Shortly after Jair Bolsonaro’s decisive victory in the Brazilian presidential election last week, the populist leader said he would follow through on his campaign promise to move Brazil’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Like Donald Trump, Mr. Bolsonaro—himself a Catholic but married to an evangelical Protestant pastor—owes his political success in large part to support from evangelical voters. As recently as the 1970s, Brazil was almost uniformly Catholic. But in one of the greatest religious shifts of modern times, the largest country in Latin America is today nearly as evangelical as the U.S.: 25% of Brazilians identify as evangelical Christians, compared with 26% of Americans, according to the Joshua Project. As in the U.S., many evangelical and Pentecostal Christians instinctively support Israel and endorse a law-and-order agenda at home.
At a time of increased anxiety for many Jews in Europe and North America, the rise of evangelical and Pentecostal Christian support for Judaism and Israel in much of the world is a heartening sign. Based on a literal approach to the Bible and a covenantal theology that attributes a continuing religious significance to the Jewish people and their state, these two rapidly spreading forms of Protestant Christianity tend to promote a climate of respect for individual Jews as well as support for Zionism. They view the continued existence of the Jewish people as a mark of God’s faithfulness and believe the Jewish people have a special place in God’s plan as recipients of his favor.
Improved relations with Israel are a hallmark of evangelical political influence. Guatemala, another historically Catholic country, is now about 40% Protestant. It opened an embassy in Jerusalem two days after the U.S. did. Although Latin American countries have typically been hostile to Israel since the 1967 war, that’s changing rapidly.
Benjamin Netanyahu was the first Israeli prime minister to visit Latin America when in 2017 he traveled to Argentina, Mexico and Colombia (which has a significant evangelical minority). Now Mr. Netanyahu is expected to travel to Brazil for Mr. Bolsonaro’s swearing-in. In addition to improved trade and diplomatic ties, he hopes evangelical-driven pro-Israel sentiment across the global South can reduce Israel’s isolation at the United Nations.
The rising political power of evangelical Christians has other observers on edge. Gays and lesbians fear evangelical social conservatism. Liberals worry that evangelicals prefer strong leaders who will challenge democratic norms. These concerns are real: Mr. Bolsonaro’s history of comments in favor of military dictatorship, torture and shoot-on-sight policing are profoundly unsettling. But his supporters are less worried about his potential excesses than about what feels like the catastrophic failure of the Brazilian state.
Brazil is in the grip of two crime waves. Virtually the entire political establishment has been implicated in Operation Car Wash, a multibillion-dollar bribery and money-laundering scandal centered on the state-owned oil company, and Odebrecht, a major Brazilian multinational. Meanwhile, violent gangs rule the slums in Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities. State services are also failing: Brazilians who depend on government health care, transportation, education and sanitation must endure corruption and resource shortages.
For many Brazilians, things also look ominous beyond their borders: El Salvador and Honduras endure runaway gang violence; Venezuela is a failed socialist dictatorship; and Colombia has been embroiled in civil war for decades. With both Brazil’s conventional right and left deeply tainted by corruption, many Brazilians no longer trust politicians. They sense a crisis of conscience and competence that threatens their social order—and hope a radical outsider can stave off chaos.
The Bolsonaro government is likely to overstep when it comes to the use of force and to fall short of solving the massive crisis of governance now shaking Brazil and the hemisphere. But this is only to be expected. What is needed in Brazil today is not so much policy changes as a moral awakening. Brazil needs more hardworking teachers and honest school principals, dedicated municipal workers, crusading public-health officials, and incorruptible judges. In short, it needs the kind of culture of personal responsibility and social reform that Protestant piety unleashed in 19th-century Britain.
The test for the world’s surging evangelical and Pentecostal movements is not whether, in the short term, the faithful back political candidates committed to liberal norms, but whether their moral influence can build a new kind of society over time. Without moral reform, no government will provide the stability and security that the people of Brazil and so many other countries across the global South are demanding.