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Moved by the Spirit to Govern

In Brazil and other traditionally Catholic Latin American nations, politics has become a fertile ground for evangelical Protestants.

June 07, 2004|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

BRASILIA, Brazil — Most of the books on Adelor Vieira's desk are what you'd expect for a congressman busy with the machinery of state: a copy of the civil code, a handy reference guide to laws on local governance. But tucked to one side, within easy reach, lies the book that, for Vieira, trumps all the others: the Bible.

Everything necessary for moral conduct is contained in the pages between Genesis and Revelation, Vieira believes. And as an evangelical Christian, he is determined to ensure that Brazil's statute books reflect the principles of the Good Book.

"I believe it's an obligation," he said. "You can't isolate church from society. The churches to which evangelicals belong have a mission, which is to promote the kingdom of God."

In countries throughout Latin America, evangelicals such as Vieira are stepping out from the shelter of their churches to enter the fractious world of secular politics. These Protestant Christians are increasingly speaking out, teaming up and getting elected in a region that remains overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.

Their influence extends from that of small-town mayors in the Brazilian interior to the governor of Mexico's Chiapas state. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, although a Catholic, meets regularly with an evangelical pastor to read the Bible and pray.

The sortie into politics follows years of growth among evangelical Christians, especially charismatic and neo-Pentecostal groups, in Latin America. In Guatemala, for example, up to 40% of the nation's 13.3 million people are evangelical Christians. In neighboring El Salvador, nearly a quarter of the 6.3 million people there describe themselves that way.

In Brazil, the region's largest country and an unshakable Catholic stronghold for centuries, census figures show 15% of the population to be evangelicals -- about 27 million people. Many are attracted by dynamic worship services and the emphasis on a personal relationship with God.

For many here, faith remains a private affair, their devotion playing out at church and at home. But others are heeding what they believe is a divine calling to shine the light of Christian truth on "works of darkness," which encompass perceived evils as varied as abortion and the corruption rampant in Brazilian politics.

"We cannot be silent when those things happen," said Walter Pinheiro, an evangelical Christian deputy in Brazil's Congress. "We have to bring light to and condemn those practices."

By "we," Pinheiro means an evangelical contingent in Brazil's lower house that has grown over the last few years and, last September, formed an official lobby in Congress, the Evangelical Parliamentary Front.

The group, whose goal is to ensure that public policy falls "in line with God's purposes, and according to his Word," boasts 58 deputies and three senators out of nearly 600 legislators. Ten years ago, fewer than half that many evangelicals occupied the glass offices along the corridors of power here in the Brazilian capital.

Much of the evangelical bloc's agenda would be recognizable to conservative Christian brethren in the United States. The group opposes any liberalization of Brazil's already-strict abortion laws. Gay marriage is anathema. So are legalizing drugs, handing out clean needles to addicts as a public-health measure and distributing condoms in schools.

One of the group's biggest victories in Congress last year was amending a bio-safety bill to outlaw the cloning of human embryos to harvest stem cells for research. On the local level, the evangelical governor of Rio de Janeiro state, Rosinha Matheus, has outraged scientists by authorizing public schools to teach creationism.

Yet to view the evangelical front as a simple analogue of the religious right in the United States would be off the mark.

Whereas most conservative U.S. Christians vote Republican, the Brazilian deputies belong to a motley, squabbling bunch of rival groups that span the ideological spectrum. Pinheiro is one of the more militant members of the left-wing ruling Workers' Party; Vieira declares allegiance to the center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party.

As a result, "you can point to things they've done and said which have been very different, which would make the American Christian right's hair stand on end -- policies regarding economics, policies regarding the attitude toward global capitalism," said Paul Freston, an expert on the political influence of evangelicals in Latin America and professor at Calvin College in Michigan.

Pinheiro is an ardent advocate of the welfare state, saying that Christian principles require the government to champion the poor, to take care of society's weakest. He wants a higher minimum wage, secure -- and generous -- pensions for workers and civil servants, and more money for public education and health. He leans toward radical socialist policies, while Vieira is more moderate.

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