Most Peruvians are properly aghast. Null and blank votes outnumbered the combined tally for first-round frontrunner Pedro Castillo, a self-styled Marxist with a 77-page agenda of socialist dirigisme, and his right-wing foil Keiko Fujimori, best known for her plan to pardon her father, a former dictator jailed for human rights violations. And yet for Peru’s emerging ultraconservative Christians, this election is an answered prayer: They win either way.
Whatever their ideological differences, Castillo and Fujimori converge on an agenda — including opposition to gay marriage, gender-based politics, and abortion — dear to the evangelicals whose faith and politics are increasingly intertwined, at home and in the public square. Latin American politicians from right and left ignore this restive cohort’s growing clout and assertiveness at their peril. At least a fifth of Latin Americans and as many as four of ten Central Americans identify as evangelical Protestants, with fundamentalist Pentecostal believers leading the way to the pews.
The rise of family-forward conservatives has made electoral democracy more diverse and vastly more complicated, turning almost every political campaign into a moralist minefield. Throw in Latin America’s hyper-fragmented party system — Peru had 18 presidential candidates, Brazil has 33 registered parties — and the predominance of two-round elections, and any evangelizer with a rabble can have a crack at the palace. Yet in the intensifying quest for evangelical votes, pandering politicians may embrace solutions that sharpen social divisions and come at heavy fiscal cost.
If anything, the pandemic’s outsized toll has boosted the political stakes in the region, where despair has corroded democratic institutions and encouraged populist extravagance (Castillo calls for canceling all Peruvian debt and nationalizing all mining and energy holdings), even as it has fed magical thinking. “Chloroquine, chloroquine…I know you can cure me in the name of Jesus Christ,” one Brazilian congregation chanted in mid-pandemic last year.
Today it’s common to conflate religiosity with hidebound right-wing politics. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro counts evangelical preachers as his confidants and their flocks among his strongest supporters. He prefaced his 2018 campaign by flaunting his conversion to evangelical Protestantism — he was baptized in the River Jordan by a Brazilian pastor in 2016, albeit without renouncing Catholicism — and cementing his brand with encomiums fine-tuned to evangelical ears. Thrust into office after the ouster of the socialist Evo Morales in 2019, Bolivia’s Jeanine Anez marched into the presidential palace in La Paz brandishing a Bible. In Costa Rica, evangelical singer Fabrício Alvarado came from nowhere to win the first round of Costa Rica’s 2018 presidential race. He lost the runoff, but his Pentecostalist party captured 14 legislative seats, up from 4 in 2014.
Perhaps even more noteworthy, however, are the left-wing candidates who have bent the knee. For all their rebel brio, old-time lefties were cultural traditionalists who often shared the evangelicals’ boilerplate notions of family values, matrimony and pater familias. “Latin America’s hard left was filled with social conservatives, with received ideas about sexuality and gender,” said Amherst College political scientist Javier Corrales. “We like macho men, guerrillas and blue-collar guys.” That alpha male politics united many leaders of the leftist Pink Tide, from Ecuador’s Rafael Correa to Venezuela’s Bolivarian commander Hugo Chavez, who came to power in Latin America during the 2000s.
But a younger generation of social liberals embraces ethnic diversity, feminism and rainbow politics — an agenda that has put the left on a collision course with emergent conservative voters, who tend to see house and home under siege by secularists and nonbelievers. “It’s hard to campaign on a socially liberal agenda and still attract evangelicals,” Amy Erica Smith, a scholar of Latin American religion at Iowa State University, told me. “I haven’t found many progressive evangelicals.”
So how do contemporary left-wingers appeal to this crucial swing vote without losing their souls? If dogma and a strict reading of scripture prevail in the U.S. Bible Belt, pragmatism is the gospel in Latin America’s underserved communities, whose street-front churches double as safe houses amid turmoil. In the mistreated favelas of Rio de Janeiro, for instance, any given day can entail striking bargains with unsavory characters, looking the other way or sharing the streets with drug gangs, cops and vigilante “militias,” each of which has its honor codes and red lines.
That means ambitious politicians from a plenitude of parties must woo the religious vote without sacrificing their secular agendas, even as congregants parse the campaign cant for solutions among false promises.
The pandemic has made this political challenge much harder. In Peru, political dysfunction on top of the mismanaged health emergency unseated two presidents in a single week, demoralized the legislature and sabotaged prospects of a salutary post-pandemic rebound. “In a state that has proved incapable of delivering results with a paltry vaccine rate and where GDP growth hasn’t hit peoples’ wallets, the scope of talking about anything but bread and butter issues is almost nil,” said Nicolas Saldias of the Economist Intelligence Unit. At the same time, the economic havoc wrought by the pandemic is outrunning the already limited ability of politicians to respond with more assistance.
If there are any rules for such political engagement, ersatz piety won’t cut it, not least for the political left. “The left is preoccupied with how to attract evangelicals,” sociologist Edin Sued Abumanssur, who studies religion at Sao Paulo’s Pontifical Catholic University, told me. “That’s a false start. Politicians don’t need to Christianize. They need to come up with good policies and a credible political plan to carry them through.”
For proselytizing politicians, evangelical Christians are not just a partisan catch but a cautionary tale. Offer them a credible path to health, work and a better livelihood, and the polls may giveth. But pander to their beliefs in hope of ballots and answer rightful calls for a more robust social pact with profligate lullabies? That may call for truly divine intervention.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”