Thoughts of a Brazilian in Norway on the 2018 elections

As it has become unfortunately common, the Brazilian election by no means reflected a debate based on arguments that were carefully considered with the common goal of reaching a fruitful outcome. Social media creates silos in which polarization is accentuated and any moderate viewpoint is shut down. It has been a shouting match, and #EleSim (i.e. yes him) has been the loudest.

I have loved ones who voted for the far-right president-elect Jair Bolsonaro. Whereas many of his supporters are indeed bigots, many are good people with the best intentions for the country’s future and who genuinely think they are doing the right thing. Someone recently told me they could not understand how anyone could vote for him. I said that as long as we refuse to acknowledge and understand what motivates these voters, we cannot stop the rise of these extremist views.

The threat of a de facto theocracy received substantially less attention than Bolsonaro’s controversial statements during the campaign

It seems to me that the people who voted for Bolsonaro did so motivated by either fear on the questions of public safety, nostalgia of the 1970s when Brazil was under a military dictatorship, rejection of the corrupt political status quo, or a combination of these. I believe these voters reasoning is seriously misguided, and that people are yearning for simple solutions to very complex problems. They see in Bolsonaro an anti-hero, who assures them that he knows the way.

The ideal of motherhood in Brazilian society is very strong, and the rise of religious values put in check alternative roles and values for women.

While the left has been fuming about Bolsonaro’s inflammatory speech against all ethnic or minority groups imaginable, this outrage only served to boost his media presence in the years preceding the election. This turned him from a laughing stock into a viable candidate with whom many identified. The amount of energy that has been spent in pointing out his bigotry cost us dearly. Instead of crying the obvious, much more effort should have been given of the shallowness of his proposals, for instance debating the feasibility and matters of implementation. In the meantime, very serious issues are (still) flying under the radar. What is not remarked is what worries me the most.

In my view, one of the most dangerous things going on in Brazil is the fact that private affairs are now at the forefront of the political agenda. Whether or not you believe in a supernatural power and participate in organized religious activity must be a private matter. It cannot orient public policy. The threat of a de facto theocracy received substantially less attention than Bolsonaro’s controversial statements during the campaign, and only now have such issues began to be discussed.

Apparently only the unborn life is worth protecting, while torture is acceptable if it serves key interests.

In Brazil, like in all of Latin America, the catholic church has strongly influenced the political agenda since colonial times. Just when it seemed like secular values had developed deeper roots, the abortion referendum in Argentina demonstrated the church’s power is alive and kicking. In Brazil, abortion is legally allowed in very few selected cases: when pregnancy is a result of rape, when it offers risks to the mother’s life and when the fetus has microencephaly. The latter was a recent addition to the list, derived from the Zika virus crisis, and approving this was a major struggle. In practice, legal abortion is not accessible to the majority of women, and expanding reproductive rights are still a faraway dream, as the case of Rebeca Mendes illustrate.

The number of Catholics has declined in recent decades, while evangelical Christians began to rise.  Together they account for almost 87% of the population. For a non-religious person, there are obvious overlaps in the agenda of Catholics and Evangelicals. Nonetheless, these groups have a long-standing animosity with one another. Up until now, the religious agenda prevented advances in progressive social debates, such as legal abortion, gay marriage, drug politics etc. However, religious groups have never been able to meaningfully promote their own conservative ideas. Bolsonaro managed to bridge the gap and appeal to both Catholics and Evangelicals, and even to other groups (including a few atheists) who believe that removing the left from power, in particular the worker’s party, was a top priority.

Faith has had an important role in Brazil for a long time. Nonetheless, when you live in a society in which appeals to faith are commonplace, the dangers of threatening the secular state take longer for people to notice.

The strategy of electing an evangelical president has to do with being in a position to nominate conservatives to the Supreme Federal Court, and it has been pointed long before this election. But very few took it seriously. He identifies as catholic, but appeals to the evangelical electorate because of a friendship with televangelists, and because of his evangelical wife. His hard-line discourse against crime fails to mention that many of the drug lords are Evangelicals, and use the religion as means to achieve social coherence in favelas. It also fails to highlight that the Christian doctrine prescribes forgiveness to anyone who regrets their sins. Apparently only the unborn life is worth protecting, while torture is acceptable if it serves key interests.

Bolsonaro mentioned the Bible in his very first speech as president-elect. His first public appearance after the election was to attend an evangelical service, in which he declared: “I am not the most qualified, but God qualifies those who are chosen”. My guess is that most people are concerned about his own admission of his lack of qualifications. That he is not qualified or prepared to be president should be self-evident. I am more concerned about the ostensive use of a faith argument to warrant legitimacy to his presidency.

Another worrisome effect of the influence of religion concerns the decline of critical thinking abilities. The very extent of polarization we can observe is an indication of this

One of the many reasons why I care so deeply about the dangerous influence of religion in the public space is that religious values reinforce a specific role for women in society. The ideal of motherhood in Brazilian society is very strong, and the rise of religious values put in check alternative roles and values for women. Another worrisome effect concerns the decline of critical thinking abilities. The very extent of polarization we can observe is an indication of this, and people cannot discuss a political topic without falling into false dichotomies. Skepticism is in very short supply, not only in its usual sense of doubting the existence of the supernatural, but also in the broader sense of suspending belief until more evidence is presented. At this point, I question what the country of the future will look like when people are denied a proper education, when religious indoctrination hammers fundamental critical thinking abilities out of the children of today.

What I am describing here is not new, and faith has had an important role in Brazil for a long time. Nonetheless, when you live in a society in which appeals to faith are commonplace, the dangers of threatening the secular state take longer for people to notice. Never have religious values been so prevalent in the Brazilian political agenda. It is still soon to know in any detail what repercussions are brought by the conservative turn in Brazilian politics, and the extent to which this will affect the country’s trajectory. Perhaps I should be angry, but mostly I am just deeply sad.

Foto: Revista Esquinas 1º Manifestação em defesa da Democracia contra Bolsonaro, 30 de outubro de 2018, by Mauricio Abbade, CC BY 2.0.

References:

Guest blogger Leticia Antunes Nogueira is a senior researcher at the Nordland Research Institute. She has a PhD in innovation economics from Aalborg University in Denmark. Her research focuses primarily on questions concerning technological change, innovation and firm behavior in dynamic environments.

 

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