CURITIBA, Brazil — With their hands raised, hundreds of Pentecostal churchgoers worshipped Sunday night in Brazil, seeking divine blessings for themselves and for a nation electing its next president. “Out! Out! Out” they shouted in unison, chasing invisible demons from this 2,000-seat megachurch in Curitiba.
At the same moment, pollsters were revealing that Brazil had delivered a stunning rebuke to the Pentecostal presidential candidate Marina Silva, who failed to advance to a second-round runoff just weeks after being projected to win it all. She placed third behind President Dilma Rousseff, who is seeking another four-year term, and center-right challenger Aecio Neves. Both identify as Roman Catholics.
Silva’s loss might appear to have been a major defeat for the Lord’s Army, but that was less conclusive inside churches Sunday as many evangelicals said they had increasingly questioned the candidate’s stances on social issues and her ability to represent church interests. Silva backpedaled on support for same-sex marriage amid pressure from evangelicals, a flip-flip that raised distrust among both conservative evangelicals and young liberal voters.
“She says she’s an evangelical, but she’s on one side of the wall and then the other,” says Alessandre Freitas, a head pastor of the largest branch of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in the state of Paraná, his voice still hoarse from the two-hour service. “What we want is someone who can open doors for the church. I think with Dilma it will be better.”
Brazil’s election was expected to herald the political arrival of a fast-growing “religious right.” Evangelicals today account for nearly a quarter of Brazil’s population, five times what it was several decades ago. But skepticism toward Silva and a failure of evangelicals to rally behind a single candidate illustrates that this still-fragmented group has yet to turn its growing clout into a unified political force.
Silva could still play an influential role in the coming weeks, as her endorsement might tip the scale when Rousseff and Neves go head-to-head Oct. 26. But in analyzing what happened on Sunday, it’s also evident that Silva’s own evangelical community will remain an untamed and unpredictable voting bloc.
“The evangelical electorate remains fragmented,” says Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies focused on Latin America at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I don't think [Silva’s] now in a position to deliver the evangelical vote to one candidate or the other.”
Silva has described a miraculous healing in her youth as the impetus for converting to this charismatic style evangelical Christianity that invokes the power of God to cure the sick and chase away demons. In August when her party’s initial presidential candidate was killed in a plane crash, Silva called it "divine providence” that she was not also on the plane.
But support from evangelicals was never a given. One of Brazil’s largest and wealthiest evangelical groups is the Universal Church, led by billionaire Edir Macedo, who is personally close to Rousseff; the two stood shoulder-to-shoulder in July during the inauguration of a $300 million mega-church in Sao Paulo, and Rousseff supported Macedo’s son’s bid for governor of Rio de Janeiro (which made it to a second-round runoff).
Silva, a member of the Assembly of God church, could not even garner full-throated support from her own denomination’s leader, Silas Malafaia, who said he would vote for a fringe conservative candidate in the first round and Silva only in the second round — a chance that will now never come.
“In a way,” says Prof. Chesnut, “yesterday's election was also a contest between the country's two Pentecostal titans. Macedo won by TKO.”
The Universal Church has recently begun building another 5,000-seat mega-church here in Curitiba at a cost of $122 million. During the service Sunday, the congregation stood with its hands outstretched as the pastor promised blessings over the hum of a piano synthesizer and beneath a ceiling emblazoned with a glowing neon cross.
To be sure, many evangelicals did see Silva as God’s anointed. "Marina speaks with God, the others don't," said 57-year-old churchgoer Fatima Mendes. Rousseff and Neves both identity as a Roman Catholics, which make up about 65 percent of the population.
But standing beside Mendes at the Universal Church, her son said he was concerned by Silva’s waffling on social issues and what that signaled. "[Silva] doesn't give me faith,” said the 19-year-old. “I can't trust in her.”
Despite such splintered opinions, Brazil’s evangelical voting bloc is showing increasing clout in local politics. The Universal Church here in Curitiba rallied behind three church leaders running for congressional seats, and one was elected to state senate.
“Evangelicals may have enough clout to determine the outcome of elections at a local level, or in legislative positions,” says Rodrigo de Sousa, a professor of religion at Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie in Rio de Janeiro. “But whether they will ever be able to produce a successful presidential candidate is yet to be seen.”
Stephen Kurczy, a Brazil correspondent, has reported from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the jungles of the Amazon. Somewhere along the way he became addicted to açaí, a purple slushy made from the powerfruit.