By Maria José Rosado-Nunes
Brazil is seen as a country of diverse and profound faith. But though religion is an important reference point in the lives of the population, the extent of religious diversity in this sprawling country is not nearly so pervasive as belief itself.
Though globally, the image of Brazil is connected to African traditions and religions, looking at the 2000 census data, the Brazilian sociologist Flávio Pierucci found that Brazil is, in reality, a Christian country, indeed, perhaps the largest Christian country in the world. 73.8 percent of the population calls themselves Catholic, 15.4 percent, evangelical; a total of 89.2 percent of Christian people. A mere 0.3 percent of the population identified as adherents of the African religions Candomblé and Umbanda. Looking at these numbers Pierucci asks: Where is our proclaimed religious diversity? It is true that this strict identifications don’t take into consideration what we call “multiple belonging”, that is, the common Brazilian practice of those who call themselves Catholic, but go regularly to Candomblé cults or of any other religion: I go to the Mass on Sundays and visit my Mother of Saint in the yard on Fridays.
And yet the hegemony of Christianity has political ramifications, despite the codification of the separation of church and state under the 1891 Brazilian constitution. During the 2010 presidential campaign, religion was used to bolster conservative views, especially on sexuality and reproductive questions. Cultural flashpoints — including the right of gay men and lesbians to a legal union, and the legalization of abortion —became the focus of inflamed public discussions. This investment in dogmatic arguments during a political campaign was highly unusual for Brazil, even though the culture is permeated with religious values and the rate of religious observance is very high. In previous campaigns, religious symbols and doctrinal principles were not so directly raised.
But the use of religious dogma to fight political values shows the significant public role that religions, particularly the Catholic Church, still have in Brazilian society and in seeking to influence the political process. Those that believed in secularism, or at the very least the separation of religion and state, were forced to aggressively oppose religious intervention. The divisiveness points to a growing trend of anti-religiosity in the country. In each census, the number of people declaring themselves “without religion” grows most.
Juan Marco Vaggione, an Argentine sociologist, argues that “religious narratives are publicly articulated and become debatable material not only by secular groups but also by those who, being religious, do not agree with some aspects of the official doctrine.” Indeed, during the 2009 electoral campaign, one case became a cause célèbre. A nine-year-old girl, raped by her stepfather and made pregnant, sought a legal abortion. When her bishop attempted to prevent the termination of that pregnancy, the reactions and discussions in the media came not only from the secular sectors of civil society but also from church members, other Catholic Bishops, priests and Protestant pastors, offering evidence, as a result, of dissident ways of thinking internal to the churches.
After the elections of October 2010, evangelical organized groups in Congress had increased their presence from 43 to 71 members. The electoral campaign and the focus of religious groups on securing positions in Parliament, forces us to consider crucial questions surrounding the public role of religions in modern societies and secular states. Are these public interventions of the Catholic Church, and these protestant pastors elected to the Parliament, a violation of the democratic and constitutional principle of the separation church/state? Or, on the contrary, is this a demonstration, and a result, of the acceptance of democracy, one which allows religious groups and institutions to participate in the public debate regarding questions of interest to greater society?
The emerging public debate over religion’s role in Brazilian politics foretells a more diverse and complex religious landscape within Brazil’s society that promises to be exciting to see and to live.
Maria José Rosado-Nunes is a graduate professor of sociology of religion and feminist studies at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. She is currently a researcher at the National Researcher Center. This article is part of the series “Religion, Politics & the Public Space” in collaboration with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and its Global Experts project (www.theglobalexperts.org). It’s published in collaboration with Daily News Egypt. The views expressed in these articles are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nation Alliance of Civilizations or of the institutions to which the authors are affiliated.