In 1965, you wrote an analysis for The World Today on the military coup that had taken place in Brazil the year before. At the time, you were the head of the Latin American research programme of Chatham House. How would you rate the significance of the 2018 general election in comparison with the military coup? 

While it is difficult to compare those two very different events, there are some elements worth mentioning. The coup was a response of the military to their perception of the leftward drift in Brazilian politics under João Goulart: it was welcomed by a minority of the population. In contrast, the election of Jair Bolsonaro was the outcome of a democratic process: a majority of the electorate chose a right-wing politician who had sent death threats to colleagues and regretted that the military had not killed more people – including the reformist president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Similarly, with the exception of ‘security issues’, the policies pursued by the military governments were not very different from those of their predecessors. 

In contrast, Bolsonaro defied widely accepted responses to the COVID-19 outbreak, putting his government’s approach at odds with the World Health Organization, but close to that of Donald Trump. With his aggressive opening up of the Amazon region to commercial interests, he flouted widely held environmental norms. So it can be argued that the 2018 election was, democratically and politically, more significant than the military coup.

A few years later, in 1969, you focused on Pope Paul II’s visit to Latin America. How did your research interests move from politics towards religion, resulting in a book on Catholic radicals in Brazil? 

My research interests did not shift from politics to religion. I was interested in finding out to what extent a ‘radical politics’ had any chance of survival after 1964 and under the military dictatorship. This was clearly not possible through overtly political movements: the military saw to that. But I learnt that an organization sponsored by the Catholic Church, the Movimento de Educação de Base (MEB), which formally focused on literacy training, used this as a means to get people thinking about their position in society and of the possibilities for change: it was called conscientisação. The links to the Church meant that the religious justifications of MEB’s work were always present, and I could not help becoming interested in what was going on in the Catholic Church at large. Hence the sideways glance at the broader significance of the Pope’s visit to Latin America in 1969.

During the military dictatorship in Brazil, you noted the Catholic Church’s criticism of the ‘established order’ and the ‘state of violence’ in the country. Did the Church’s opinion matter then? And how much weight does it carry today? Some individual Roman Catholic bishops – notably Dom Hêlder Câmara, the archbishop of Olinda and Recife – had been openly critical of the military. And as the repression hardened during the dictatorship, Brazil’s bishops as a group became more outspoken in their concerns, thereby supporting those who yearned for a return to more ‘normal’ political circumstances. It is clear that this mattered, then, at the very least by giving moral backing to the opponents of the dictatorship, but undoubtedly also by strengthening the more moderate elements in the military. 

As for the influence of the Roman Catholic Church today, this has been diminished when compared with earlier times – not least by the shift in the religious make-up of the population: while Roman Catholics made up almost 90 per cent of Brazilians in 1980, by 2010 they were less than two thirds. In contrast, Evangelicals grew in the same period from just under 7 per cent to 22 per cent.

What factors brought about the rise of Evangelicals?

One factor was the wider availability of Evangelical pastors as compared with Roman Catholic priests. The time it takes for the latter to complete their studies is much longer, while the demand for celibacy represents an additional ‘cost’. In addition, the Roman Catholic Church sees itself as a ‘broad church’, encompassing all Brazilians, yet with continuing strong links to the wealthier sections and to the ruling elites.

Since the end of the dictatorship, the Catholic Church in Brazil has tended to rebuild its relations with the state and social elites. Under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI did the Church’s commitment to human rights weaken? To an extent, yes. In contrast, the Evangelicals have focused their efforts on the poorer sections of the population. With the rise of what has been called neo-Pentecostalism this has become even more pronounced.

The neo-Pentecostals preach some variety of the ‘prosperity gospel’: if you have faith you will enjoy not only good health but also material wellbeing. The most important neo-Pentecostal Church in Brazil is the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (IURD). Its mega-churches have TV facilities, internet conference rooms, where hundreds, even thousands, worship together. A counterpart of the promise of material wealth is the expectation that one is willing to make sacrifices. A strong sense of community is fostered. That strengthens their hold on people.

Brazil is one example of how religion has become more significant politically, sometimes rolling back the secular state – one can think of Turkey and India. Do you believe think-tanks should pay more attention to religion as a driver of political change?

Absolutely. It is difficult to think of any country in which religion has been embraced by those who are politically dominant where its influence has not been regressive. This has been notably the case in relation to gender relations, or to wider personal freedoms. Whenever a politician argues for a particular change ‘because God told me so’, or more generally because it is demanded by the dominant religion, alarm bells should ring. 

The result is likely to be discrimination against minorities, clearly the case in the two examples given above, respectively in relation to Turkish Christians and Indian Muslims. In the worst case it might mean their annihilation. Think also of Erdogan’s wholesale conversion of museums or churches into mosques.

It is argued that the Evangelical churches foster a strong sense of community in Brazil’s urban areas. Have these churches provided a fertile breeding ground for populist politics in Brazil? Is there a similar tendency elsewhere in Latin America?

Yes, the Evangelical churches do foster a strong sense of community among their members. And, yes, they have lent their support to a populist politician such as Jair Bolsonaro, partly because he was baptized Evangelical in 2016, without however renouncing his Catholicism. Populist politics result from the widespread existence of clientelism in a fragile democracy, such as Brazil’s, where legislators tend to represent special interests, whatever their formal
association with a political party. 

In recent times, Brazil has seen a growing fear of violence, both criminal and drug-related, as well as a disgust with widespread corruption. Bolsonaro tapped into these changes, much like the military did in 1964. But one should be careful not to see links – consequences – where they do not exist, and about drawing unwarranted conclusions. As for other countries in Latin America, I would need to do a lot more research to answer that question!

Ten years ago, you published an article that asked: ‘Should God play a role in development?’ How would you answer that question today?

It is always interesting to go back to something you have written a long time ago, especially if your interests have ‘moved on’. My overall answer to the question was clearly ‘no’, and I would still take that view today. What I called the ‘growing infatuation with God’ remains an issue, even if this manifests itself in different ways for Christians, Muslims and Hindus. 

Yes, religious development-oriented organizations have certainly contributed to the wellbeing of the poor in less developed societies in terms of health and education. They have also often stood up to dictatorships – the Roman Catholic organizations more so than the Evangelicals. 

But they believe that theirs is the ultimate truth, which translates into ‘do this or that because God told us so’, and it makes religion into the only part of a person’s identity that counts. The stronger those feelings are, the more likely that they distort what is promoted as development.

 

From the archive

A creeping process of heavy-handed government intervention in the country’s life seems to have set in already. The editors of newspapers have been told to apply self-censorship on matter hostile to the Government, in order to avoid the need for more drastic measures. Radio and television are under stricter supervision. Civil servants, including all teachers and academic research personnel, who may now be summarily dismissed for ‘demonstrating incompatibility with the objectives of the Revolução’, are nervously awaiting what this will mean in practice.

Brazil Stops Pretending, The World Today, December 1965

In the fast-growing towns where people get caught up in the disturbing experiences of social change, the Catholic Church, with its parish structure so impractical under the prevailing circumstances, is unable to give the sought-for emotional support, so that increasing numbers join non-Catholic sectarian groups. Especially the growth of Pentecostal Protestantism – its flexible organizational patterns and manifold doctrinal varieties so much more adaptable to changing circumstances than the rigid structures of the Catholic Church – has been phenomenal in recent years. It thus seems to be coming about that the Church is losing its grip especially on the new urban masses...

The Latin American Church and Pope Paul’s Visit, The World Today, September 1968.