Lula challenges Bolsonaro's grip on Brazil evangelical vote

FILE PHOTO: Former Brazilian President and presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva holds a rally during the presidential campaign in Curitiba

By Jimin Kang

RECIFE, Brazil (Reuters) - When Ariel Nery left the pews of her conservative evangelical megachurch for the floor cushions and hammocks of the progressive Igreja Mangue church four years ago, the backlash from her family often left her in tears on Sunday nights.

For the same reason, the 25-year-old is avoiding a chat with her parents, stalwart supporters of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, about her plans to vote on Sunday for his leftist rival, ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

"I'm afraid because I don't want to ruin my relationship with my family," Nery said.

She is far from the only evangelical Christian in Brazil dancing around that delicate matter.

Although Bolsonaro and his allies have worked to transform Brazil's fast-growing evangelical churches into the bedrock of his political base, this year's campaign has shown the limits of that electoral strategy.

After Bolsonaro won the evangelical vote two-to-one in 2018, many more evangelicals — especially poorer women — are weighing a vote for Lula, whose legacy of generous social programs speaks powerfully to Brazil's less affluent evangelical voters.

The two were running neck-and-neck among evangelical voters until a few months ago, according to pollster Datafolha. Even as Bolsonaro has built up an advantage over Lula in the heat of the campaign, he struggled to break past 50% of the evangelical vote in recent Datafolha surveys.

Looking to bolster the 'shy' Lula vote among evangelicals, the Workers Party (PT) is partnering with leftist pastors like Paulo Marcelo Schallenberger, whose sermons aim to counter the party's "demonization" in evangelical circles.

"We receive huge numbers of people in the church who are going to vote for Lula, but don't admit it ... because if they do, they will be persecuted by their churches and cast away," Schallenberger told Reuters, reflecting on his own experience of being ostracized by colleagues for his politics.

Indeed, many of Brazil's evangelical churches and their high-profile pastors have embraced Bolsonaro, who defends traditional family structures, vows to fight abortion rights and casts rivals as communist "demons" in Cold War-style rhetoric.

"Bolsonaro indisputably defends the most conservative ideals along with the conservative evangelical Christian population," said Renato Antunes, 41, a traditional Baptist pastor and city councilman in the northeastern city of Recife. To show his opposition to abortion, he uses a plastic figurine of a life-size fetus as a paperweight for his office Bible.

Bolsonaro has peppered his public schedule with near daily events alongside religious leaders. His campaign has created a prominent role for his third wife, Michelle Bolsonaro, who wears her evangelical Christian faith proudly on the campaign trail.

"We will bring the presence of Lord Jesus to the government and declare that this nation belongs to the Lord," she told the March for Jesus in Rio de Janeiro last month. "The gates of Hell will not prevail over our family and the Brazilian church."

But for plenty of evangelical Christians, the fiery partisan rhetoric from conservative pastors is turning them away from traditional megachurches and their powerbroker pastors.

Political polarization is contributing to the roughly 20% of evangelical Brazilians who called themselves "unchurched" in the last census, according to Rodolfo Capler, a Baptist pastor and researcher at the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo.

As the evangelical population grows quickly – from 20% of Brazil in 2010 to roughly 30% now and on pace to outnumber the current Catholic majority in about a decade – it is also becoming more diverse, Capler said.

"Independent churches are opening a path for new generations. They are creating freer environments where people can express their thoughts, sexualities, and political beliefs," he said.

While congregants pray stoically on pews at Recife's Assembleia de Deus megachurch, the scene across the Capibaribe River at Igreja Mangue tells a different story: young adults share their life stories during worship as a barefoot pastor in a t-shirt sits among them.

"It's a refuge where I can be myself among so many different people, understanding that the kingdom of God is not about uniformity, but diversity in unity," said Nery.

(This story deletes extra words 'in Recife' in penultimate paragraph)

(Reporting by Jimin Kang; Editing by Brad Haynes and Alistair Bell)