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Politics and the priest

Brazil is seen as a country of diverse faith. But though religion is an important reference point, the extent of religious diversity in this sprawling country is not as pervasive as belief itself. Maria José Rosado-Nunes writes.

india Updated: May 29, 2011 23:18 IST

Brazil is seen as a country of diverse faith. But though religion is an important reference point, the extent of religious diversity in this sprawling country is not as pervasive as belief itself.

Globally, the image of Brazil is connected to African traditions and religions. While referring to the 2000 census data, the Brazilian sociologist Flávio Pierucci found that Brazil is a Christian country, perhaps the largest Christian country in the world.

Around 73.8% of the population calls themselves Catholic, 15.4% evangelical with Christians accounting for 89.2% of the population. A mere 0.3% were adherents of the African religions Candomblé and Umbanda. Pierucci asks: Where is our proclaimed religious diversity?

It is true that this data does not take into consideration what we call ‘multiple belonging’, that is the practice of calling oneself Catholic but going regularly to Candomblé cults; I attend Mass on Sundays and visit my Mother of Saint in the yard on Fridays.

Yet the hegemony of Christianity has political ramifications, despite 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 — the right of gay men and lesbians to a legal union and the legalisation 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.

In previous campaigns, religious symbols and doctrinal principles were not so directly raised.

But the use of religious dogma to influence the political process shows the significant public role that religion, particularly the Catholic Church, plays in Brazilian society. Those that believed in secularism, or 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 of dissident ways of thinking internal to the churches.

After the October 2010 polls, evangelical groups in Congress 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 the public role of religions in modern societies and secular States.

Are these public interventions of the Catholic Church and election of Protestant pastors a violation of the democratic principle of the separation of church and state?

Or 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 society at large?

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. The views expressed by the author are personal. This is part of the Religion and Public Space series in collaboration with the UN Alliance of Civilisations and its Global Experts project.)

First Published: May 29, 2011 23:15 IST