On March 7, Brazil’s House of Representatives elected Marco Feliciano, a right-wing Pentecostal pastor from the country’s Social Christian Party (PSC), as president of the lower chamber’s Human Rights and Minorities’ Commission (CDHM).
The CDHM was created in 1995, during Brazil’s re-democratization process, to serve as a bridge between congress and social movements on reproductive rights and domestic violence campaigns; anti-racism and anti-homophobia campaigns; as well as protections for indigenous people, women, and children. The CDHM was also the home of a working group dedicated to the truth and memory of those killed or disappeared during Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964–1985. With such an agenda to fulfill, the CDHM has long been the province of progressive politicians. Indeed, Feliciano’s election is only the second time the Commission has been headed by a right-wing party.
But this time, the situation is particularly alarming. Feliciano, an Assembly of God pastor elected in 2011 as a parliamentary representative of the state of São Paulo, has a peculiar idea of the human rights he’s been tapped to defend, with a bevy of homophobic and racist statements to his credit (including some that manage to entwine the two). He has publicly declared himself opposed to LGBT rights, tweeted derogatory statements about the continent of Africa as a bastion of “paganism, occultism, penury,” and attributed diseases there, from Ebola to AIDS to famine, to the “1st act of homosexualism in history.”
He similarly announced on Twitter that “Noah’s damnation over Canaan touches all its direct descendants, African people,” and that “the rot of homosexual feelings lead to hatred, crime and rejection.” In his two years in office, he has already proposed bills to repeal same-sex civil unions and to criminalize abortion even in cases of extreme fetal abnormality—two issues that the Supreme Court has already weighed in on. As a Pentecostal pastor, Feliciano has appeared at recent events like the “Last Time Missionary Gideons’ Congress,” where he spoke in tongues and denounced the Devil’s activities in Parliament to an audience of thousands, referring to LGBT advocacy.
The increasing popularity of Feliciano’s Social Christian Party reflects the growing political power of Pentecostals and evangelicals* in Brazil, such that they’ve begun to challenge the longstanding dominance of Catholics in the central government. Pentecostal churches have taken root across the country, especially in poorer areas, preaching a version of prosperity gospel and building their empire on the tithes of families benefiting from anti-poverty programs. The result has been a massive 61% spike in Brazil’s evangelical population from 2000 to 2010—a number now amounting to more than 43 million people, or 23% of the national population. Unsurprisingly, this new constituency is enjoying success in electing leaders to city halls, and state and federal parliaments.
Brazil’s new evangelicals have also begun to cooperate with American counterparts. In a recent article at Public Eye, I described how Jay Sekulow’s American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) met with Brazilian politicians, with the aid of Feliciano’s PSC, seeking support for the cause of a Christian pastor convicted of apostasy in Iran. The efficiency of Brazil’s evangelical political network so impressed the U.S. conservative group that the ACLJ decided to open a Brazilian branch: the Brazilian Center for Law and Justice (BCLJ). The new organization’s director of operations, Filipe Coelho, told me of the PSC’s ambitions to elect an evangelical president to Brazil who would govern in the name of Jesus Christ.
Brazil’s human rights community has become concerned at the growing insistence of evangelical leaders that the country should be governed according to “Christian values”—values that include homophobia, Islamophobia, and “traditional values” that demand women’s obedience to husbands, children’s submission to father figures, and individuals’ surrender to the Holy Spirit. Leaders like Feliciano seem to value these perspectives over constitutional principles—principles that were hard-won after the collapse of the military dictatorship less than three decades ago, and cultivated during the slow restoration of democracy ever since.
When Feliciano was nominated on March 6, a coalition of gays, lesbians, trans people, women, feminists, black people, and African-Brazilian religious leaders (including Christians) mounted a loud protest at the Commission, warning that Feliciano’s selection would represent a dangerous regression in human rights history. That day, the session was suspended without any decision, only to resume the next morning closed to the public (but live-streamed).
After five progressive representatives walked out in protest of the closed session, Feliciano was elected with 10 votes and one abstention. As he was inaugurated, the members who had voted him in made statements denouncing “Christophobia” and “gayzism” in Brazil, and Feliciano’s new vice president on the Commission triumphantly announced, “As evangelicals who don’t deny their evangelical identity to anyone, we’ll give here a clear demonstration on how to love your neighbor.”
Secularism in Brazil’s parliament may be an endangered concept, perhaps as the natural result of politicians courting evangelical influence in recent years. In the early 2000s, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, long condemned by evangelicals as “satanic” or “demonic,” sought and received influential pastors’ support in recasting that image, in exchange for giving them a seat at the table in steering national politics.
Brazil’s current president, Dilma Rousseff, who signed an agreement with evangelical leaders for support during her successful 2010 electoral campaign, repaid her debt in May of 2011 by vetoing educational materials that would have been used to undermine discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity within public schools, declaring such a measure LGBT “propaganda.” In an unusual step, other evangelical leaders have been granted diplomatic passports to represent Brazil’s interests abroad.
With the election of Feliciano, however, these trends will go from an indirect to a direct influence: pastors with a clear track record of homophobia, hostility to reproductive rights, and racial insensitivity are no longer applying pressure behind the scenes, but have assumed control of the very body meant to safeguard these very rights. Lord help us if the trend continues.
*Due to the complexity (and clumsiness) of distinguishing between Pentecostals and other evangelicals (and there are those who argue that Pentecostals aren’t evangelicals at all) we’ve largely defaulted to the broader term “evangelical” above. However it’s worth noting that a significant portion of Brazil’s evangelical population is Pentecostal, including the Rev. Marco Feliciano.