Religion, Political & Legal Structures

Brazil became a secular nation in 1891 when the Republican constitution declared the separation between the Catholic Church and the state. The 1988 constitution protects freedom of religion and criminalizes religious intolerance, which includes the publication and distribution of literature deemed to demonize a religious group. However, when the constitution was originally created, Afro‐Brazilian religions were considered “magic,” and denied protection by the constitution. While religious intolerance is low overall, the vast majority of cases target practitioners of these religions, particularly by Pentecostals who characterize them as “devil worship.”[1]

Although the constitutional separation of church and state diminished the institutional position of the Catholic Church in Brazilian politics, the Church has nonetheless played an important political role at various points in Brazilian history. During the 1930s, President Getulio Vargas restored some of the rights lost by the Church in 1891 in return for its support, and the Church hierarchy stood by the government in its efforts to stifle social activism. In the post‐World War II era, the Church took an oppositional stance against the government, in part due to independent funding for the Brazilian Catholic Church provided by European organizations. The Catholic Church remains independent and institutionally separate, but also takes a position on various social issues and—alongside prominent Pentecostal churches—shapes discourse around such topics as homosexuality, abortion, and access to birth control.[2] Still, while the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB) officially frowns on priests and members of religious orders running for office, many do, primarily at the local level.[3]

Evangelical churches, though quiescent during the military dictatorship, have become politically active since the return of democracy. Many church pastors personally run for office; others endorse specific candidates, preaching sermons in their support, distributing voter guides, and helping members with the mechanics of voting. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus, or IURD) has even established its own political party. While evangelical assembly members span the left‐right spectrum, they typically cohere on issues of religious freedom, political corruption, and opposition to abortion and gay marriage. These activities have enhanced their members’ political participation beyond mandatory voting, have better defined electoral policy debates, and have held politicians accountable. However, surveys indicate that while most Evangelicals reflect Brazilian norms on issues of religious freedom, church‐ state separation and democracy, Pentecostals are less committed to and demonstrate greater ambivalence toward these concepts.[4]

Public schools are required to offer optional courses in religious education to students, the curricula for which are determined by schools themselves in conversation with parent councils. In 2012, President Rousseff approved changes that would require teaching about the Holocaust, anti‐Semitism, and Judaism in Brazilian schools, in addition to previously taboo subjects including racism, religious intolerance and xenophobia.[5]


[1] Janet Tappin Coelho, “Brazil tries to combat religious intolerance of minority faiths,” Religion News Service, October 10, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/brazil-tries-to-combat-religious-intolerance-of-minority-faiths/2013/10/10/3a57b402-31e2-11e3-ad00-ec4c6b31cbed_story.html, accessed May 9, 2014.

[2] “International Religious Freedom Report for 2012: Brazil,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (2012), accessed May 9, 2014.

[3] Christine A. Gustafson, “Faith‐State Relations in Brazil: What Does Religious Competition Mean for Democracy?” in Religion and Politics in a Global Society, eds. Paul Christopher Manuel, Alynna Lyon, and Clyde Wilcox (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013), p. 121–122.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “International Religious Freedom Report for 2012: Brazil,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (2012), http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/2012religiousfreedom/#wrapper, accessed May 9, 2014.

Image Credits:

Getulio Vargas (1930), Governo do Brasil, Wikimedia Commons