RIO DE JANEIRO — As he struggles to build support for his presidency, Brazil’s new leader, Michel Temer, has been dogged by the kind of character issue that pollsters refer to as “a strong negative.”
Temer, rumor has it, is a devil worshiper.
The origins of this falsehood are unclear. Temer, 75, a longtime politician, is a Christian of Maronite Lebanese descent. But the rumors have inflicted enough damage that Temer turned to prominent evangelical pastors for help. They encouraged him to make a video appealing for evangelicals’ support.
“He did a beautiful video,” said the Rev. Marco Feliciano, a congressman and Pentecostal leader, who appeared at his side in the recording. “He asked the church to pray for him.”
The prayers, and pacts with pastors such as Feliciano, have provided badly needed support to Temer and have given the country’s growing evangelical movement unprecedented influence as Brazil goes through its biggest political upheaval in decades.
Temer chose an evangelical bishop who believes in creationism to be his top science official and then made him trade minister. The new labor minister also is an evangelical pastor.
Just as the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority emerged as a force in the United States in the 1980s, Brazilian evangelical leaders have gone from the political sidelines to the center. Their movement is not a coordinated effort to take power, they insist, but a grass-roots backlash against secularism, homosexuality and changes introduced during 13 years of Marxist-inspired Workers’ Party rule.
That era appeared to end this month when lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to suspend President Dilma Rousseff and put her on trial for allegedly breaking budget laws. Temer, Rousseff’s former coalition partner turned political rival, became interim president and will serve out the rest of Rousseff’s term through 2018 if she is found guilty.
Temer enters office with a wobbly mandate. Even if most Brazilians don’t think that he is a satanic figure, polls show that he is widely distrusted, with fewer than 10 percent of citizens wanting him to be president, according to surveys.
Temer has sought help from Christian evangelicals, who were some of the strongest backers of Rousseff’s suspension. Of the 94 lawmakers from different parties who, according to Feliciano, form part of the “Evangelical Bloc” in Brazil’s lower chamber of Congress, 89 voted to put her on trial. Dozens dedicated their votes “to God” in the nationally televised proceedings.
Brazilian evangelicals are not monolithic. They have no single leader. But in a country with more than 30 parties, the movement has benefited from a discipline otherwise lacking in Brazil’s political culture of dealmaking and fleeting alliances of convenience, said Paulo Baía, a political scientist and sociologist at Rio de Janeiro’s Federal University.
“They have more political influence than ever, and they are going through a moment in which they’re asserting their power,” Baía said.
The Evangelical Bloc has grown significantly since 2010, when it had an estimated 73 seats in Brazil’s 513-member lower house. Although divergent on economic issues, lawmakers in the bloc are overwhelmingly opposed to a 2013 decision, now under appeal to Brazil’s Supreme Court, that recognized same-sex marriage. They are also against the legalization of abortion.
With a population of 205 million, Brazil remains the world’s largest Catholic nation. But 22 percent of Brazilians identify as evangelical Christians, up from 5 percent in 1970. Many evangelical pastors work in remote rural areas and in Brazil’s violent slums, where the government is often absent. That gives pastors an unrivaled ability to mobilize voters at election time.
And compared with Brazil’s Catholic leaders, the evangelical pastors are more explicit about their political endorsements, Baía said. “They speak clearly in favor of their candidates and even campaign for them,” he said.
A few have also studied on Christian campuses in the United States, including Liberty University, founded by Falwell, which encourages students to promote religious values through civic engagement, said Falwell’s son Jerry, the university president.
“Brazilian students are compatible with our students and with life in America,” he said, speaking by phone from Lynchburg, Va., where the campus is located. “They find America similar to what they experience at home.”
Many Brazilian evangelical leaders had initially supported the Workers’ Party because of its focus on helping the poor; their votes helped its founder, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, win the presidency in 2006 and 2010. But that pact fell apart during Rousseff’s tenure because of the party’s backing of a bill to prohibit homophobia and a law to allow the “morning after” pill for rape victims, which evangelical leaders felt opened the door for abortion.
Leading televangelist Silas Malafaia, one of Rousseff’s harshest critics, said the source of the break was a disagreement about the role of the government in shaping Brazilian values. “What is their game?” Malafaia asked in an interview. “To control the state.”
“We saw that communism was in their DNA,” Malafaia said, speaking at his spacious home in a gated community on Rio’s outskirts.
Malafaia, who was one of Brazil’s pioneering televangelists in the 1980s, has more than 3 million followers on his Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, where he routinely skewers Rousseff and criticizes gay rights and feminism. He has been outspoken in his support of Temer as the leader of a government of “national salvation,” and he recorded a video attempting to squelch the rumor that Temer is a closeted Satan lover.
Malafaia’s Victory in Christ temple in a rough section of Rio was packed with television cameras and thousands of worshipers on a recent night. Homosexuality is “prostitution” and abortion is a sin, Malafaia told the congregation, which erupted in shouts of “amen” and “hallelujah.”
Marcos Melo, 35, a member of Malafaia’s church, said “spiritual problems” were at the core of Brazil’s many ills, from crime and political corruption to the worst economic downturn since the 1930s.
“I believe that God is stepping in and lifting this immorality from the people,” said Melo. Rousseff’s suspension, he said, “was necessary for Brazil to heal.”
Some of the evangelical figures who threw stones at Rousseff are facing legal troubles, including Eduardo Cunha, the former speaker of the lower house. Within weeks of presiding over a suspension vote against the president in April, Cunha was ordered to step down because he is under investigation for corruption and obstruction of justice.
Temer has appointed André Moura, a congressman and a member of the Social Christian Party — an evangelical party — as his government’s leader in the lower house. Moura is among those under investigation in a Supreme Court probe into corruption at state-run oil company Petrobras and also faces allegations that he was involved in crimes including conspiracy and attempted homicide in past years. He and Cunha have denied the allegations.
Despite Brazil’s image as a land of noodle-width bikinis and Carnival debauchery, evangelical leaders insist that it is a morally conservative country and say that Brazilian politics are beginning to reflect that.
“Many evangelicals in Brazil see their country in much of the same way the evangelical right views the United States,” said Andrew Chesnut, a Latin America expert and professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. “They think the Workers’ Party put Brazil on a path to moral ruin. It legalized gay marriage. It has given Brazil one of Latin America’s highest per-capita abortion rates, even though the procedure remains illegal. There’s pornography all over the place.”
“A lot of Brazilians outside of major cities are fairly conservative morally, and the evangelical agenda resonates with them,” Chesnut said.