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In the Brazilian runoff, evangelical influencers flock to Bolsonaro

In polarized Brazil, neutrality is suspicious and ‘Influencers of faith’ must deliver a point of view to their large and growing audience

Deive Leonardo is a life coach, an entrepreneur, and one of Brazil’s most successful evangelical influencers. With fast-blinking eyes and expressive hand gestures, he recently delivered a surprising online message that was liked by over two million people. 

“My darlings, my main mission here is to talk about Jesus, but I cannot look at how we are living and not open your eyes,” said Leonardo on an Instagram video, endorsing the reelection of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. The video was posted on October 3, one day after the first round of the Brazilian elections. Leonardo ended with a plea: “Leftist ideology will destroy us. Have mercy on our country.” 

Up until that day, Leonardo, who has over 33 million followers across his social media channels, had nothing to say about politics. The 32-year-old from southern Brazil had only posted motivational speeches, messages about God and the Bible, and the itinerary of his national tour. But his social media agenda changed immediately following the first round of Brazilian elections. 

In a deeply polarized country, the election was close enough that neither the right-wing populist Bolsonaro, who received 43.2% of the votes, nor Lula da Silva, his main opponent from the leftist Worker’s Party who garnered 48.4% of the votes, could claim victory. A second voting round occurs on October 30. 

In the meantime, Brazilian social media has been transformed into macabre accusations of candidate transgressions. Fake news, disinformation and misinformation have spread quickly, invoking allegations of involvement with pedophilia, freemasonry, satanic rituals and cannibalism

One issue, however, has dominated public debate: religion. Bolsonaro’s campaign has accused Lula of hostility to Christianity. “Religions have been instrumentalized [for political purposes] for a long time, but never like now,” said Fernanda Faria Medeiros of the Center for Studies in Communication and Theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais.

Influencers of faith go online to evangelize, but they also seek to strengthen and consolidate institutional ties between their audiences and their churches. “We think that we’re discussing religion, but what we’re actually discussing is the morals of the candidates,” said Medeiros.

Armed with the slogan “Brazil above everything, God above all,” Bolsonaro has positioned himself as an envoy of a muscular Christianity, an ally of the growing evangelical electorate and the defender of their agendas, such as the non-decriminalization of drugs and abortion. 

“There is a very strong claim that runs through Bolsonaro’s candidacy: that it is a candidacy that will build the kingdom of God,” said Jacqueline Moraes Teixeira, a professor at the University of Brasília. Bolsonaro sells himself as a politician guided by Christian ethics, said Teixeira, and that resonates with evangelicals. 

Bolsonaro has also courted evangelicals as part of his digital mobilization strategy — a centerpiece of his campaign activity. He has addressed them online and invited influencers of faith to the presidential palace on several occasions.

Yudi Tamashiro, an actor who wants to become a pastor and has millions of followers said in a video “If you follow me here, you know that every week I go to church, every week I am preaching. You already know what my vote is. My vote is for Bolsonaro.”

In the runoff, 61% of evangelical voters said they will vote for Bolsonaro, versus only 31% who say they will vote for Lula, according to a recent Datafolha survey. This could provide a decisive margin of victory for Bolsonaro. The evangelical vote is significant in Brazil: evangelicals represent 31% of Brazil’s 210 million population, and are expected to outnumber Catholics in a decade. 

The numbers should worry Lula and the Brazilian left. After the election’s first round, one of the biggest evangelical congregations, the Assembly of God, announced it will punish worshipers who “defend leftist agendas within the Marxist worldview.” Less than two weeks before the run-off, Lula issued a public letter to evangelicals stating that it was a “sad scandal” to use faith for electoral purposes, and made a commitment to the freedom of worship in the country while promising not to use symbols of faith for political gain. 

An alliance between Christian nationalism and authoritarian governance helped sweep Donald Trump into the U.S. presidency in 2016, secured majority support in Hungary to Viktor Orban, and fueled the popularity of French far-right leaders Marine le Pen and Éric Zemmour. 

Online audiences have demanded Brazilian evangelical influencers articulate this alliance out loud. On social media, the public demands a point of view, said Issaaf Karhawi, a researcher at the University of São Paulo specializing in social media. Audiences develop expectations and begin to make demands, and influencers feel compelled to reveal their politics to maintain their bond with the majority of their followers.

Influencers of faith are also modeling others’ success. In the first round of the Brazilian elections, mainstream celebrities such as the singers Anitta and Caetano Veloso supported Lula. Their campaigning had significant reach and was incorporated into Lula’s digital messaging. But their support also generated a response: influencers of faith, country singers, and others, eyeing the celebrity success in endorsing Lula, publicly embraced Bolsonaro.

Many influencers of faith are staking out ultra-conservative, nationalist and far-right positions. These messages resonate with evangelical influencers who had never been shy about their political inclinations. “It’s not a war of men, it’s not a war of [political] parties, I don’t even get into politics. It’s just that this has gone beyond politics, it’s a war of agendas,” said Tiago Brunet, an evangelical pastor with five million online followers.

Evangelical support for Bolsonaro has been accompanied by accusations of a personal profit motive. Rede Super, a TV station that broadcasts evangelical programming owned by André Valadão, who has over five million followers and has preached in favor of Bolsonaro for a long time, received approximately $140,000 from Bolsonaro’s government, according to an investigation by Agência Pública.

Other evangelical influencers have been dogged by allegations of impropriety entirely separate from politics. Evangelical pastor Ivonélio Abrahão da Silva and his influencer son Patrick Abrahão are being investigated by the Federal Police’s Operation La Casa de Papel under the suspicion of a financial scheme using cryptocurrencies and emeralds that would have deceived more than one million investors in 80 countries. 

Teixeira, the professor who studies evangelical profiles and voting inclinations, said that evangelicals are not satisfied with Bolsonaro but vote for him because they are against Lula and The Worker’s Party at all costs. “They think he is the least worst in this electoral dispute, but he’s not a comfortable vote,” she adds. 

Bolsonaro’s campaign seems to know that evangelicals are not completely happy. “Don’t look at my husband, look at me who is a servant of the Lord,” said First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro in October to a group of evangelical women at the Assembly of God Victory in Christ. 

Despite what it may seem, not all influencers of faith are animated by opposition to Lula. Yago Martins, head of Two Fingers of Theology, has announced that he will not vote for any candidate. Prominent pastors like Paulo Marcelo, Sérgio Dusilek and others, have publicly expressed support for Lula. 

“The digital world is built from communities of interest, or when you trigger a value that brings people together,” said Karhawi, the researcher. She highlights that because of the internet’s attention span, influencers of faith can publicly support Bolsonaro now and right after the election, regardless of the result, go back to doctrinal posts about Christianity, as if nothing ever happened. Because the public is relentlessly presented with new information in social networks, there’s no time to register and elaborate, said Karhawi. Consuming social media “is going to be superficial. It’s not going to generate a memory, a deep connection.”

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