Far-Right Messianism and Urban-Religious Reassembling in Brazil

By Jan Simon Hutta

This essay is part of Emergent Conversation 13, ILLICITIES: City-Making and Organized Crime

“… isn’t it that terror and salvation entertain, somewhere, an intimate commerce?”

—Achille Mbembe[1]

Pastor and owner of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God Edir Macedo anoints Jair Bolsonaro. Image reproduced from Twitter.

When Edir Macedo, founder of one of the world’s largest neo-Pentecostal churches, the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus, expressed his support for presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro shortly before the 2018 elections, a new chapter was opened in the evangelicalization of Brazilian politics. The influence of evangelical, particularly Pentecostal, religion had grown during the PT (Workers’ Party) government from 2003 to 2016, which maintained with the evangelical caucus what former president Dilma Rousseff described as a “partnership that is strategic” (see also Romancini 2018).[2] With the ascendency of Bolsonarism, though, evangelical and government politics have substantively converged, joining forces in orchestrating an aggressive crusade against the liberal-democratic politics of equality and citizenship rights. This convergence has been enabled by a series of resonances among Pentecostalism and Bolsonaro’s militaristic, ultra-neoliberal variant of post-fascism—specifically around the glorification of the heteropatriarchal family, whiteness, a meritocratic conception of prosperity, and the idea of a millenarian struggle of good against the “corrupting” forces of evil.

Resonances among evangelical religion, market-liberalism and anti-liberal-democratic politics have also surfaced in a range of other contexts, from the U.S., where evangelicals mobilized for Trump (see Posner 2020), to Uganda, where the martial 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act was instigated by evangelical activists with connections to U.S. evangelicals in the context of the government’s neoliberal agenda.[3] This does not mean, of course, that all evangelicals have far-right or neoliberal leanings, or that the heterogeneous field of evangelical religion does not also include communities committed to deep democracy. Nor has evangelically inflected anti-liberalism become straightforwardly hegemonic wherever it has been prominent. However, where evangelical discourse is deployed politically, its mobilizing capacity often springs precisely from its antagonizing impulse that is effective especially in the defamation of those seen to embody a progressive and equality-oriented—”leftist,” “genderist,” “communist” and so on—positioning. For instance, such antagonism has also been very pronounced in South Korea, where evangelical Christians recently protested against president Moon Jae-in’s liberal government, criticizing hygiene measures and asserting that faith in God can resolve Covid-19. These protests followed up on the “patriots’ rallies” initiated in 2005 by far-right pastor, politician and head of the Christian Council of Korea, Jeon Kwang-hoon, who is known for his crass sexist, homophobic and Islamophobic statements, and has accused Moon of “handing over South Korea to North Korea.” Jeon, by the way, is also a self-declared admirer of Trump, which signals the transnational connections that have long defined evangelical movements.

While today Brazil, historically a majority Catholic country, forms a hotbed for the conjunction of evangelical religion and government politics, the Pentecostal strands that pervade so many contexts around the globe first emerged in the U.S. Besides spearheading anti-abortion and anti-LGBTIQ+ activism, white Pentecostalism in the USA has long contributed to disseminating a particular affective-spiritual ethos, connected to U.S. evangelicalism more broadly. William Connolly (2008) uses the term “capitalist-evangelical resonance machine” to scrutinize how such an ethos has been enacted across diverse social, political and economic fields and institutions. This ethos, he notes, revolves around resentments against one’s place in the world and “finds expression […] in punitive orientations toward others outside the fold: […] in an extreme sense of entitlement for your constituency, and in a tendency to devalue the claims and needs of other constituencies” (4). As Connolly shows, such a bellicose ethos of revenge has been intimately connected to a glorification of both the heterosexual family and the capitalist market. While not all those enacting this ethos share the same creed, its simultaneous enactment in different contexts produces reverberations and synergies, amplifying vengeful sentiments in daily and institutional life. The resonance machine that instigates such reverberations and synergies across different fields thus operates through “affinities of spirituality” (40).

Connolly’s elaborations are pertinent to many of the contexts where imbrications of evangelicalism, market-liberalism, and right-wing politics have unfolded (if as part of different historical and political conjunctures). Two issues merit further attention, though. First, while Connolly emphasizes an apocalyptic ethos of revenge, the attendant messianism, which involves ideas of redemption and divine leadership, deserves further scrutiny. Such messianism has fuelled the veneration of right-wing icons from Bolsonaro to Trump. Second, Pentecostalism in particular has often built up its following in peripheralized contexts, targeting the “down and out,” not least in urban peripheries in the Global South (regarding Brazil, see Arenari 2013 and Cunha 2018). This raises the question of how the messianism supporting far-right idols is shaped by the ways in which religion is lived, structured and politicized in daily urban life.

Pursuing these issues demands a situated approach. Although what Connolly calls the “resonance machine” is certainly at work beyond the U.S., I am not postulating any direct equivalences in relation to other contexts. Instead, my aim is to invite site-specific engagement with the ways in which messianism and peripherality play out in anti-liberal conjunctures by sketching their significance in the Brazilian context. Specifically, I will draw attention to how far-right messianism at the national scale has piggybacked on local alliances among religious, political, economic, and illicit armed actors in urban contexts. My focus is here is Rio de Janeiro, where the forging of such alliances has been particularly momentous. I conclude with some reflections on what the developments in Brazil can teach us for other contexts and for attending to other kinds of resonances.

Far-Right Messianism

A protester holds up the hashtag “GodFamilyBrazil” as thousands of people demonstrate to support Brazil’s presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in City Vila Velha, Espirito Santo State, Brazil, on October 21, 2018. Photo by Gilson Borba/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

The mutual reinforcement of evangelicalism and far-right politics in Brazil—for example, crystallized in Bolsonaro’s appointment of the neo-Pentecostal Pastor Damares Alves as Minister of Women, the Family and Human Rights—has been enabled by a series of affective-discursive resonances around the mutually related themes of vengeance and messianic hope. Let’s briefly review the theme of vengeance before we turn to hope.

As Connolly (2008) shows, the millenarian imagination of an apocalyptic end-time of reckoning is capable of amplifying vengeful desires to get one’s due in the face of the world’s corruption and decadence. Bolsonarism has been successful in deploying precisely this affective register in relation to different kinds of public: riding on the wave of (predominantly white) middle-class protest against a perceived loss of privilege, Bolsonaro’s martial “anti-corruption” demeanour moreover chimed with parts of the military, who, as Bruno Paes Manso (2020) notes, “resented the loss of prominence and united around ideals that only came to the fore after Bolsonaro’s election in 2018” (34). Such resentments have operated through images of evil that serve as their targets. Most persistently, evangelical pastors and politicians have targeted expressions of sexual and gendered diversity, but many have also combatted Afro-diasporic religious practices, “communism,” or “crime”—all issues that figure prominently in Bolsonaro’s homophobic, sexist, white-supremacist, hard-line anti-left and anti-“crime” speeches (Silva and Larkins 2019). Pentecostalism’s attendant bellicose style of proselytizing has moreover chimed with Bolsonaro’s ultra-violent militarism. Consider, for instance, the appearance of the army-style squads called “Gladiators of the Altar” in the Igreja Universal in 2014, composed of thousands of young men in uniforms performing martial choreographies while shouting “ready for battle.”

But Pentecostalism’s stage-managed “spiritual warfare” (see Marshall 2009) against the forces of evil has also resonated with Bolsonaro’s populist—or perhaps better: fascist-like or post-fascist—stylization as a lone fighter against the corruption of politics. With the combat of “corruption”  (moral, political and economic) forming a central trope in the religion (ibid.), this stylization has simultaneously picked up on Pentecostalism’s “idea that that some are appointed by God because they mobilize large crowds” as highlighted by psychologist Bruna Suruagy. This idea has undergirded the exaltation of Bolsonaro as messianic figure of hope, leading to a revering of the politician—whose second name happens to be “Messias”—as “o mito” (the myth). When Bolsonaro survived a knife attack shortly before the presidential elections, the mystification was complete.

Considering this exaltation of Bolsonaro as messianic figure is vital, as it helps us understand why his advocacy of the martial repression of crime has struck a religious chord. His violent demeanour—epitomized in the slogan “a good thug is a dead thug,” which he adopted from the military dictatorship—chimes with his Joshua-like self-stylization as an apocalyptic avenger of the disenfranchised, tapping a foundational theme of sovereign power (Agamben 2011). Also figured as a Brazilian reincarnation of King Cyrus, who was considered to be anointed by God to build up an empire by martial means, Bolsonaro is granted here the use of divine-type violence (notwithstanding the Persian king’s reputation as tolerant and magnanimous). Connecting to the story of Pentecost, some have even seen his appearance as announcing God’s pouring out the Holy Spirit, which makes people see visions and dream dreams, as announced by Joel in the Acts of the Apostles:

The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood,
Before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Acts 2:20-21)

Placing both the apocalyptic time of reckoning and the Pentecostal story of God’s pouring out his Spirit center-stage, neo-Pentecostalism in particular has cultivated the drama of the fall and salvation of humankind, cherishing renewal through divine violence. It has thereby enacted a “politics of affect,” to use the term Ruth Marshall (2009) deploys regarding the Nigerian context, that is highly effective in disseminating the double themes of vengefulness and messianic hope that have surrounded Bolsonaro (10).

Moreover, in connection to this specific moral coding of hope, which revolves around a Manichean division of good and evil, Pentecostalism has also produced resonances around a particular economic orientation. While the promise of salvation for the wretched has long marked Pentecostal discourses, the more recent variants have especially emphasized the idea that prosperity and happiness flow from individual moral action as prescribed by the Bible, leading to a focus on behavioral codes as well as self-responsibility and acceptance of structural inequalities. This moral orientation instigates technologies of the self that connect political messianism to a political-economic project. Specifically, these technologies have converged with the government’s ultra-neoliberal agenda, as pressed forward by the Minister of the Economy, the Chicago boy Paulo Guedes. Besides indicating another important set of political-religious resonances, this also leads to the question of how evangelical religion is organized and practiced in daily life—especially in the urban peripheries, where it has prompted a range of entrepreneurial activities.

Urban-Religious Assemblages in Flux

Igreja Universal in Seropédica in the Baixada Fluminense region. Photo by the author.

Rio de Janeiro has been a main site in the development of what has been called the “neo-Pentecostal” movement. Alongside transnational-cooperation-style churches such as the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God), with its tightly regimented hierarchy, a multitude of autonomous churches as well as those affiliated with the older, more loosely structured Pentecostal Assembleia de Deus (Assemblies of God), have proliferated across Rio’s peripheries. As authors such as Cunha (2018), Lanz (2016), and Oosterbaan (2017) have shown, many of these churches have emerged as part of the informal activities and relationships that characterize daily life in Brazil’s urban peripheries.

As Lanz (2016) shows in his study in the favela complex of Manginhos in Rio’s North Zone, autonomous or semi-autonomous Pentecostal churches are typically the result of small-scale entrepreneurial activities, where residents bit by bit assemble necessary material infrastructure, support, and exchange networks with various political, economic, and social actors. Such small-scale entrepreneurialism has been fostered especially by the Pentecostal movement’s concern with individual capacities of prosperity and transformation (in contrast to the Catholic tradition of subordination and top-down church construction). As other infrastructures, Lanz points out, evangelical churches have thus been built as part of “worlding practices” that offer residents “an opportunity for self-empowerment and autonomy” (553-554). To highlight how Pentecostalism has become an integral part of informal worlding practices in these spaces, Lanz speaks of a “favela-Pentecostal assemblage” that allows residents “to at least subvert the favela’s state of exception” (553).

However, as Fábio Marton (2021) has argued, the wide-spread emphasis on evangelical churches’ significance in furthering social engagement by and for the poor has made the anti-democratic “B side” of evangelical agency hard to debunk. Emphasis on the engagement of the poor eclipses how simultaneously a set of urban-religious assemblages have taken shape in connection to a militaristic worlding project that has deepened rather than subverted the favela’s “state of exception.” This is signalled by the fact that since the early 2000s, the spread of evangelical religion in some of Rio de Janeiro’s peripheries has occurred parallel to the expansion of the parapolicing groups called milícias. These illicit groups, which are typically run by police men in cooperation with politicians, merchants, and others, operate through the violent enforcement of protection rackets, the usurpation of a range of paid services, and the martial combat of crime and drug trafficking organizations (see Gay 2017). The simultaneous ascendency of evangelicalism and parapolicing has not been entirely coincidental, but rather nurtured by this reassembling of religious, political, and illicit armed actors.

Such reassembling is illustrated by the election of the Igreja Universal bishop Marcelo Crivella—Edir Macedo’s nephew—as mayor of Rio de Janeiro in 2016, a milestone for the Pentecostal movement. Crivella had long been supported, not only by those parts of the population that embrace his anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, and anti-drugs rhetoric, but also by some milícia groups.[4]

Milícias are concentrated especially in parts of Rio’s large West Zone as well as the Baixada Fluminense region to the north of the city. Map by Fogo Cruzado, GENI-UFF, NEV-USP, Pista News, 2019.

Milícias have long pooled votes for collaborating politicians, who in turn have funnelled funds towards local infrastructural projects and enhanced the criminals’ immunity from prosecution. In many of the neighbourhoods where they have taken control, the milícias have thus instigated a remarkable shift in urban-religious assemblages as compared to the favelas dominated by drug trafficking organizations. These organizations have typically tolerated the churches as long as they don’t interfere in their business, in some cases even enlisting the churches’ moral and exculpating capacities. Pentecostals, on the other hand, have regarded drug trafficking organizations, whose combatting has formed part of the milícias’ raison d’être, as “evil incarnate” (Lanz 2016, 544)—even if in practice they have also cooperated with them. This discursive demonization has enabled a much closer alignment with milícias, also connecting to the churches’ longer-term collaboration with police forces around the combat of drug trafficking (Machado 2017).

Apart from serving these actors’—churches’, milícias’, the police’, politicians’—instrumental ends, such collaborations have thus also been aided by affective and discursive resonances akin to those described earlier in relation to Bolsonaro. Besides using coercion, milícias seek to legitimize their violence by promising to install order and combat drug trafficking. It should therefore come as no surprise that an evangelical politician, who also promotes a hard-line anti-drugs agenda, should find in the milícias willing collaborators. Even though evangelicals have typically sought to guide drug traffickers to Jesus rather than kill them (as the milícias set out to do), they have joined the latter in disseminating a vengeful ethos of combatting evil. (Paradoxically, some traffickers have now also adopted evangelicalization as a territorializing strategy, facilitating new alliances with milícias against rival trafficking cartels.) This ethos, in turn, has resonated with the broader discourse that “a good thug is a dead thug,” which highlights the multiscale dimension of these urban-religious assemblages.

We might even say that Bolsonaro was able to both reap the fruits of Crivella’s local political-religious work and extend its field of application. The president’s election was aided by the strong support he received in the same regions where Crivella was most successful (as well as in the evangelically infused metropolitan area, especially the Baixada Fluminense). Apart from operating on this resonant discursive terrain, Bolsonaro has also been involved himself in regional actor-networking, collaborating closely with both milícias—which he publicly cherished as heroic examples of community defence (see Manso 2020)—and evangelicals.

In 2016, after being nominated as presidential candidate by the majority Pentecostal far-right Social Christian Party (PSC), Bolsonaro—who continues to be a self-confessed Catholic—got baptized in the river Jordan by prominent evangelical Pastor Everaldo from Rio, who presides over the same party (and was later arrested on corruption charges). After being elected president in October 2018, Bolsonaro used the word “God” seven times in his first public speech. And in September 2019, Edir Macedo of the Igreja Universal, who is also from Rio, invited Bolsonaro to his main temple in São Paulo to anoint him, saying: “Today we are receiving the presence of President Jair Bolsonaro and he was elected because we believe in his word.” While the political crisis related to Bolsonaro’s disastrous Covid-19 management has strained his relationship with evangelical leaders, several of whom have explicitly distanced themselves from the president, the government’s evangelicalization continues unabated—such as when in March 2021 pastor Milton Ribeiro (appointed Minister of Education in July 2020) was invited to open a meeting with a prayer for the government.

At the same time, Bolsonaro’s religious networking has coalesced with his milícia connections in Rio. For instance, in the rich Barra da Tijuca neighbourhood in Rio’s West Zone, where most of the Bolsonaros live and which is located near one of the principal regions of milícia activity, there is a church “that is a church of milicianos”, and that is “attended by Bolsonaro surnames”, as anthropologist Vinícius Esperança has observed. Hence, while the intimate relations of the Bolsonaro clan and Rio’s milícias have received increasing attention, the affective-spiritual component of these relationships and the family clan’s friendship with regional church leaders should not be neglected. Perhaps Crivella had already read the signs when in 2016 he made a prophetic statement that caused much polemical debate: “Evangelicals will still elect a president of the republic who will work for our churches so that we can fulfil the mission of taking the gospel to all nations of the earth.”

Reassembling the Resonance Machine

While the Bolsonaro government has teamed up with Pentecostalism, even granting pastors Ministerial posts, then, it has simultaneously based its power on the local networks that connect evangelical churches with politicians, milícias and other actors. We have thus come full circle. The resonances of evangelicalism and far-right politics at the national scale that reverberate through imaginations of evil and redemption turn out to be prefigured in the urban context. More than simply prefiguring larger dynamics, though, urban-religious assemblages have given rise to specific worlding practices that are amenable to policing, parapolicing, and the militaristic orientations that often guide them. The messiah has figured prominently in the mutual adaptation of evangelicalization and (para)policing. This is a very specific figuration of the messiah, however, as anthropologist Jacqueline Moraes Teixeira has pointed out: “The Messiah appearing in these stories [of the apocalypse] is not the conciliatory Messiah of the Gospels, but the Messiah who returns to constitute his Army to win the battle that marks the end of time and the ushering of a new world.”

All this bears further scrutiny, particularly how inhabitants of urban peripheries who engage with evangelical music and media, who construct, attend, or denounce evangelical churches, and who have contributed to, or challenged, anti-liberal urban-religious assemblages. For if the worlding projects that make up cities are shaped by the conditions of informality and neoliberal governance, they are increasingly also marked by illicit liaisons bound up with anti-liberal power formations. As I have argued elsewhere (Hutta 2019), to tackle these power formations, it is futile to reiterate the ways in which they exceed democratic control and legitimation, nor is it enough to gesture towards new forms of “sovereignty” or even the “clientelistic” nature of peripheral governance. Instead, more analytic work is needed to trace the specific technologies through which interdependencies among state, political, economic, armed, religious, and other actors are constituted and maintained. The increasing deployment of religious technologies of affect signals the expansive nature and malleability of the power formations that are at stake. And these affective technologies have turned out to intensify anti-liberal sentiments that are remarkably resilient to governmental crisis. As I have noted earlier, these developments are also connected to broader transnational phenomena, and future research should investigate the religious assemblages emerging in other contexts where liberal government is currently under pressure (including Germany, which is the focus of research I am currently embarking on).

But scrutinizing evangelical assemblages also calls for engagement with democratizing worldings—not least given the long tradition of left-wing messianism in Latin America. In the Brazilian context, it could for instance be analysed how religious messianism has supported the political success of former president Lula da Silva—and how the PT’s tight congregation around their supreme leader has become an obstacle to progressive organizing. Hence, if far-right movements have fuelled an anti-liberal machine that operates through a dizzying array of mutually reinforcing resonances, it’s high time to tune in to other vibes.

Jan Simon Hutta is Assistant Professor of geography at the University of Bayreuth. His current research addresses formations of power, violence and political subjectivity in Rio de Janeiro, the Christian right in Germany and Brazil, as well as processes of affective territorialization. He is founding editor of the open-access journal on critical urban research, sub\urban – zeitschrift für kritische stadtforschung.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Frank Meyer, Simon Runkel as well as the editors of PoLAR Online for their insightful comments on earlier drafts.

Notes

[1] Cited in Spivak (2007, 153).

[2] All translations of Portuguese sources are mine.

[3] Even though Uganda’s Constitutional Supreme Court later ruled the bill invalid on procedural grounds, it went along with a surge in homophobic and transphobic violence and killings (see also Balzer & Hutta 2012). For a detailed account of the simultaneously independent and globally entangled Ugandan anti-homosexuality activism see Rao (2020).

[4] This first became widely public through the 2008 parliamentary investigation of Rio’s milícias, where the van cooperatives controlled by these groups in the Jacarepaguá region in Rio’s West Zone were reported to support Crivella’s 2008 mayoral candidacy (Commissão Parlamentar de Inquério 2008, 72). Moreover, in the same report, milícia leader Luiz Ferreira da Silva (aka ‘Deco’) – who supported the expansion of milícia groups to further neighbourhoods (Manso 2020, 28) – was denounced for forcing residents to put on their houses election posters that showed himself, running for the city council, next to the Igreja Universal bishop (Commissão Parlamentar de Inquério 2008, 151).

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About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_anthropology/curtis_jennifer.

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