Christian Right Group on an Anti-LGBTQ Crusade in Brazil

Brazil is a country of contradictions. It can produce both the Brazilian Carnival and house right-wing Christian empires.

Snapshot from the Brazilian Carnival. DC Shorts Film Festival / flickr

If you’re looking for a high-level connection in the Brazilian government, whether you’re an American evangelical or Israel’s foreign minister, Filipe Coelho, head of the new Brazilian Center for Law and Justice (BCLJ), can help.

BCLJ is an offshoot of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian right legal organization founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. Intended to counter the undermining of “family values” by the American Civil Liberties Union, its credits include creating the federal Defense of Marriage Act banning same-sex marriage, defending anti-choice activists for harassing women at reproductive health clinics, and otherwise working to inscribe a conservative Christian worldview into law in the United States and in countries abroad.

The spark for opening a Brazil office came during the ACLJ’s campaign for the release of Iranian Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was jailed and condemned to death in Iran for preaching Jesus’ gospel. In the struggle for his release, ACLJ identified the importance of the Brazilian government’s support, as one of a few countries to maintain diplomatic relations with Iran, and asked Coelho—a friend of the ACLJ leadership from his time studying in the U.S.—for a connection to the Brazilian vice president.

“Forty-eight hours later, Jordan [Sekulow, ACLJ executive director] and Anna [his wife] were in a meeting with him,” Coelho recounts. “From this, they saw how strong evangelical power is within Brazilian politics. They were ‘enchanted’ with Brazilians, because of the favor we did. So they decided to help Brazilian people by opening a Brazilian branch of ACLJ.”

Recently, Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry requested Coelho’s help in connecting with President Dilma Rousseff. “The Foreign Affairs Ministry of Israel called the president’s office three times to confirm the meeting and was told there was nothing set in the agenda for them,” Coelho recalls. “When I called there to check on that, I was told that the meeting was set for me, that I was the one taking the Foreign Affairs Minister of Israel to the presence of the Brazilian vice president. Then the Israelis were also surprised with our influence.”

Coelho continues: “I never thought that I’d be with the Brazilian vice president, but it’s all God’s plans for us. I’m very thankful to God for all this.”

When I interviewed Coelho in August 2012, the nascent enterprise was awaiting legal registration. The funds to navigate this process, pay Coelho’s salary, and support BCLJ’s operations arrive in monthly installments from the ACLJ in the U.S.—at least until BCLJ begins fundraising in Brazil. Coelho is launching the ACLJ’s Brazilian branch in a modest building in a central neighborhood in Goiânia, the capital of the Brazilian state of Goiás. For Coelho, the goal of the BCLJ is simple: to offer legal services to low-income Christians and to defend “religious freedom, human rights, and life.”

Sowing the Seeds From the U.S. to Brazil

ACLJ already has two offices in Europe, one in Kenya, and another in Zimbabwe. According to Political Research Associates’ 2012 report Colonizing African Values, the center intervened in the African countries’ constitution-making processes, fighting the inclusion of a narrow health exception to the existing ban on abortion and supporting the continued criminalization of homosexuality.

With at least 30 million evangelicals in Brazil—the largest predominantly Christian country on the globe after the United States.—evangelical representation in politics is growing and institutionalizing, making the country a strategic location for ACLJ expansion. In its short existence, it is clear that the BCLJ is using its parent organization’s tactics to win influence: wooing government officials and facilitating access to them, building alliances with key evangelical powerbrokers, and hiring local staff to hide “an American-based agenda behind (local) faces, giving the Christian Right room to attack gender justice and LGBTQ rights as a neocolonial enterprise imposed” on the country, while obstructing critiques of its own activities.

However, battles for political space and power taking place within the Brazilian Christian community may determine BCLJ’s fortunes—and the ACLJ may face difficulty impressing Brazilian evangelicals who enjoy access to more resources than those in other countries. Brazil is by some measures the eighth-largest economic power in the world, with more than 120 years of republican history and nearly two centuries of independence. It exerts influence over other countries in politics and economics, culture and technology. Brazil also exports religious ideology to other countries in the region, such as Argentina and Ecuador—even the U.S. and Mexico—and to Portuguese-language countries including Angola, Mozambique, and Portugal.

Where institutional ties across the continents are thus far weak, one-on-one relationships wield enormous importance. As its first director for Brazil, the ACLJ chose a man from one of Brazil’s most prominent evangelical families, measured in terms of theological, business, and political influence. Filipe Coelho is one of four children of Rev. Silmar Coelho, a Methodist minister who founded a local church with one of his sons. Filipe and his family are Pentecostals in the rapidly growing Assemblies of God church. Most of Filipe’s uncles and aunts preach or otherwise serve evangelical churches; his younger brother, Lucas Coelho, studied at religious institutions in the U.S. and has been offered a position in a Virginia church.

Coelho claims to not have been engaged in politics until ACLJ asked him to be its director of operations in Brazil, but now considers it his calling: “I was a preacher some time ago, but I realized that my work with ACLJ is what I love doing. This is my ministry.” Coelho spent almost half of his life in the United States, where he graduated with a  degree in business and economics from King College, which is affiliated with both the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. During this time, the Coelhos and the Sekulows, the father-son team leading the ACLJ, became family friends. Filipe said that it is common for his father, Pastor Silmar Coelho, to spend two or three weeks visiting the U.S. to preach to Brazilians in one or more churches a day, in different cities and states.

A close friend of both families is Rev. Silas Malafaia, who runs the Victory in Christ Assemblies of God church in Rio de Janiero, which claims almost 20,000 members. In November 2012, Victory in Christ invited Jay Sekulow, ACLJ chief counsel, to participate in a religious leaders’ school program. Sekulow is regularly invited for prominent speaking engagements in Brazil, including the 2011 meeting of the Interdenominational Council of Evangelical Ministers in Brazil (CIMEB), where Rev. Malafaia is vice president. (While reported back problems kept him away, Sekulow continues to receive invitations.) Last year, ACLJ Executive Director Jordan Sekulow appeared on Rev. Malafaia’s Gospel Truth show to ask Brazilians to “tweet for Youcef,” in support of the release of Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani. ACLJ reported the total number of people tweeting reached more than 3 million, up from 1.1 million.

Other Coelho family friends the ACLJ relies on include Rev. Everaldo Dias da Silva, vice president of the Social Christian Party and one of the founders of the Evangelical caucus at the Parliament. His son, Filipe Pereira, was, at 22, the youngest federal deputy ever elected in Brazil, and Coelho revealed that Rev. Dias is being tapped by the CIMEB to run for president in 2014.

Defending “Religious Liberty”

If you know that Brazil is home to the largest gay pride parade in the world, you may be surprised that LGBTQ rights are restricted and abortion remains illegal with a few exceptions. For 11 years, the LGBTQ movement has unsuccessfully promoted an anti-homophobia bill, which would make homophobia or discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity an aggravating factor in hate crimes and speech. LGBTQ advocates are also filing lawsuits against pastors who make homophobic comments and even calls for violence on the air. For instance, Rev. Malafaia, after the 2011 pride parade in Sao Paulo, called on listeners “to beat [literally ‘stick’] down those gay activists.”

Evangelicals perceive this as a threat to their “religious liberty” to keep preaching on national television that homosexuality is an abomination in the eyes of God, and that the homosexual movement is implementing a plan to transform the whole country into Sodom and Gomorrah.

In Brazil, many pastors and televangelists are, like ACLJ founder Pat Robertson, owners of communications empires that include publishers, producers, record labels, radio and television channels, and elaborate websites. Evangelical programs, especially those on TV, follow a U.S. style of televangelism and it is not unusual to see U.S. evangelical leaders on Brazilian shows promoting books and DVDs, encouraging people to join the church, or warning of some “new threat” to the family and tradition, or to religious freedom in the country or around the world.

And the Brazilian audience responds. When Rev. Malafaia asked his audience in 2009 to vote against the anti-homophobia bill in a poll posted on the Senate’s web page, there were half a million “no” clicks in less than a week. The dynamism of Brazil’s growing evangelical community can also be seen in their donations. In April 2011, Rev. Malafaia asked his TV audience for about $50,000 toward a debt of about $750,000 (1.5 million Brazilian reais) to broadcast his show all over the country and abroad. He got it. Later, he told Piaui Magazine, “People in Brazil think all evangelicals are poor and stupid. Evangelicals are donating BRL 100,000, people don’t have a clue of what’s going on within the evangelical world.”

Through all the competition among different denominations—from charismatic Roman Catholics to the most “fast-miracle drive-through” neo-Pentecostal—you hear a common message: the defense of life, traditional values, freedom of expression, and religious freedom. Coelho joins other conservative evangelicals in seeing a threat to these areas. While democracy is not yet being menaced, he says, the anti-homophobia bill “may” move in that direction by threatening freedom of expression.

“Let’s say I hire someone to work in my house as a nanny or a maid, and let’s suppose I find out she’s homosexual, and she’s taking care of my baby girl all day. So I think I have the right to decide who to have inside my home. Let’s say I find out she’s homosexual, and I tell her I don’t want her to work within my family anymore. I can be arrested because of that. So there’s no more freedom of expression; in your own home you have to be careful,” he said.

Coelho believes this legislation reflects the strong political influence from the LGBTQ movement in the United States on Brazilian strategy. While in the U.S., he heard a lecture about how homosexuals are seeking to become the new Blacks in society, with similar legal protections. He explained, “homosexuals are trying to treat homosexuality as if it were a race, while it is really an attitude, a behavior.” Coelho believes Brazilian activists witnessed the LGBTQ rights movement in America and “imported” its tactics to Brazil—an ironic critique given BCLJ’s own outside origins.

Indeed, alleging attacks on “religious freedom” or “religious liberty” is a long-time popular Christian right argument in the U.S., particularly used in the present day in opposing provisions of the new federal health-care law. Given the close relationship between Rev. Malafaia and ACLJ chief counsel Jay Sekulow, it’s unsurprising that their speeches and writing display similar arguments in defense of “freedom of expression and religious freedom.” Other evidence of U.S. influence includes Rev. Malafaia’s publisher releasing a translation of The Agenda: The Homosexual Plan to Change America, by Louis P. Sheldon, a U.S. Presbyterian pastor, chair of the Traditional Values Coalition, and writer on social issues including religious liberty. The book was distributed free to all members of federal parliament elected in 2010.

Evangelicals in the Political World

The number of evangelicals in Brazil is growing fast. While 90 percent of the country identified as Roman Catholic in 1980, 21 percent now identifies as Protestant. Eighty percent of Protestants report being either Pentecostal or charismatic—evangelicals who believe that you can receive spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues, prophesying, or faith healing—according to a 2006 survey by Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Many Brazilians simply refer to all Protestants as evangelicals, given their large numbers.

As with other Latin American evangelicals, many in Brazil are left-leaning, particularly but not exclusively on economic issues. A 2011 Pew study found that 51 percent of evangelical leaders in Latin and Central America believed that homosexuals should be accepted by society, compared to 23 percent in Europe and 9 percent in North America. Yet it seems apparent that social conservatives wield disproportionate political power.

In the Brazilian National Congress, though the evangelical caucus—made up of mostly pastors, bishops, or self-nominated “apostles” from a range of denominations—is a minority group, it wields greater influence through an alliance with landowners, entrepreneurs, and other conservative groups. Together, they make up a majority that is set, especially over the last decade, on blocking progressive legislation.

In 2011, Rev. Malafaia mobilized thousands to march through the streets of Brasilia, the national capital, to block a bill that would have extended constitutional protections for individual rights and freedoms to cover sexual orientation. Marriage is explicitly only between a man and a woman, which also means a ban on adoption by same-sex couples, though same-sex civil unions and adoption by single women are protected. Once opposed to civil unions, conservatives now claim they form the basis of Brazil’s legal culture, precluding egalitarian marriage.

Professor Maria das Dores Campos Machado of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, who researches religion and politics in Brazil, explains that evangelicals increased focus on using politics and legal battles to take back social arenas—dovetailing with the Brazilian Center for Law and Justice’s agenda. “When you have problems at home or in your personal life you look for a judge or lawyer … but no longer a priest. More and more, even the moral regulators within communities are judges rather than priests or pastors,” she said. “It’s not merely pragmatism. It’s a search for an institutional space for the church in modern society.”

Evangelicals provided key support for the rise of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his center-left Workers’ Party (WP) to the presidency in 2002. In 2010, WP candidate (and Brazil’s current president) Dilma Rousseff was forced to retract statements calling the criminalization of abortion “absurd,” when evangelical leaders, including Rev. Malafaia, brought concerns about abortion and same-sex marriage into the campaign. WP backed off decriminalization in the party platform as “a mistake.” Evangelicals are credited for Rousseff’s eventual victory, demonstrating the price of their vital support. In 2011, Rev. Malafaia and other evangelicals used their political power to force Rousseff to remove a curriculum promoting LGBTQ understanding from public schools.

Rev. Malafaia’s stated goal in the 2012 election cycle was to “make one Assembly of God’s alderman in every city of the country,” which would total about 5,600. An ambitious goal, but one that provides a strategy to empower the Assembly of God and the evangelical community as a whole—and to build, region by region, the base for an evangelical candidate in national elections. Just how many pastors ran for local office is impossible to track (though one journalist tried, reaching 5,000), since some churches no longer allow their clergy to register as “pastors” for fear of a political scandal involving their church’s name.

Another example of evangelical influence on campaigns comes from Rio de Janeiro, the second largest city in Brazil, where the mayor who (successfully) sought re-election with the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB)—a center-right party that is a coalition partner with the ruling Workers’ Party—counted on the support of former President Lula and President Rousseff, but also allied with Rev. Malafaia to win evangelical votes against a leftist candidate. A third candidate had a prominent ally “gay-bait” the mayor to undermine his conservative Christian support.

In São Paulo, a Roman Catholic charismatic mayoral candidate with the right-wing Brazilian Republican Party, Celso Russomanno, shot to first place in the polls after a scandal tainted the Workers’ Party candidate. It is remarkable that Russomanno became a frontrunner, even if only temporarily, in a city known as one of the most gay-friendly in the world, where the largest LGBTQ Pride Parade takes place every year.

Brazil is a country of contradictions. It can produce the Brazilian Carnival and house right-wing Christian empires such as Victory in Christ. This country, as the poets have said, isn’t for beginners. Whoever wants to navigate its wonderful byways must tread carefully. If BCLJ pursues a legal and diplomatic focus through one-on-one networking, it may someday find a niche for itself among the powerbrokers. But it is organizing in a competitive environment, one in which evangelicals have already made a vigorous bid for political power and have found ways to generate huge cash resources. So BCLJ’s path to power is far from clear.