The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lula and Bolsonaro trade religious barbs in battle for evangelical vote

Campaign banners in Brasilia show President Jair Bolsonaro, left, and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

Less than two months out from Brazil’s presidential election, the main candidates are battling for the evangelical vote.

At a rally launching his campaign on Tuesday, leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva claimed his opponent, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, was “possessed by the devil.”

Bolsonaro’s wife, Michelle, had shared a video of da Silva, who is Christian, at an African-derived religious ritual. The video alleged that the former president, known as Lula, was connected with “the underworld.” The first lady has said the presidential palace had been “overtaken by demons” by previous administrations before it was consecrated on her husband’s watch.

Polls show Lula with a lead of about 10 points over Bolsonaro, but his edge has narrowed in recent months. The former union leader has campaigned on a platform of religious tolerance; he has said he would stand up for minority practitioners of African-derived religions. Now, he hopes to curry favor among evangelical voters on the fence.

Over the past 20 years, Brazil’s evangelical population has more than doubled. Today, analysts estimate around 30 percent of the country’s 210-plus million people identify as evangelical. That rise has been mirrored in Brazilian politics, where a growing evangelical congressional caucus is gaining power. Evangelical denominations hold special sway among the poor, with charismatic pastors often telling congregations how to vote.

Trailing in the polls, Brazil’s Bolsonaro woos a surprising new demographic: The poor

Bolsonaro, a Christian who rose to power on a platform of bringing God and family to the forefront of politics, won the support of 70 percent of evangelical voters in 2018. But their enthusiasm for the former army captain has weakened during his term. Recent opinion polling indicates that just under half of evangelical voters approve of his government.

For many evangelicals, the breaking point came during the coronavirus pandemic. For months, Bolsonaro shrugged off the severity of the virus as it killed hundreds of thousands of Brazilians, while a recession, rising inflation and steep interest rates battered the country’s poor.

“I have no doubt that black evangelical women will decide these elections,” Jacqueline Teixeira, an anthropology professor at the University of São Paulo, told the BBC.

Lula, who led Brazil from 2003 to 2010, was imprisoned in 2018 on a corruption conviction but released after 580 days after a court ruled he had been denied due process. His campaign sees this election as an opportunity to win over undecided religious voters. This week, he accused Bolsonaro of using religion for political gain and of lying to his voters.

“If anyone is possessed by the devil, it’s this Bolsonaro,” Lula told a crowd at a manufacturing plant Tuesday, as he formally began his effort to win the support of the country’s 150 million voters.

Lula’s campaign missteps stir the question: Has he lost his touch?

“He tries to manipulate the faith of evangelical men and women who go to church,” Lula tweeted hours later. “He tells lies every day.”

Bolsonaro’s campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Bolsonaro has claimed that Brazil’s electronic voting system is “flawed,” an allegation dismissed by electoral courts as “disinformation.” At a March for Jesus demonstration in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday, he urged Christians to take part in a rally Sept. 7 in “defense of democracy.”

Lula’s wife also took to social media to appeal to religious voters. “I learned that God is synonymous with love, compassion, and above all, peace and respect,” wrote Rosângela “Janja” da Silva. “It does not matter what your religion or belief is. My life and my husband’s life have always been and always will be guided by these principles.”