On Jan. 8, thousands of supporters of former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro stormed the Brazilian Congress, Senate, Supreme Court building and presidential palace with eerie echoes of the Jan 6. 2021, insurrection in the United States. Among the parallels: In both cases, right-wing evangelical networks legitimized the lawless acts. In Brazil, even pastors were among the perpetrators. Reflecting the interplay of religion and politics, trespassers sang Christian worship songs as they broke windows, destroyed furniture and vandalized a rich collection of art. Several Bibles were proudly displayed by those who had no reservations about committing what many deemed a terrorist and fascist act.
The Brazilian insurrection — a violent threat against the country’s democratic institutions — has received global attention, with much reporting on the ties to its American antecedent. Yet an essential part of the story is being overlooked. The populist conservative political movements in both countries have been strengthened by major sectors of the same group: evangelical Christians.
Most evangelicals in Brazil — as in the United States — are committed to conservative theology and right-wing politics, often steeped in an interconnected Christian nationalism. Their numeric growth in Brazil consolidated an indispensable voting block and helped embolden an evangelical right wing, whose convictions were shaped considerably by U.S. evangelicals. The strong evangelical reaction against social justice and policies of inclusion in both countries reveal their shared political leanings; the Christian imagery present in the “sister insurrections” is not accidental. A century of transnational evangelical cross-pollination has seeded shared theologies, social imaginations and strategies that help explain the right-wing authoritarian impulse in Brazilian and American politics.
Protestantism entered Brazil in waves, beginning as a marginal version of Christianity in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country. Initially, Protestant immigrants who arrived in Brazil in the first half of the 19th century, mainly from Europe, practiced their religion without proselytizing.
But that changed in the second half of the 19th century, as foreign missionaries began to work with greater fervor in Brazil. This shift was connected, in part, to the U.S. Civil War. After defeat, thousands of American Confederate families migrated to Brazil, partially attracted by the endurance of slavery there. Adding to the work of British immigrants, Confederate colonies nurtured missionary enterprises that helped shape Brazilian evangelicalism with the customs and ideas of the American South. They founded Baptist, Presbyterian and Methodist congregations in Brazil’s South.
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