition to abortion and gay rights, gay marriage in particular,” Omar Encarnación, a professor of political studies at Bard College, told New York. The two groups have experienced “tension,” he added, because Brazil historically privileges Catholicism. That may explain the disparity between Evangelical and Catholic voters on the subject of Bolsonaro. But that religious divide may not be enough to cost him the election.
Encarnación says Bolsonaro’s antagonism toward LGBT rights is an interest he shares with the country’s Evangelicals. “That said, the roots of Bolsonaro’s opposition to LGBT rights, feminism, the environment, and the like is, first and foremost, his fondness for authoritarianism, which flows from his admiration of the military,” he added, noting that Bolsonaro was once a parachutist with the Brazilian army. “What triggered his now famous attack on his congressional colleague, Maria do Rosário, the one he referred to as too ugly to rape, was her criticism of the Brazilian military regime in place between 1964 and 1985,” he continued.
Evangelicals are hardly the only demographic to back Bolsonaro. His pledges to fight corruption and end violence — with more violence, if necessary — are key to his popularity, and have earned him the support of a wide swathe of the Brazilian population. Bolsonaro isn’t a messiah figure, so much as he’s a popular strongman in a deeply conservative country. But while a Bolsonaro government might not be a theocracy in the literal sense, there are warning signs that his potential presidency would widen certain cracks in Brazil’s democracy in other ways. Evangelical politicians have been complicit in that process.
“Back in 1964, right-wing marchers affiliated with a conservative wing of the Catholic Church took to the streets to call for military intervention. The Church discouraged this kind of reaction after the dictatorship fell, but neo-Pentecostalists have revived it,” Bryan McCann, president of the Brazilian Studies Association, recently wrote in Dissent. In more recent years, he added, the the Evangelical bloc or bancada evangélica in Brazil’s congress helped drive support for the anti-corruption campaign that led to Dilma Rousseff’s removal from office in 2016. Rousseff, like her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, belonged to the Workers’ Party, and Lula’s supporters have condemned his imprisonment for corruption charges as a politically motivated bid to keep the popular former president from running for office. Haddad is challenging Bolsonaro because the Brazilian Superior Electoral Tribunal forced Lula to end the presidential campaign he’d been running from a prison cell.
“Some Brazilians fear, not precise parallels with the past, but frightening new scenarios,” journalist Vincent Bevins recently noted in a piece for The New York Review of Books. “Perhaps Rousseff’s removal was just the prologue, the first act, to be followed by a Bolsonaro win, and then consolidation of authoritarian rule: a digital-era dictatorship that does not need direct army intervention to suppress dissent and rule by fiat.” Some of Bolsonaro’s supporters have already committed hate crimes. Agência Pública, an investigative journalism group, has connected at least 50 attacks on journalists, left-wing activists, and LGBT people to Bolsonaro supporters since September. After The Guardian published those numbers on Friday, news broke that assailants reportedly murdered Aluisio Sampaio, a leading figure in Brazil’s landless workers’ movement. Sampaio, who went by the name Alenquer, had long received death threats, but as environmental journalists Sue Branford and Maurício Torres reported for Mongabay.com, Bolsonaro has publicly condemned landless activists, calling them “scoundrels and bums,” and Sampaio’s murder coincides with other acts of violence against demographics Bolsonaro has attacked. In contrast, Bolsonaro supporters themselves have been subject to six attacks — a number that includes Bolsonaro himself, who got stabbed during a campaign rally.
If democracy does suffer under Bolsonaro, either because he keeps an older promise to “start a dictatorship right away” or because his followers decide to act upon his violently anti-LGBT and misogynist rhetoric, it will occur with Evangelical assistance. Brazil would become the latest entry in a disturbing ledger, another government in the grips of the far-right.
The Christian right has always been a global entity, and culture war is a conflict without borders. The nationalism of figures like Bolsonaro concerns itself not just with the physical or economic security of a nation’s ruling class, but builds itself around a claim to moral hygiene too. The conservative Christians who send men like Bolsonaro into office do so with the understanding that they will be able enforce an agenda that strips minority groups of civil rights. From Bolsonaro’s disgust for gay men to Orbán’s supremacist definition of Christian democracy, the goal of this Christian-inflected nationalism is to shape a nation’s government into its own anti-democratic image.