RIO DE JANEIRO — The mayor of this sultry metropolis slashed funding for Carnival, the city's gay pride parade and a procession honoring an Afro-Brazilian goddess. Mayor Marcelo Crivella, a Pentecostal Christian, calls the moves fiscal prudence. But Rio's liberals see a thinly veiled crusade to impose God's law from city hall.
As political polarization intensifies in the United States, Latin America's largest nation is locked in its own escalating culture wars, with the rise of an increasingly powerful religious right.
Evangelical politicians such as Crivella — a 60-year-old bishop and former gospel singer who once claimed that homosexuality could result from botched abortions — are finding enormous success in Brazil. Their rise comes as conservative Protestant faiths make massive inroads in this predominantly Catholic country and as corruption scandals taint traditional political parties, causing more Brazilians to vote outside the box.
Under former presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, Brazil stood as a symbol of the global left. But religious conservatives have turned the tables here in part by forming pragmatic coalitions. They have allied with agribusiness interests and gun lobbies, forming a "BBB bloc" of bullets, bulls and Bibles.
"God above all," Jair Bolsonaro, a politician close to the evangelical community, said at a political rally this year. "There is no such thing as a secular state. The state is Christian, and any minority that is against this has to change."
He is running second in national polls tracking likely candidates for next year's presidential election.
In November, Brazil's evangelical politicians flexed their growing muscle, tacking onto a bill on maternity leave a measure that would ban abortion. With their support, the bill was passed in special committee, although it needs approval by both houses of the National Congress to become law. Earlier this year, evangelical politicians persuaded embattled President Michel Temer — who needs their support to survive in office — to remove progressive passages about gender identity and sexual orientation from textbooks that were to be distributed in Brazilian schools this year.
With Crivella in power for nearly a year in Rio, this city has found itself turned into an unlikely national experiment.
"This is Rio!" said Marcelo Misailidis, artistic director for Beija Flor, one of the samba schools, or community groups, that puts on Rio's annual Carnival celebration. "But this mayor, these people — they would put clothes on a cow if they could."
That a religious conservative was elected mayor in a city known for ribald revelry is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Sexual freedom thrives in Rio's South Zone neighborhoods such as Copacabana and Ipanema, where picturesque beaches serve up a cornucopia of flesh. But the city's vast and relatively poorer north is more conservative and religious.
Previously a national senator from Rio, Crivella emerged victorious last year after a highly fractured mayor's race in which some of his opponents faced corruption allegations. Crivella's name also came up in connection with alleged off-the-books donations, although he denies any wrongdoing and was not charged. In the end, he successfully portrayed himself as the nontraditional candidate that frustrated Cariocas — as the residents of this city are called — were looking for.
Crivella is the nephew of Edir Macedo, a well-known televangelist and chairman of Rede Record, Brazil's second-largest television network. Macedo built a multibillion-dollar empire promoting "prosperity theology" — or wealth through the cleansing power of worship. At the same time, he became a perennial target of corruption probes.
Crivella in the past has taken positions well outside the mainstream. In a 2002 book written after years spent as a missionary, he denounced the priests of Afro-Brazilian faiths — which have millions of followers here — as "sorcerers and witches." He also argued that public health-care systems could save money by embracing the practice of faith healing.
Since last year's election campaign, Crivella has sought to moderate his tone, saying he has matured from his days as "an intolerant young man," and he does not talk much to the media. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
"It's as if he's made an effort not to appear in public, to be a ghost mayor," said João Feres, a political science professor at Rio State University. "But what little he is doing seems to be colored by this conservative agenda."
The mayor's church warns against the pageant of glitter and flesh that is Carnival, citing the consumption of alcohol and drugs as well as the "promotion of sexuality and cheating." It raised eyebrows when Crivella in February became the first mayor in recent memory to skip the festivities during his first year in the job.
A few months later, he cut city funding to Carnival nearly in half, from $7.4 million to $4 million, citing hard economic times and the need to shift spending to schools. Carnival officials are planning a smaller, shorter event next year.
"This isn't about budgets," said Misailidis, the artistic director. "This is about intolerance."
In a statement, Crivella's press office said the mayor believes that "Christian principles and values form the base of Western civilization. Among them is the rejection of hatred, of discrimination and of prejudice, and respect for free will."
When asked to explain several controversial budget cuts, his press office cited the dire state of city finances and the debt the administration inherited. The statement denied that there are any conflicts between the administration and the LGBT movement, Carnival organizers and Afro-Brazilian spiritualists.
His critics see it differently. In October, Crivella blocked an edgy, gay-themed museum exhibition from being held in Rio. In a video he posted on his Facebook page, Crivella said it belonged "at the bottom of the sea," later denouncing it for allegedly promoting "bestiality" and "pedophilia."
His statements prompted a backlash, with federal prosecutor Fabiano de Moares saying that Crivella's words brought to mind "the destruction of works of art in Germany during Nazi rule."
Also in October, his administration shut down a local cultural center that was set to host a homoerotic play, citing "grave electrical failures." After allegations of censorship and claims by actors and the director that the venue was in fine working order, the city recommended the performance be shifted to an LGBT shelter that is not owned by the city government. Two performances were held there before the play moved to a different municipal theater.
This year, Crivella's administration completely defunded the city's gay pride celebration, which had received the equivalent of $114,000 from the city last year. In response, organizers put on the event with the aid of private sponsors, Uber and Ambev — the country's largest beer producer — and renamed it "the parade of resistance."
During the event on Copacabana beach last month, top Brazilian pop stars and ordinary citizens denounced the mayor.
"He's mixing religion and politics," said Jaqueliny Chiappetta, a 45-year-old store clerk who attended the gay pride event. "He says he's not against the LGBT population, but his actions show he is."
Late last month, Crivella's administration eliminated funding for a procession on Copacabana beach paying homage to Yemenjá, a goddess of the sea worshiped by followers of the Umbanda faith — a mixture of Catholicism and African spiritualism. In past years, the celebration has relied on a $9,000 budget from the city.
Members of the faith also have suffered recent attacks on their temples at the hands of "bandidos evangelicos" — or radical Christian drug-trafficking gangs. Crivella has denounced the attacks, although critics say not forcefully enough.
Crivella's tenure appears to be foundering. An October poll by the national firm Datafolha showed him with a 16 percent approval rating, a marked deterioration from a year earlier, when he won with almost 60 percent of the vote. His supporters, meanwhile, counter that Crivella's critics have falsely accused him of bias.
They cite, for instance, a recent video recorded by Crivella in which he condemned recent attacks on gays and lesbians, and announced the hiring of 30 transgender interns at city hall.
"I know him very well, and I know he doesn't have any kind of prejudice based on religion or behavior," said João Mendes de Jesus, a city councilor and bishop in Crivella's Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.
"He is just facing a lot of financial difficulties," Mendes continued. "The city government really has to dedicate resources to higher priorities."