A Pentecostal mayor of Rio de Janeiro: Religion and politics in Brazil

by Paul Freston and Diana Thomaz


Marcelo Crivella during the election campaign, 2016. Image: PRB Nacional via Flickr

Among the unusual events of 2016 was one that might, in other years, have attracted more curiosity: the election as mayor of Rio de Janeiro – Brazil’s famously hedonistic second-largest city – of a former bishop of one of its strait-laced Pentecostal churches, and the most controversial one at that. A hypothetical comparison would be Sarah Palin becoming mayor of New York; an ominous actual comparison might be Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leader of an equally strait-laced version of political Islam and now the increasingly authoritarian ruler of Turkey, who started out as elected mayor of Istanbul. So how could the home of Carnival have chosen Marcelo Crivella to govern it? And what does this say about the political rise of Pentecostal Christianity in Brazil?

Crivella is the nephew of Edir Macedo, founder of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG). Originating in Rio in 1977, this ‘prosperity gospel’ Pentecostal church has become one of Brazil’s largest, expanding among the urban poor. Highly centralised, it has a media empire (including TV Record, the country’s second-largest network), huge cathedrals and many elected politicians. Early on, it was at the centre of numerous controversies (especially the kicking of a statue of the patron saint of Brazil on television), financial scandals and criminal investigations, but had no convictions.

Crivella was pivotal in the church’s rise. An engineer of middle-class origin, he worked on the church’s building programme before becoming a pastor and then a missionary in Africa. Promoted to bishop, he began a successful singing career. Returning to Brazil, he spearheaded a UCKG agricultural project in the North-East, hosted shows on TV Record and led a daily prayer during its most popular secular programme.

Then, astonishingly, he was elected senator in 2002, with over three million votes. Although the UCKG already had federal deputies, they had benefited from the system of proportional representation with open lists for the lower house, which means candidates from large Pentecostal denominations can win with just their own members’ votes. But senate elections require more votes than the UCKG or all evangélicos (as Protestants are known) put together can provide. Yet this political neophyte, whose career had been within church-related structures, clearly attracted many other electors. While personal factors played a part (fame as a singer, television personality and leader of a social project), institutional support (the UCKG’s penetration in poor areas) was also fundamental.

Crivella was re-elected in 2010. From 2012–14, he was Minister of Fishing and Agriculture in the left-wing government of Dilma Rousseff. As senator, Crivella made his religious identity central, mentioning it in speeches, instituting the National Day of the March for Jesus and opposing a bill to criminalise homophobia (an attempt at ‘gay dictatorship’).

Crivella repeatedly ran for mayor of Rio and state governor. This was a difficult step up. While Brazil was accustomed to Pentecostal legislators, it was not easy for politicians whose political trampoline was the church to win executive elections – they required (in run-offs) far broader support and needed to persuade voters that in government they would not ‘mix religion and politics’ or be ‘theocratic’. Such elections required a downplaying of religious identity; Crivella’s attempts at this were insufficient to protect him from allegations of ‘fanaticism’ and endangering Brazil’s secular state. Even his calm public presence, middle-class origin and university education could not free him totally from the class prejudice of the well-heeled, which handicaps many Pentecostals in Brazilian public life. Yet, Crivella won the first round of the 2016 mayoral election with 27% of the vote, and the run-off with nearly 60%.

He was more successful this time at modulating religious rhetoric – his campaign website omitted his Pentecostalism, but stated he was ‘the son of Catholic parents’ – and rebutting allegations that he would be beholden to his church (his campaign jingle, in funk rhythm, sang of a ‘Rio without prejudice’, and he promised public funds for Carnival and the Gay Pride parade). But this alone would not suffice. What mattered was the atypical context of 2016: the president had been impeached and much of the political establishment was under investigation for corruption, resulting in high voter distrust – although voting is compulsory, unprecedented numbers abstained or spoiled their votes. Crivella also benefited from the Rio context: post-Olympic disillusionment with the municipal governing party; controversies surrounding that party’s candidate, and the fact that Crivella’s run-off opponent was from a far-left party with little reach in poorer areas. His attacks on Crivella’s ‘religious fanaticism’, which supposedly demeaned women, were counter-productive; the poor voted heavily for Crivella.

Perhaps the trickiest campaign moment came when it was revealed that, while a missionary, Crivella had written a book alleging African religions’ reverence for evil spirits and describing Catholics as ‘demoniacs’. Crivella hastily back-tracked, saying that ‘people mature’ and he had since become more tolerant.

Do Crivella’s first months in office justify fears of moral intolerance or religious partisanship? Pentecostal politicians nearly always claim to support Brazil’s secular state. Their opponents, however, claim that in practice they seek to privilege their own values and limit others’ rights. In government, Crivella has faced such accusations. Inasmuch as these have substance, they (so far) refer to the symbolic level. At public events, he sometimes plays one of his songs (‘God Bless Rio’), quotes parables and intones the Lord’s Prayer. He halved the budget for Carnival, but this merely returned it to its historic level, and the measure was approved by 78% of the population. He did, however, break with the tradition that the mayor inaugurates Carnival by handing over the ‘keys’ to the city; instead, he went abroad.

Plenary of the National Congress during a session in June 2017 to commemorate 40 years of the foundation of the UCKG.  Image: Senado Federal via Flickr

How significant Crivella’s breakthrough will be for national politics is difficult to say, given the atypical context of 2016. But never before has a Pentecostal whose political career was launched by the church been elected to such an important executive post. The UCKG supported the left-wing government of 2003–16. Crivella has spoken approvingly of land reform and has praised ex-president Lula. Indeed, one lesson of his victory may be that it is increasingly difficult for the left to achieve electoral success without solid connections to the huge Pentecostal constituency among the poor. Our comparison with Sarah Palin is, therefore, largely unjustified. As for the comparison with Erdoğan, Brazilian Pentecostalism lacks the ideological articulation of political Islam, and surveys show solidly democratic attitudes among ordinary Pentecostals.

Yet, there are reasons for concern. In a 2008 book, the UCKG founder mentions a national project conceived by God (albeit not spelt out), which the ‘people of God’ had to implement. In a 2011 sermon, Crivella himself claimed to have entered politics ‘in absolute submission’ to the church, and argued that the UCKG lacked the political power to become ‘the evangelising church of the last days to all nations’; an evangélico as president of Brazil would be fundamental for that, he concluded. In the long run, a lot will depend on whether this internal discourse represents a serious project, or is merely a way of mobilising support in a largely apolitical community.

About the author

Responsive image
Paul Freston is CIGI Chair in Religion and Politics in Global Context at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. Diana Thomaz is a PhD candidate at the Balsillie School of International Affairs.
You May Also Like