Brazil’s Religious Right

Managing Editor Stephen Waldron interviewed historian Benjamin Cowan about his book Moral Majorities Across the Americas: Brazil, The United States, and the Creation of the Religious Right.

Stephen: Your recent book, Moral Majorities Across the Americas, makes a case for considering Brazil as a significant parallel case to the U.S. development of a strong “Religious Right” during the late 20th century. What are some factors that make Brazilian conservatism so important to understand?

Ben: Certainly one factor urging us to understand contemporary Brazilian conservatism is the way in which, like the current U.S. Right, it epitomizes many of the anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian tendencies of an amorphous global populism. Part of what I try to do in the book is determine how and why Brazil and the United States so resemble each other in this regard—how they became such principals in the cultivation of resurgent Christian nationalisms and the coalescence of a coherent conservative identity. And looking for the explanations for that, I discovered that Brazilians played critical roles in the transnational processes that brought today’s Right “in from the cold,” so to speak—that is, from the fringe to the heart of politics and power. I also think it’s important to think about Brazil because the very parallels you’ve asked about trouble nation-centric understandings of the recent history of the Right, and of the culture of politics more generally. At the very least, we need to question to what extent the current iterations of the Right can be comprehended when we see them strictly in terms of the domestic factors contributing to their rise. 

Stephen: One of the points that distinguishes the Brazilian story you tell from the story of religious conservatism in the U.S. is the intense state involvement in Brazilian religious conservatism, especially during the military dictatorship, from state security services to diplomats. Why were religious (and even doctrinal and liturgical) issues so important to the Brazilian state?

Ben: Yes, this is a critical part of the story of Brazil’s current configuration of religious conservatism. The short version of this is that a Cold War confluence of concerns about communism, modernization, morality, and the role of the Catholic Church and of Christian churches more generally led to an empowerment of evangelical conservatives. One way of thinking about this is that in Brazil as elsewhere the strength of Christian conservatism begs questions about why coreligionist progressives did not fare as well, in terms of political organization and power. In Brazil, so far as I was able to ascertain, the possibility existed that more ecumenically-minded Christians, drawn to what we might now call “social justice,” would hold greater sway than they now do. Historical contingency, however, meant that an alliance between conservative evangelicals and the military regime foreclosed upon that possibility, and laid the groundwork for the media-savvy, culturally determinative, revanchist Christianity we see today. The state was interested in doctrinal and liturgical issues to the extent that those issues were seen as a threat to the Church’s role as a bulwark of anticommunism and a support for dictatorship—and conservative Catholics, like conservative evangelicals, were more than willing to see secular authorities police the boundaries of Christian communities, in the service of eradicating (or at the very least discrediting and disempowering) Liberation Theology and other forms of reinterpreting Christian traditionalism.

Stephen: Readers who are familiar with the history of Fundamentalism in the U.S. will recognize a major character in the story you tell, Presbyterian pastor and anti-communist crusader Carl McIntire. In the U.S., McIntire played a key role in organizing Fundamentalists while marginalizing himself from others and even from many Fundamentalists through his fanaticism and his inability to get along with others. As you describe his role in Brazilian conservatism, though, McIntire seems to have had more mainstream appeal there. Why do you think that was?

Ben: Yes, McIntire is a simply fascinating figure, and I think a crucial one both in the U.S. and elsewhere. In some ways, he serves as a perfect example of the process I mentioned before—the migration of far-Right ideas and organizations from the fringe into the realm of the speakable, the acceptable. Other historians have shown how scholarly neglect of McIntire can lead us to dismiss him and figures like him, when in fact they helped lay the foundations of the Christian Right. In both Brazil and the United States, I think it is less that McIntire gained mainstream appeal (or even name recognition) and more that, while operating on the edges of mainstream political and popular consciousness, he created institutions and forged and maintained circuits of extreme conservatism—whose conspiratorial, hard-edged, intolerant contours would prove influential in moving the sort of Overton window of evangelical political and cultural identity. In other words, even those evangelicals who at one point might have dismissed or ignored a Carl McIntire eventually came to accept and embrace the style and content of the anticommunist, doctrinally absolutist, performative, warlike, and militant Christianity he honed.

Stephen: You note that over the course of the 20th century both Catholic traditionalists and conservative evangelicals (crentes) in Brazil emphasized the importance of supernaturalism and transcendence. To what extent has this shared emphasis promoted unity between these two groups and to what extent have they merely allied due to shared enemies, such as liberals and leftists?

Ben: Oh, boy. This gets at one of the questions that continues to dog me, as I think it dogs many scholars of the Right—to what extent is conservatism defined by its enemies, or by the very fact of enmity? I’m not sure I have a concise answer for that, but I think other students of contemporary conservatism are correct when they surmise that modern Rights tend to set themselves apart from previous iterations by embracing rightism-as-radicalism. Rather than simple reactionism, Christian traditionalists across the 20th century sought to revolutionize (and I use the word advisedly) their faith communities and national communities. In one of a series of interlocking contradictions, such traditionalists hated the idea of what some called “the Revolution,” which encompassed everything from cultural change to classical liberalism to communism—but they nevertheless sought change, even radical change, not stasis. The change they sought was a restoration of an imagined, mythic past, a kind of detente with modernity that would use modern techniques and technologies and capitalist forms to restore adherence to premodern hierarchies, ideologies, and customs. This was certainly evident in the shared dedication to reinvigorating institutional and popular orientation toward the supernatural. Rather than proposing the simple defeat of liberals and leftists, right-wing believers of various stripes came together around the notion that they could forge a better present and future by demanding a re-enchantment of worldviews and governance that they perceived to have been secularized, stripped of the wonder and reverence born of ceaseless consciousness of the divine. In a sense, this meant that they went farther than simply mobilizing against common, contemporary enemies—they did in fact create a common agenda for building an idealized future.

Stephen: Your book offers a detailed narrative of how conservative Brazilian Protestants turned from an apolitical identity toward right-wing activism. Although you discuss the growing political involvement of groups like the “assembleianos” (Brazilian Assemblies of God), I was wondering what, if any, significance you see in the growth of Pentecostal groups in comparison to other conservative Protestant groups such as Baptists and Presbyterians. Did their supernaturalist emphasis change conservative Protestant politics or was their moral conservatism mostly similar to that of other evangelical groups?

Ben: This is an excellent question and one that I did not really seek to address in the book. I didn’t see any evidence that the peculiarly supernaturalist orientation of Pentecostal groups influenced the politics of Christian conservatism in Brazil or outside of it. In this regard, I don’t think it can be ignored that some of the most pronounced emphasis on seeing the divine or the mystical in everyday life came from Catholics, and that this emphasis was shared by mainline Protestants. As a brilliant tradition of scholars has shown, the notion of modernity as bounded by rationality, secularized, and “disenchanted” is in many ways itself a mythology—but it is a powerful mythology, and one that has animated believers and nonbelievers alike.

Stephen: What happened to the religious opposition to Brazil’s Religious Right? After the dictatorship ended, did they ever gain much traction in opposing right-wing religious politics?

Ben: Brazil’s progressive and even its moderate Christians, like their counterparts in the United States, have faced many challenges, but they remain a visible and important cultural and political constituency. They are in no way as powerful as their conservative coreligionists, but are represented by vocal and tenacious institutions, activists, and public figures (like Raphael Warnock in the United States or Benedita da Silva in Brazil). Still, as one Brazilian activist and theologian recently put it, “progressive evangelicals are on the margins of the margins.”

Stephen: You make a striking claim about the historical contingency of the kind of “new right” conservatism that emerged by the 1980s and 90s in contexts like Brazil and the U.S. Factors like neoliberalism or free market ideology, religious traditionalism, sexual conservatism, and anti-communism converged to form what we now call “conservatism.” What do you think about more psychological or philosophical accounts of conservatism that focus on concepts such as an “authoritarian personality” or a “reactionary mind?” How does your historical account relate to those more essentialist interpretations of conservatism?

Ben: I think my work is really consonant with those other frameworks and interpretations. While I am less inclined toward midcentury approaches to philosophical understanding of individual or mass political behavior, they have formed a foundation for the academy in which we all work now, and I have found them to be useful heuristics for thinking about how a category like the “potential fascistic individual” interacts with the kinds of historical contingencies I’m looking at. Political science and sociological approaches like those of Corey Robin are also really important, definitionally and theoretically. Robin and I, for example, use different methods to arrive at very similar conclusions about how conservatism might be defined—in terms, say, of anti-egalitarianism—and analyzed. So I suppose the simple answer is that I value, and use, the contributions of those other approaches, and hope that my work can be as helpful.

Stephen: What are you most excited about working on next? Are you developing anything else around the topic of your book? Are you moving on to another topic?

Ben: I’m so glad you asked! While I find plodding down the road of historicizing conservatism to be increasingly depressing, every time I try to branch out I end up fascinated all over again. At this point, I’m researching along two different themes—recreational sport and monarchism in Brazil. While these are really divergent projects in many ways, they both have led me back to more evidence of and arguments about inequality, hierarchy, and the construction and maintenance of difference. So, I suppose I’m doing new things that are exciting to me, but that end up involving similar ways of understanding where we’ve been and how we got here.

Ben Cowan

Ben Cowan is Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego.

Stephen Waldron

Stephen Waldron is a Managing Editor of Theology and Society and a Ph.D. student at Boston University School of Theology.