SALVADOR, Brazil (AP) — Off a byway outside Salvador, past an evangelical church and down a short path, Thiago Viana was preparing a celebration. Two new members of his temple would soon emerge from months of seclusion, marking initiation into his Afro Brazilian faith, Candomble.
Then his phone started pinging with messages: Michelle Bolsonaro, the wife of President Jair Bolsonaro, had posted a video to Instagram of Viana and his sister showering former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva with popcorn — a Candomble cleansing rite associated with Obaluaê, the deity of earth and health. The first lady’s short comment denounced such a display from da Silva while some criticize her for speaking about God.
It unleashed a flood of posts from pastors, lawmakers and ordinary people using the video to claim the Lord’s will is for da Silva to lose. Some called Viana and his kind devil worshippers, though he says there’s no such thing as the devil in Candomble.
“I was thick-skinned on the outside, but it destroyed me within. … My flesh was trembling and began to throb,” he said. “I expected this from an ordinary evangelical person, but not from a person like the first lady.”
Viana was caught in the crossfire of a religiously tinged political attack on da Silva, who leads all polls against the incumbent. Bolsonaro is waging an all-out campaign to shore up the crucial evangelical vote that involves keyboard crusaders and the first lady ahead of Oct. 2 elections.
Influential politicians and evangelical pastors are warning their followers, on Facebook and in pulpits, that da Silva would close Christian churches — which he vehemently denies. Users are liking, sharing and commenting in what appears a concerted tactic to distance evangelicals from da Silva, according to Marie Santini, the coordinator of NetLab, a research group at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro that monitors social media and has specifically focused on evangelicals.
“This discourse that the election will be a religious war is theirs,” Santini said. “They want to make this election a religious war.” ___
This is the first installment in The Associated Press’ two-part package about the intersection of politics and religion in Brazil.
Self-declared evangelicals make up almost a third of Brazil’s population, more than double two decades ago, according to demographer José Eustáquio Diniz Alves, a former researcher for 17 years at the national school of statistical sciences. He projects they will approach 40% by 2032, surpassing Catholics.
They helped carry Bolsonaro to power in 2018, and he proceeded to tap members of their churches for important ministries and for a Supreme Court justice nomination. But in this electoral cycle, Bolsonaro initially found more difficulty winning their favor.