If US Democratic Socialists Want a Religious Left Revival, We Should Look to Brazil

The key to Lula’s success with religious voters is offering them respect without pandering to them. Lula artfully refrains from instrumentalizing religion and refuses to be instrumentalized by it.

The Vatican's secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and Brazil's president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at the Vatican, November 13, 2008. (Maurix /Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

On New Year’s Day, the Workers’ Party’s (PT) Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took his third presidential oath of office, capping a two-year campaign and “phoenix-like” rise from a jail cell to Brazil’s Palácio da Alvorada. He did so in the face of a largely unregulated $19 billion spending spree and massive disinformation campaign by the far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. Lula’s victory, though slim, unseated a Brazilian incumbent for the first time since the country’s 1985 democratic transition.

Lula’s win was decided in large part by religious voters. Brazil is 80 percent Catholic or Evangelical, and 59 percent of Brazilians said religion played an important part in their voting during the last election. Evangelicals have been a growing part of the electorate since the mid-2000s and maintained ties with Lula’s last administration, even administering federal assistance programs in cities like São Paulo. But those ties were tenuous: in 2018, Bolsonaro took 70 percent of the Evangelical vote while splitting the Catholic vote with Syrian Orthodox candidate Fernando Haddad.

This election, Lula fought to regain religious support, and his efforts paid off. He went into the second round of voting gaining ground among Evangelicals, with whom Bolsonaro previously led 66 to 28 percent. He reduced Bolsonaro’s 2018 margins in working-class areas such as Rio de Janeiro’s vote-rich Evangelical urban periphery, sometimes by as much as 10 percent. This despite last-minute controversies over abortion and Evangelicals’ role in transnational right-wing extremism leading to atrocities like the January 8 sacking of all three branches of government.

How did Lula regain ground among religious voters? He made up a little by assuaging Evangelical concerns on religious liberty and focusing on public health and the environment. But he dominated with a 55 to 39 percent lead among Catholics. His attention to the political potential of Brazilian Catholics goes back to the 1980s, when some bishops supported Lula during the metalworker strikes that catapulted him to national prominence. Trade unions and socially minded Catholics have always formed the PT’s mass party base.

Paradoxically, the key to Lula’s success among Catholics, especially the bishops, stems from the perception that he separates partisan politics and religion while finding common ground on pressing economic and social issues. For Catholics in the heat of a divisive election, this was a winning approach.

The National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, which maintained its traditional stance of not endorsing candidates and discussing broad issues, used an October 11 letter to condemn linking spiritual practices as such with partisan political agendas. Bolsonaro’s supporters, on the other hand, used the weeks between the first and second rounds to interrupt a socially focused sermon at one of Brazilian Catholicism’s most sacred spaces, the Aparecida Shrine. They also alleged that the red vestments of one of Brazil’s well-known center-right cardinals, São Paulo’s Odilo Scherer, meant that he was a communist.

Meanwhile Lula, whose social policies received the bishops’ support in his 2002 election, was the first president to ever attend a bishops’ conference meeting. This year, he attended to this legacy and received a blessing from progressive Franciscan friars to counter fake news that he had made a pact with the devil. But he did so at the PT’s headquarters, where he also took the time to discuss the racial justice and educational initiatives that he and black friar David Santos had championed. With Lula’s support, his vice president Geraldo Alckmin has reached out to a Catholic cardinal and has plans to meet monthly with various religious groups to keep a dialogue channel open to the center right.

In short, Lula respects religion without instrumentalizing or being instrumentalized by it.

Such alliances have come with serious challenges, especially on sexual and reproductive issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Brazil’s most famous black bishop, José Maria Pires, closely associated with liberation theology, threatened to vote for neoliberal Fernando Henrique Cardoso over Lula in 1994 because of the PT’s alleged support for decriminalizing abortion and legalizing gay marriage (not reflected in the final 1994 platform). In the first round of this election, in a tight race to win over religious voters, Lula walked back April comments that Brazil should treat abortion as a public health issue. This kind of compromise is deeply troubling to US socialists, where support for abortion rights is strong and only getting stronger as courts and conservative legislatures roll back long-standing abortion protections. What makes sense in one context does not necessarily translate to another.

Like other Latin American socialists, Lula has kept a sizeable religious vote by tabling — though not conceding — issues like abortion in a country where some polls show around 70 percent of the country opposing legalization. The constraints are severe, but society changes quickly. Since Pires’s 1994 threat, the Brazilian Supreme Court has legalized gay marriage and deemed homophobia a crime under the country’s anti-racism statute. Center-right cardinals like Scherer have openly discussed allowing contraception in health crises. Elsewhere, Argentina’s center-left Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner opposed abortion in both terms as president, finally supporting Argentina’s first legalization attempt as a deputy in 2018.

A similar change could happen in Brazil. Just this month, Scherer argued that it is “unbalanced” for the clergy to focus on “custom issues” like abortion to the exclusion of economics and employment. But even if a massive change in sociocultural stances does not happen immediately, secular democratic socialists can be accepting of religious constituents without abandoning their own principles.

Since the beginning of the Trump administration, some democratic socialists in the United States have called for a revival of the religious left, kicking off debates about whether and how to engage with religious communities. While there are pronounced differences between the two countries, Lula’s victory in Brazil is instructive. Democratic socialists can work together with religious groups where possible to advance substantive equality and disagree when necessary.

When relating to religious allies or even colleagues, from New York to Rio de Janeiro, we might heed the words of Paulo Freire, often cited by Lula himself: embrace “a peaceful coexistence with those who are different . . . to wage a better fight against the adversary.”