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South America - Miscellaneous - Elections

Moved by the Spirit to Govern
by Henry Chu ("The Los Angeles Times," June 7, 2004)

Most of the books on Adelor Vieira's desk are what you'd expect for a congressman busy with the machinery of state: a copy of the civil code, a handy reference guide to laws on local governance. But tucked to one side, within easy reach, lies the book that, for Vieira, trumps all the others: the Bible.

Everything necessary for moral conduct is contained in the pages between Genesis and Revelation, Vieira believes. And as an evangelical Christian, he is determined to ensure that Brazil's statute books reflect the principles of the Good Book.

"I believe it's an obligation," he said. "You can't isolate church from society. The churches to which evangelicals belong have a mission, which is to promote the kingdom of God."

In countries throughout Latin America, evangelicals such as Vieira are stepping out from the shelter of their churches to enter the fractious world of secular politics. These Protestant Christians are increasingly speaking out, teaming up and getting elected in a region that remains overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.

Their influence extends from that of small-town mayors in the Brazilian interior to the governor of Mexico's Chiapas state. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, although a Catholic, meets regularly with an evangelical pastor to read the Bible and pray.

The sortie into politics follows years of growth among evangelical Christians, especially charismatic and neo-Pentecostal groups, in Latin America. In Guatemala, for example, up to 40% of the nation's 13.3 million people are evangelical Christians. In neighboring El Salvador, nearly a quarter of the 6.3 million people there describe themselves that way.

In Brazil, the region's largest country and an unshakable Catholic stronghold for centuries, census figures show 15% of the population to be evangelicals — about 27 million people. Many are attracted by dynamic worship services and the emphasis on a personal relationship with God.

For many here, faith remains a private affair, their devotion playing out at church and at home. But others are heeding what they believe is a divine calling to shine the light of Christian truth on "works of darkness," which encompass perceived evils as varied as abortion and the corruption rampant in Brazilian politics.

"We cannot be silent when those things happen," said Walter Pinheiro, an evangelical Christian deputy in Brazil's Congress. "We have to bring light to and condemn those practices."

By "we," Pinheiro means an evangelical contingent in Brazil's lower house that has grown over the last few years and, last September, formed an official lobby in Congress, the Evangelical Parliamentary Front.

The group, whose goal is to ensure that public policy falls "in line with God's purposes, and according to his Word," boasts 58 deputies and three senators out of nearly 600 legislators. Ten years ago, fewer than half that many evangelicals occupied the glass offices along the corridors of power here in the Brazilian capital.

Much of the evangelical bloc's agenda would be recognizable to conservative Christian brethren in the United States. The group opposes any liberalization of Brazil's already-strict abortion laws. Gay marriage is anathema. So are legalizing drugs, handing out clean needles to addicts as a public-health measure and distributing condoms in schools.

One of the group's biggest victories in Congress last year was amending a bio-safety bill to outlaw the cloning of human embryos to harvest stem cells for research. On the local level, the evangelical governor of Rio de Janeiro state, Rosinha Matheus, has outraged scientists by authorizing public schools to teach creationism.

Yet to view the evangelical front as a simple analogue of the religious right in the United States would be off the mark.

Whereas most conservative U.S. Christians vote Republican, the Brazilian deputies belong to a motley, squabbling bunch of rival groups that span the ideological spectrum. Pinheiro is one of the more militant members of the left-wing ruling Workers' Party; Vieira declares allegiance to the center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party.

As a result, "you can point to things they've done and said which have been very different, which would make the American Christian right's hair stand on end — policies regarding economics, policies regarding the attitude toward global capitalism," said Paul Freston, an expert on the political influence of evangelicals in Latin America and professor at Calvin College in Michigan.

Pinheiro is an ardent advocate of the welfare state, saying that Christian principles require the government to champion the poor, to take care of society's weakest. He wants a higher minimum wage, secure — and generous — pensions for workers and civil servants, and more money for public education and health. He leans toward radical socialist policies, while Vieira is more moderate.

And though most conservative U.S. Christians support President Bush's hawkish foreign policy, it meets stony silence here.

"I was struck by the way that just before the Iraq war was started, all these evangelical congressmen, however conservative the party they were in and however wild and woolly the charismatic church they were from, were all thoroughly against the war," Freston said. "I didn't hear a single word from anybody in favor of that."

Religiously influenced leftism in Latin America is nothing new. Guerrillas inspired by Catholic liberation theology and Marxist dogma struggled, with bloody consequences, to advance their ideology in such war-racked countries as Nicaragua and El Salvador during the last few decades of the 20th century.

At the same time, Protestantism began making inroads, sometimes promoting itself as a refuge from the radical activism roiling some sectors of Catholicism. As their ranks swelled, evangelical Christians throughout Latin America started to shed their skittishness about mixing religion with politics.

In Guatemala, an evangelical, Jorge Serrano Elias, served as president from 1991 to 1993 before being ousted and forced into exile. One of his co-religionists, former army Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, headed Congress from 1996 until an unsuccessful run for the presidency last year.

In Brazil, the recent burst of parliamentary gains is rooted in the rise of neo-Pentecostal churches such as the Assemblies of God and, especially, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, whose membership rolls have zoomed in the last two decades. Together, the two denominations boast 10.5 million followers.

These sects are especially popular in poor communities, where sermons on self-improvement through God's grace promise better lives. Organized programs to combat illiteracy, hunger and other social woes are also offered.

Previously disdainful of worldly politics, the leaders of these churches now embrace it. And beyond exhorting the faithful to exercise their franchise — voting is mandatory in Brazil, anyway — the churches field or endorse candidates, mobilize workers and plot election strategy with increasing astuteness. Some candidates have legally added "Pastor" or "Bishop" to their names so that those identifications would appear on ballots and attract the attention of Christian voters.

"The Universal Church had a political map and a religious map and tried to make them meet up," said Regina Novaes, a researcher at the Institute of Religion Studies in Rio de Janeiro. "They're on the offensive."

Some of the motivation for getting involved in the public arena has been self-interest, a move by the churches to protect themselves from encroachment by the state.

The Universal Church and other evangelical institutions are major owners of media in Brazil, including TV and radio networks; one estimate put their holdings at 58 radio stations in 16 states.

Evangelical legislators have worked hard to ensure that the government does not upset the status quo. Late last year, they banded together and amended Brazil's civil code to prevent state interference in how churches collect tithes and offerings. They have opposed political reforms that could restrict their ability to nominate candidates for office and urban-planning regulations that they believed could prevent them from starting up new churches.

They happily make common cause with many of their Catholic counterparts in Congress over such issues as abortion and gay rights. But at the same time, mindful of their minority status in Brazil, the evangelical representatives keep a sharp eye out for policies that they feel tip the government scales in favor of Catholicism, such as the declaration of official holidays in honor of Catholic saints.

Evangelical voters have become a coveted group. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a practicing Catholic, courted them during his election campaign in 2002, telling one group of enthusiastic evangelical leaders that he wanted to see a Bible placed in every public school.

One of Lula's chief rivals, Anthony Garotinho, an evangelical Christian, routinely invoked God at campaign rallies, offered quotations from the Bible and narrowly missed making the runoff that eventually produced Lula as the winner.

But given the profusion of political parties in Brazil, evangelical Christians spread out their loyalties and cannot be counted on to vote as one unthinking monolith. In many cases, fealty to party outweighs church affiliation, especially for those who remain hesitant about marrying religion to politics.

"The vote is not a zombie vote," said Freston of Calvin College. "There are all sorts of calculations going on here. The degree to which people actually obey the [political] exhortations of their pastors is variable."

But with some estimates projecting that Brazil could be 50% Protestant by 2050, the influence of evangelicals in the political realm is likely to increase.

"To understand Brazilian politics today, it's necessary to understand the field of religion," Novaes said. "If you don't understand religion, you can't understand Brazilian politics."


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