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A Trump-like politician in Brazil could snag the support of a powerful religious group: evangelicals

Brazilian Congressman Jair Bolsonaro (Sebastiao Moreira/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

SÃO PAULO — Corruption scandals that have landed several of Brazil’s leading politicians in prison have motivated voters to consider dark-horse candidates for next year’s presidential race. One of those, Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, who likens himself to President Trump, could find support from a key group: evangelicals, who have become politically powerful in recent years.

Bolsonaro, who represents Rio de Janeiro in the country’s House of Representatives, has had his own controversies. He has said he’d rather have a dead son than a gay son, and he once told a congresswoman she wasn’t worth raping. A former army parachutist, Bolsonaro praised the man who oversaw torture in the era of the Brazilian military regime when he justified his vote for impeachment of then-President Dilma Rousseff, who was tortured during that time.

Observers say that a widespread corruption probe involving politicians on both the right and the left has created an opening for nonestablishment candidates like Bolsonaro in Brazil, which is struggling to get out of a deep recession.

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“Until recent months, the term ‘right wing’ was a bad word,” Bolsonaro told The Washington Post, noting his longstanding opposition to Communist and socialist programs. “Suddenly the term ‘right wing’ became accepted again in Brazil.”

In the United States, white evangelicals have come under the political spotlight after 80 percent of them voted for Trump, a thrice-married candidate who bragged about having sex with multiple married women and about grabbing women’s genitals. And a recent poll in Alabama suggests that a majority of evangelicals, who make up almost half of the state, are more likely to vote for Republican U.S. Senate nominee Roy Moore, who has been accused of sexual misconduct.

Evangelical influence in Brazil is arguably more powerful than it is in the United States, said Paul Freston, a sociologist and an expert in Pentecostalism in Latin America. American evangelicals tend to rally on a grass-roots level over conservative issues such as abortion, but the movement is highly fragmented with no central leaders. Political candidates in Brazil run as Pentecostals, and pastors will directly tell people how to vote.

“The big churches can really engage politically from the top down by nominating their candidates,” Freston said. “Party affiliation is secondary. The important affiliation is with the church.”

Brazil’s Catholic identity remains strong, but many are turning to Pentecostalism, a more charismatic form of evangelicalism that has become increasingly prominent in the country. “Pentecostals have been a decisive element in tilting the Brazilian agenda toward conservative views and policies,” said Joanildo Burity, who researches Brazilian evangelicals and politics. “Politically, they have been very successful at selling a view that they command the evangelical vote across the country.”

A powerful “bullet, beef and Bible” caucus that represents the interests of security forces, agribusiness and evangelical churches helps give evangelicals huge influence in Congress, allowing them to block policies, such as a ban on discrimination against gay people. They tend to favor socially conservative issues, such as restricting abortion and stiffening incarceration for juvenile offenders. Progressive evangelicals who focus on issues such as the environment and poverty have emerged in recent years, but they tend not to get attention in Brazil’s media.

In both Brazil and the United States, evangelicals make up about a quarter of the population, and Pentecostalism is considered a subgroup. But in the United States, just 3.6 percent of Americans describe themselves as Pentecostal, compared with about 70 percent of Brazil’s evangelicals. American Pentecostal leaders, such as Paula White and Mark Burns, have been criticized for their close relationship to Trump.

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In both countries, observers say, Pentecostals and other evangelicals are willing to vote for candidates they believe will focus on their priorities.

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was found guilty of corruption and money laundering and sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison but can still run for president while he appeals his case. In September, he led the polls with 35 percent of the vote. Bolsonaro was in second place, garnering 16 percent. Polls show Bolsonaro’s strongest support comes from evangelicals.

Bolsonaro has been described in Brazilian media as homophobic, racist and sexist, and he noted that Trump has been similarly labeled. “The American people didn’t swallow that, and he was elected,” Bolsonaro said. “In Brazil something similar is happening. I’ve been suffering these accusations for longer than he has.”

In a country where same-sex marriage became legal in 2013 and LGBT rights are still hot-button issues, Bolsonaro opposes such things as using public money for gay pride parades and discussion of the topic in schools. “I can’t admit schools to show girls as young as six films of women kissing to try and combat homophobia,” Bolsonaro said. “No father wants to come home and find his son playing with a doll because of the influence of his school.”

Bolsonaro’s blunt remarks earn him admiration from evangelical leaders, who have become increasingly important in Brazil. One of the country’s most influential Pentecostal pastors, Silas Malafaia, said he’s most interested in Bolsonaro and rival candidate São Paulo Mayor João Doria, who hosted the Brazilian version of “The Apprentice” reality show.

“Bolsonaro is the closest to what evangelicals believe,” Malafaia said, although he noted that Doria is more politically savvy. Bolsonaro, who is Catholic, was married in Malafaia’s church, which Bosonaro’s wife attends.

Malafaia, also known for making controversial remarks, appreciates Bolosonaro’s comparisons to Trump. “People only say negative things about Trump, but how come the economy has improved?” Malafaia said. “What I like is that he says what he thinks, just like me.”

Pentecostal politician Marina Silva, who served as environment minister during Lula’s presidency and ran for president in 2014, is also expected to run. But Malafaia said she probably won’t receive evangelical support because she doesn’t display her faith on her sleeve. “They think she has something to hide, so they don’t trust her,” Malafaia said. “You can’t be an evangelical and separate that from your politics.”

Evangelicals in Brazil mobilized during a political and economic crisis in the 1980s, when a new government was formed under a new constitution. They formed their own voting bloc in Congress, eventually moving from a minority to one of the most powerful political groups.

“This was when you saw the mushrooming of Pentecostal growth,” said Eric Miller, a professor at Geneva College who grew up in Brazil as the child of evangelical missionaries. “There was a sense of a new moment, a new stage in the history of the country right alongside this religious phenomenon.”

From evangelical-owned television networks to faith-proclaiming soccer stars, evangelicals are challenging Brazil’s image of Christ the Redeemer’s towering presence over the country.

The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God denomination, which opened an enormous replica of Solomon’s Temple in 2014, has wielded huge influence in politics. The mayor of Rio de Janeiro, a nephew of its founder, is a bishop in the denomination.

“With all the corruption in politics, the evangelical vote is seen as moral enforcement,” said Edgard Leite, a professor at Rio de Janeiro State University.

It was an evangelical — Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the lower house of the Brazilian Congress — who helped lead the drive to impeach Rousseff for fiscal irregularities. Just 12 days after overseeing the impeachment, Cunha was removed from office himself; he is serving 15 years in prison for corruption. Several Pentecostal and evangelical members of Congress have been under investigation since early 2006 for a contract kickback scandal.

Rousseff, who was Brazil’s first female president, came into power before Brazil hosted the World Cup and the Olympics, but the recent economic crisis and political scandals have people turning to leaders like Bolsonaro.

“People who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s were expecting a pretty good standard of living, but that came crashing down,” said Christine Gustafson, a professor at Saint Anselm College who studies religious involvement in politics in Brazil. “People are so disgusted that they’re willing to rally behind someone who they think is going to clean house.”

Bailey reported this article on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.