Dressed in yellow and green and waving national flags of the same colours, thousands of Brazilian Christians listened to their president Jair Bolsonaro cast his re-election bid in biblical tones.
“It is a fight between good and evil,” Bolsonaro said last month at a “March for Jesus” event in Vitória, the capital of coastal state Espírito Santo. “I believe in God and I believe in you. And this victory will be ours.”
Behind in opinion polls to his leftist rival, ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the far-right populist is on a mission to whip up enthusiasm among a group that was key to his rise: Brazil’s growing community of evangelical Christians, now estimated to make up almost one-third of the country’s 215mn population.
Brazilian evangelicals tend to be socially conservative, and seven in 10 who voted four years ago backed Bolsonaro.
But after economic problems and a perceived mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, the leader of Latin America’s largest democracy has found cracks appearing in what should be a reliable base of support.
Usiel Carneiro, a self-described “progressive” Baptist minister in Vitória, believes a divide has opened between middle-class evangelicals loyal to the president and others in more disadvantaged communities.
“He no longer has hegemony in the evangelical world because of his incoherencies, his violent language and the economic problems he’s causing,” Carneiro said.
At large-scale Christian gatherings around the country in recent weeks, Bolsonaro — a Catholic — has reinforced his hardline messaging. The former army captain has railed against abortion, drugs, “gender ideology” and communism, playing on audiences’ fears about a return to leftwing rule.
“It’s not by chance that he’s focusing on this segment to recover his popularity and votes,” said Ana Carolina Evangelista, a researcher at the Institute for Religion Studies. “It’s a rerun of the strategy from 2018: a focus on the spiritual battle.”
Back then, Bolsonaro also seized on popular anger at political corruption mainly directed at Lula’s Workers’ party, or PT, which held power between 2003 and 2016.
Yet with inflation in double digits, debate is now dominated by the squeeze on living standards.
Making ends meet is the most pressing concern for 36-year-old father Ananias Santos, a drugs counsellor and Wesleyan Methodist from a modest district of Greater Vitória, who voted for Bolsonaro in 2018.
Disappointed with the president’s management of the economy and his disdain towards Covid-19 vaccines, he will not do so again and said the left’s economic policies had been better for people like him. “During the Lula government, I was able to buy my first car and go to university.”
A majority of Brazilians evangelicals are female, black or mixed race and low income, according to a 2020 study by pollster Datafolha — all groups seen as more inclined to vote for Lula, who also scores higher with Catholics.
Jacqueline Moraes, vice-governor of Espirito Santo who is running for Congress with a centre-left party allied to Lula, said many black women were turned off by Bolsonaro’s promotion of gun ownership.
“They know they will be the first victims [of more firearms],” said the 46-year-old, a black evangelical who grew up in a favela (slum) and worked as a street peddler. “What are young and black Christian women looking for? To give my children a better life.”
However the president’s moral positions still resonate strongly with many evangelical voters.
Bolsonaro is “the only candidate who defends Christian values”, said Carla Baudson, a 17-year-old at the march in Vitória, who will vote for the first time in October. “He defends our freedom.”
Together with a recent increase in welfare payments to the poorest, the extra attention that Bolsonaro is giving to evangelicals appears to be paying off.
Having been almost neck and neck with Lula among evangelical voters a few months ago, according to Datafolha, surveys now show Bolsonaro has re-established himself as their preferred candidate, helping to narrow Lula’s overall poll lead.
Comments by Lula backing access to abortion and the PT’s embrace of causes such as LGBT rights may be contributing to Bolsonaro’s recovery among Protestant Christians.
Bolsonaro’s third wife, Michelle, a devout evangelical who led prayers at the presidential palace last week, has featured prominently in his campaign — viewed as a tactic to improve women believers’ perception of a politician with a history of sexist remarks.
A Datafolha poll last week showed Bolsonaro slightly ahead of Lula, but within the poll’s margin of error, among female Evangelicals.
Sóstenes Cavalcante, who heads the influential evangelical caucus in Congress, argues that moral matters remain more important than economic concerns for his co-religionists and believes 70 per cent of evangelicals still support Bolsonaro.
Still, nothing is being left to chance. Cavalcante said allies of the president were making a concerted effort to prevent Lula, who once enjoyed good relations with evangelicals, from meeting important church figures.
“We have worked with leaders from all over Brazil so that no one opens the doors to him,” said Cavalcante. “Lula and his successor Dilma [Rousseff] affronted all our values. He will never trick evangelicals again.”
Lula went on the counter-offensive on Tuesday, the first day of official campaigning, accusing his adversary of “trying to manipulate the good faith of Evangelical men and women”.
“If there’s anyone who is possessed by the devil, it is this Bolsonaro,” he said at an event in the metropolitan São Paulo region.
The Lula campaign has been focusing on everyday problems as a way to win over religious voters, rekindling memories of poverty reduction and widening prosperity during his two presidential terms, and has denounced what it says is the spread of false information about his intentions. This includes rumours that he would close churches if he returned to power.
“We have been suffering absurd fake news attacks, clearly with the objective of increasing resistance among the evangelical community. They don’t want evangelicals to hear our proposals,” said Edinho Silva, a PT mayor and member of Lula’s campaign team.
Lula’s campaign was focused on the “real life of people — therefore the economy”, Silva said. “We won’t use religion to win elections.”