Across the Americas, evangelical voters have begun to flex their electoral muscles, with dramatic consequences for the future of politics in the region. Since colonisation, the Catholic Church has held a near monopoly on religion in Latin America, with the only challenges being from atheism and anticlericalism. However, since the 1980s, evangelicalism has grown at a rapid rate. In 1980, evangelicals made up just 3 per cent of the population. Today, they account for almost 20 per cent of Latin Americans. This explosion in population has placed evangelicals in a prime position to influence both electoral results and public policy.
While evangelical churches embrace a variety of ideologies, when it comes to gender and sexuality their values are typically conservative, patriarchal and anti-LGBTQ. In every country in the region they have taken a hard-line position against abortion and gay rights. Evangelicals have mobilised against LGBTQ reforms in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Peru and Mexico. In Cuba, they organised protests that forced the government to back away from enshrining same-sex marriage protections into the new constitution. In Colombia, they helped defeat a referendum on a peace accord with the FARC, the largest guerrilla group in the region, arguing that the accords pushed feminism and LGBTQ rights too far. While Latin America has made substantial progress in equal rights over recent years, in countries where evangelicalism is widespread or expanding, LGBTQ rights are beginning to backslide.
Brazil is a prime example of the rising political power of evangelicalism in Latin America. Evangelicals in Brazil’s lower house of Congress help form a 326-member bloc that is known as the “bullets, beef and bibles” alliance for its support of guns, agriculture and Christianity. This bloc has thwarted attempts at passing socially progressive laws and played a key role in the impeachment of leftist president Dilma Rousseff. The 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro solidified the electoral importance of evangelical voters. While Bolsonaro is Catholic, he campaigned with evangelicals and shares their conservative social views. His brash anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, including stating that he would prefer a dead son over a gay son, was a part of his electoral success. Bolsonaro’s win represents a significant triumph for evangelical forces throughout the Americas.
But how have evangelicals become so politically powerful? Given that evangelicals are still a minority and in most countries, irreligiosity is also rising, the ascendance of evangelical churches within the political system comes as a shock. The answer has to do with the new political tactics of evangelical organisations. Historically, right-wing parties in Latin America tended to align themselves with the Catholic Church and scorn Protestantism. In contrast, evangelicals stayed out of politics. However, this has changed over the past decade.
Evangelicals join forces with right-wing parties in order to enact conservative social policy. In turn, right-wing politicians have chosen to embrace evangelicalism because it solves one of the most damaging issues that conservative parties face in Latin America: their lack of ties with non-elites. Parties of the right have traditionally drawn their base from the upper strata which has made them electorally weak. Courting evangelicals changes that as they bring in a wide array of voters and, most importantly, the poor. Evangelical candidates position themselves as a non-corrupt political alternative for people who have lost faith with the political class and view politics as a dirty business. Ultimately, evangelicals are helping turn conservative parties into people’s parties.
The combination of conservative parties and evangelical pastors is not a Latin American invention. In the United States, the Christian right has been the most crucial constituency for the Republican Party since the 1980s. President Donald Trump ran on an evangelical platform, even if it was in rhetoric only.
This explosion of evangelical political power is transforming both electoral politics and public policy across nearly every country in the Americas. While conservative parties used to position themselves as the important barrier to regional populism, this argument is no longer credible. These parties are realising that engaging with pastors and campaigning on an evangelical platform generates voter enthusiasm, even if only among churchgoers, and that this enthusiasm translates into power. With this growth in power, it is likely that Latin America will see an expansion in “tough-on-crime” policies, anti-LGBTQ reforms and politicians from outside the political system. After years of little political influence, evangelicalism is now a powerful political brand in Latin America.
Rose Iles Fealy is the Latin American Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.