IF BOLSONARO is the “most unlikely president of a major country in modern times,” as Walter Russell Mead of the Hudson Institute suggests, Brazil might once have seemed a most unlikely democracy.
Portuguese explorers landed in the territory in 1500, naming the land after the Brazil tree native to the region. The country eventually gained its independence from Portugal (which had also imported Catholicism), and it went through a series of governments.
In 1964, the country entered a military dictatorship that lasted for the next 20 years. Bolsonaro entered the country’s military academy in the 1970s, and he eventually rose to the rank of army captain.
The economy improved for a time, even as military leaders censored critics—sometimes with violence. The economy flagged in the early 1980s with global inflation, and after widespread protests the military allowed a transition to civilian rule in 1985.
Bolsonaro served in the military until 1988 and then pursued a career in politics: He served as a city councilman in Rio de Janeiro from 1989 to 1991, and then won a seat in the country’s legislature in 1991. He held it until he won the presidency in 2018.
Meanwhile, evangelicalism was booming in Brazil in the 1980s, particularly with the rapid expansion of the Pentecostal churches. Some churches were conservative. Others were liberal. Many embraced a so-called prosperity gospel that promised material wealth to its adherents.
For years, evangelicals had followed the informal slogan: “Believers don’t mess with politics.” But as they gained numbers in the 1980s and the country transitioned to civilian rule, influential pastors changed their minds. The Assembly of God churches began endorsing candidates to run for office as lawmakers started working on the country’s new constitution.
Eventually they formed a bloc of evangelical legislators that includes more than 90 lawmakers today.
But a socialist mindset was also on the rise, and as economic prosperity dipped again, the Marxist-infused Workers’ Party gained popularity and power in national politics, and it held the presidency from 2003 to 2016.
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as “Lula”) vastly expanded government outlays, and his popularity grew. But with the massive spending, the economy suffered. Still, Lula’s handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, won the presidency in 2010.
But a massive corruption scandal soon rocked the nation: Prosecutors uncovered a web of bribes and money laundering that ensnared dozens of politicians from across the political spectrum—including Lula. He reported to prison for a 12-year sentence in 2018.
Meanwhile, prosecutors charged Rousseff with corruption in a separate case, and the Brazilian legislature removed her from office in 2016.
‘The bloom is off the rose of socialism in Latin America. People have seen it for what it is—and it has been a disaster.’—James Roberts
The chaos roiled disillusioned Brazilian voters, and it wasn’t long before Bolsonaro took a step that would help launch him toward the nation’s highest office: He literally took a plunge.
On a May morning in 2016, Bolsonaro donned a white robe and waded into the murky, green waters of the Jordan River. Pastor Everaldo Pereira, a well-known minister and a politician in the Social Christian Party, dipped Bolsonaro under the water.
It wasn’t Bolsonaro’s first baptism: He grew up Catholic (and still identifies as Catholic), but he says he often attends an evangelical church with his wife. It’s also not Bolsonaro’s first marriage—he’s been divorced twice and has five children.
Some saw Bolsonaro’s baptism during his Israel trip as an attempt to impress evangelicals ahead of a presidential run. Whatever the case, evangelicals paid more attention to the agenda he proposed: He said he would oppose expanding legalized abortion and would press back against a homosexual agenda already well under way: Brazil legalized same-sex marriage in 2013.
When it comes to his offensive language, evangelicals confronted a dilemma similar to the one some Christians grappled with during Trump’s 2016 presidential contest. But Breno Macedo, a Brazilian and a Presbyterian pastor, said when evangelicals and other voters considered the alternative, “I think Brazilians woke up to the pit that Marxism is.”