Angelo Vasco, Oxford University
A Christian Nation in the Tropics: What the Brazilian Blessing Tells Us About Evangelicals and Bolsonaro
“The state might be secular, but people are not” is a catchphrase quite often asserted in Brazilian public discussions ever since a conservative wave engulfed the country over the last few years. President Bolsonaro, elected in 2018 on a blatant ultraconservative platform, has taken this idea one step further in affirming that “the state might be secular, but his government is Christian.” Once a Catholic, Bolsonaro has recently become a born-again Christian and has even been publicly baptised by a prominent Pentecostal preacher/politician in the Jordan river in Israel (mimicking Jesus and hence symbolically affirming his middle name Messiah). There seems to exist a clear accordance of values between the president and Brazilian evangelicals insofar as he has surrounded himself with pastors, has appointed hard-line evangelicals for high-profile ministries in his cabinet, and has vouched to nominate a “terribly evangelical” justice as his choice for the Supreme Court. Bolsonaro’s religious transition – whether genuine or a political move – encapsulates that of many millions of Brazilians who have joined one of the many available evangelical denominations in perhaps one of the most significant social transformations the country has seen in the last fifty years.
The circulation of the Brazilian version of the The Blessing should, then, be interpreted in light of this broader social reality that has shaped Brazil’s long-term history as well as its recent conservative turn. A song can obviously have many meanings and it would be naïve and misguided to assume that The Blessing conveys to all Brazilian evangelicals the same message and imagery and stirs in all of them similar emotions. I have had informants tell me that this song offered them great comfort in times of hardship amidst lockdowns and periods of confinement. It also gave them a place of dwelling which they shared with millions of brothers and sisters in Christ scattered all over the world. Others, on the other hand, dismissed the song and the videos of people singing it from their homes as “a pandemic thing,” meaning that this was yet another trend of celebrity-inspired internet hits that went viral during the pandemic and were not necessarily godly. I would like to turn my focus, however, to a different feature of this song which resonates with a majority of Brazilian Evangelicals.
The original “Blessing” was released in the US in March 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic was still in its initial stages. Brazilian translations soon followed, quite a few of them actually, but the one which seemingly received the most attention was released on May 29, 2020 by the highly popular Evangelical performer and pastor Ana Paula Valadão in partnership with an up-and-coming worship leader named André Aquino. Instead of the usual scenery that emerged with the pandemic, with worship leaders performing from their homes in front of their computer screens, a professional and carefully tailored video was produced more in tune with the aesthetics of global evangelicalism’s music industry as it has been shaped by the likes of Hillsong, among others. Valadão created some anticipation to her 2.8M Instagram followers by posting short clips of the video before its release on YouTube. In one of them, there is an introduction by well-known US worship leader Paul Wilbur reciting the lyrics of The Blessing in Hebrew followed by established Brazilian worship leaders declaiming the first part of The Blessing. The video itself is intermingled with images of the artists performing in what appears to be their homes and that of ordinary families doing ordinary things such as praying before a meal. Perhaps the most surprising feature of these families, who symbolise those to whom The Blessing is being delivered, is that they are all without exception heterosexual families, an imagery that in turn resonates quite well with the conservatism of Bolsonaro’s government, which centers around the defence of normative family values against LGBTQ+ and gender-based activism. Indeed, Valadão, whose family presides over the evangelical powerhouse Lagoinha Baptist Church with branches in several parts of Brazil, has publicly endorsed Bolsonaro in face of what she deemed the moral corruption of the left, as has her brother, also a fellow pastor and influent worship leader, André Valadão, one of the most vocal in the family in his support of the incumbent Brazilian president. Their support of the current administration was not by all means an isolated fact as evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Bolsonaro and remain one of his main political bases.
Recent anthropological literature has argued that Evangelical Christianity “travels well” and is able to sustain its main cultural elements as it does so. Brazilian Evangelicalism attests to the strength of this homogenizing aspect of evangelical culture in that it strikingly resembles the Western churches from where this culture has originated not only in its aesthetics and theology, but also its public engagements – such as the stringent defense of normative family values – as the message conveyed by the imagery of The Blessing video suggests. Furthermore, Brazilian worship leaders have become more and more similar to their counterparts in the Western world, and thus have enhanced a perception of the local church that allows for Brazilian evangelicals to feel they are part of a global movement, not least in its outer modern style and inner conservatism. The growth of this evangelical culture has fuelled public debates over family values in such a way that it has allowed for the catchphrase I cited in the beginning of this article to become a sort of motto for all Brazilian conservatives in quite a striking example of what Harri Englund has pointed out as Christian ideas and practices constituting the parameters of a national debate.
It seems evident that this conservative turn has come to stay. What remains unclear, however, is how much longer will Bolsonaro be able to use Christianity to his political gain. As the striking imagery of The Blessing video suggests, there is still a clear alignment between broader evangelical values and those of the current government. But if on the one hand evangelicalism homogenizes culture, on the other hand, it indigenizes to local patterns as Joel Robbins and other anthropologists have pointed out. This aspect of charismatic Christianity may take it to other directions different from the one trailed by the mainstream conservatism of global evangelicalism, not least because local Christian culture in Brazil has a history of progressiveness of which liberation theology stands as a reminder. There are already signs of dissent amongst evangelical leaders who are dissatisfied with the staunch support the president has received from their counterparts. For the moment though Bolsonaro’s Brazil is very much a Christian nation as he has himself declared. And a very conservative one.