Richard L. Wood’s essay in The Immanent Frame’s 2019 forum on “The religious left” highlights an important problem: Does the “deep secularity of contemporary life” run in tension with “hunger for spiritual meaning in both the West and much of the world?” This question summarizes fears that progressive politics and institutionalized religious sensibilities exclude one another. The former may even empty the latter of spiritual meaning. Even if social justice politics based in traditional theology and community practices is feasible, the work of creating separate progressive religious institutions to simultaneously nourish spirituality while politicking is not. Therefore, the effort may not be worth either progressives’ or socially minded religious leaders’ time.
These worries have merit. The “bare minimum” form of interfaith and ecumenical social solidarity based in self-critique alone can often lead to self-destruction of these religious identities rather than the embrace of the deepest values of one’s own religious tradition. A minimalist approach an even create unhelpful binaries between “bad” fundamentalism and a watered-down “good” secular religion, between Westernized and traditional religion. However, religiously committed activists of all faiths who are united around justice and equity seem worth our attention and support. For even traditional Catholic evangelist and Los Angeles bishop, Robert Barron, cites social justice as the place to start for re-evangelizing young US Catholics.
For a shining example of this effective combination, activists and scholars should look to Brazil. Religious leftists in Brazil—of all faiths, with Catholics most prominent among them—already lean on established institutions in combination with the popular culture and traditions of their country. They face an uphill battle to stave off growing religious intolerance, demographic decline, and waning political influence, but ongoing resonance in popular movements and cultures provides significant hope for a rebound.
Institutional and social movement leaders focused on social liberation with a view toward a coming Kingdom of God—“liberationist” Christians—espouse a religious liberty that does not merely bolster imperial interests and enflame religious tensions. They focus also on a common social good, and not merely the prerogatives of defined religious institutions. They neither water down their precepts nor alienate skeptics of institutional religion. In turn, noninstitutional actors, religious and nonreligious, draw inspiration and support not only from religious symbols, but religious institutions, expressing this inspiration in exciting new ways.
The institutional-popular balance mentioned above requires credibility, a trust socially liberationist Catholic, Protestant, and evangelical authorities in Brazil built up by passing through the authoritarian crucible of Brazil’s dictatorship (1984-1985). Overcoming difficulties in interreligious organizing, certain Catholic organizations and entire regions acted as safe transactional spaces, spaces often led by ecumenical and nonreligious social democratic and leftist leaders. These institutions played a key role in detailing military abuses, torture that caught the attention of Pope Paul VI. The United States’ CIA in 1970 noted that the Catholic Church was in certain regions “more visible than the state.” Sociologist and former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s essay “The Democracy Question” aptly described the Catholic Church as “a type of party of the People of God” for its role in reorganizing civil society and support for opposition parties. Liberationist church leaders also helped start the campaign for writing a new federal constitution in the early 1980s. Catholic and evangelical concepts played a key role in the drafting of the resulting 1988 Constitution guaranteeing robust economic and cultural rights while also opposing liberalization on reproductive and sexual issues.
Class-based liberation theology declined in the 1990s, but liberationists firmly embraced cultural affirmation of Afro and Indigenous Brazilians. Liberationists continued providing assistance with land struggles, racial justice, and popular education initiatives. Through the center-left Workers’ Party (PT) years (2003-2016), they continued and expanded their outreach to other faith groups on issues of common concern beyond a merely oppositional role as a defender of human rights and dignity. Despite allegations of anti-religious bias from conservative politicians in the last years of the PT’s rule, areas of collaboration included food security, anti-corruption, education, and race relations. (They have even shown limited openness to contraception in public health epidemics.) Some dioceses even participate today in sensitive federal anti-militia witness and victims’ protection programs.
That legacy has come under challenge. After democracy’s return, Pentecostal fundamentalism took firm root in the working-class and poor peripheries of Brazil’s largest cities. This fundamentalism rose especially in the two largest urban centers, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, a trend which worried Catholic worker priests in Sao Paulo as far back as 1964. This rise stems largely from Catholics and mainline Protestants failing to adapt to the needs associated with rapid urbanization, deindustrialization, and migration, which can isolate explicit tenets of the faith from their traditional and dynamic community interpretations.
In the early 2000s, this trend—along with weakening unions and the PT’s turn to top-down politics at the margins—led the PT to seek electoral alliances with fundamentalist Pentecostals and Prosperity Gospel evangelical parties such as the Universal Church’s Partido Republicano Brasileiro (PRB). This alliance allowed fundamentalist evangelicals to partially hamstring the center-left’s social agenda. These churches even took control of distributing some of the PT’s highly popular cash-transfer programs. Fundamentalist Pentecostalism’s rise has proven disastrous for Brazil’s African-rooted religions. The latter often draw on various African nations’ spiritual practices and certain Catholic rituals. Catholic officials rarely tolerated African-rooted religions, but the Catholic Church in the last decades, pushed by Black seminarians and priests like Frei David Raimundo dos Santos, had dedicated themselves to outreach in the name of “inculturation.” Since 2017, however, observers see distressing signs of a “holy war” against African-rooted houses of worship (terreiros) waged by the evangelical militias that control many political activities on Rio’s periphery. Most notably, massive support from Charismatic Catholics and Neopentecostals proved crucial in the election of Brazil’s current far-right president, Jair Messias Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro’s vision diverges sharply from what might be called a Brazilian Catholic “secular,” in which faith is open to collaboration with the nonreligious and to varied expressions depending on the need of each society. Bolsonaro supports a direct link between the modern state and fundamentalist religion, God and country, with his slogan, “Brazil above everything, God above all.” The slogan traces back to the most radical sectors of the aforementioned military regime. He has argued that “the state is Christian” and that religious minorities must “adapt to the position of the majority.” Catholic bishops’ support for religious and political minority communities have led Bolsonaro to spying on the Brazilian bishops and deriding socially minded Church leaders as “the rotten part of the Church“ and hyenas. More recently, he directly repudiated Pope Francis’s February 2020 document on the Catholic Church’s role in the Amazon with the famous quip “God is Brazilian.”
Beyond the headline-grabbing institutional clashes with Bolsonaro, smaller grassroots movements, popular movements, and cultural expressions of liberationist rhetoric give the most hope that liberationists can—with coordinated alliances—effectively serve poor and working-class Brazilians. A Catholic-funded advocacy organization dedicated to combatting violence in the Baixada, Forum Grita Baixada, continues to bring religious leaders together in gatherings to discuss “religious racism,” or religious discrimination based on deep-seated ethnic and racial stereotypes. Leaders of college-prep course movements that began in side rooms of Catholic churches now hold those same courses in terreiros like the Ilé Àsé Ògún Alàkòró terreiro in Magé, Rio de Janeiro.
A significant bloc of evangelicals diverges from the fundamentalist Pentecostalism described above. Benedita da Silva, Brazil’s first Black woman deputy, senator, and Rio state governor, has for decades invoked her evangelical faith and collaboration with liberationist Catholics in her social struggles and political career. She even drew the attention of Jesse Jackson, who wrote the English-edition preface to her biography. Baptist pastors such as Jardim Gramacho, RJ’s Waldimir de Souza, São Gonçalo’s Ronilso Pacheco, and Niteroi’s Henrique Viera continue efforts to “marry” evangelical faith and social awareness, a regional effort among prominent socially minded Latin American evangelicals since the 1974 First International Congress on World Evangelization (ICOWE) in Lausanne, Switzerland. Evangelical pastors help to rebuild terreiros that militias burnt down. Black Baptist pastors also lead the field of anti-racist education. Babalawo, racial justice advocate, and educator Ivanir dos Santos even won a 2019 religious liberty award from Trump’s State Department—ostensibly Bolsonaro’s geopolitical ally.
We can see popular liberationist principles and explicit language in Brazilian popular culture, language that creates a “micro” cosmopolitan religion rooted in Brazilian realities and customs. Unbeknownst to many, Brazil’s internationally recognized Milton de Nascimento put his song talent into composing a Mass dedicated to quilombos, or communities descended from African slaves. Following the traditional liturgical structure, he, along with a left-wing poet and socially minded bishop, connected slavery and fugitive communities to racial oppression and liberation in 1980s Brazil.
Other artists have also continued invoking explicit religious imagery in their social critiques. In “Lugarzinho (2018),” two of the nation’s leading artists joined together for a call for love and social justice. Pagode and samba star Zeca Pagodinho spoke of the need to “spread peace” and give children “milk to drink” so that they could realize their potential. Rapper Emicida’s protagonist followed on “how urgent this [social] communion is” continuing “God is the whole world when the world is one, in common, liberation theology [italics mine].” Describing how his struggles (presumably as a poor Black man in a country where police kill Blacks at genocidal rates) highlights the subject’s moral character, Emicida cites John 10:10, contrasting religious authorities to the one who brings life to everyone abundantly. The winner of Rio’s 2019 Carnaval samba contest, Mangueira School, this year extolled “our Jesus” “with a Black face, indigenous blood, and a woman’s body,” a Black favela youth crucified and torn through with bullets. The samba also condemns the “prophets of intolerance.” The competition carried on live national television provided space for a group of twenty interfaith leaders to denounce “hate,” “racism,” and “prejudice.”
This broad sentiment operates at the neighborhood level, as well. Monica Benicio, the widow of assassinated Black lesbian Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman Marielle Franco, credited a local Catholic Youth Pastoral’s program, where they met, with instilling in them values of “pardon, justice, friendship, renewal [and] sharing.” In turn, these organizations helped train and inspire a new generation of Brazilian Black leadership.
The expressions of basic religious concepts mentioned here suggest that explicit religious values hold sway not despite of, but in combination with, demands for social and economic equity. The initiatives described here represent the willingness of a historically powerful institution to engage in mutual learning and unite around public concern, not just private religious or familial prerogatives. If liberationist and socially minded religious authorities take the precepts of our various religions seriously, replicating this coalition should not be difficult. In my own tradition, economic and political justice stands at the heart of repentance (e.g., Luke 3:10-17 stands as an oft-overlooked verse on distributive equality and abuse of power). On the flip side, the interfaith and nonreligious left must learn to pursue a common life together while holding varieties of religious conviction, especially on sexual and reproductive issues. If those religious figures leaning left and nonreligious progressives put aside their deep-seated differences on divisive issues, the Brazilian case provides a path forward to fervently uniting against local and global injustices that cry out for redress.