The mainstream press has been dutifully reporting on Brazil’s recent massive anti-government demonstrations and protests that shocked the presidency of Dilma Rousseff; on the billions of dollars that have been spent on preparations to host both the 2014 World Cup and the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro; and Brazil’s recent resounding defeat of Spain in the FIFA Confederations Cub final. Little attention, however, has been paid to the rising presence of the U.S. Christian Right in Brazil.
Enter the Brazilian Center for Law and Justice, an offshoot of Pat Robertson’s legal outfit, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). According to The Public Eye’s Jandira Queiroz, the ACLJ, “following the example of the Christian Right organization’s [two] offices in Eastern Europe” and one in Kenya and one in Zimbabwe, has touched down in Brazil.
In the U.S., Robertson’s ACLJ has played a major role in hot-button culture war issues in the U.S. for more than two decades. It promoted the Defense of Marriage Act passed by Congress in 1996 (recently overturned by the Supreme Court), it continues to challenge city and state sponsored domestic partnerships, it provides legal defense for anti-abortion activists protesting outside reproductive health clinics, it is a strong advocate for school vouchers, and was a major supporter of President George W. Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative.
The ACLJ is currently in the forefront of the fight against Obamacare, and it has also filed lawsuits against the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), charging the agency with unfairly targeting conservative organizations. Now representing 41 conservative groups, ACLJ chief counsel Jay Sekulow said: “The floodgates opened after we filed our initial lawsuits. We have been contacted by many additional organizations that have been unlawfully targeted by the IRS — revealing that this unconstitutional scheme was pervasive and damaging to our clients.”
The acronym ACLJ wasn’t created as a takeoff on the ACLU by the writers on Saturday Night Live or Real Time with Bill Maher. When the organization was founded by Robertson in 1990 it explicitly aimed to counter the work of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), and its naming reflects that intent.
Developing an evangelical foothold in Latin America
Organized in the Brazilian state of Goiás, the Brazilian Center for Law and Justice (BCLJ) will offer legal services for “people who don’t have the means to pay for lawyers when they’re wronged,” and to defend “religious freedom, human rights and life.” Filipe Coelho, “the son of a prominent evangelical minister and the brother of two others,” founded the BCLJ last year, Queiroz pointed out. According to The Public Eye’s Jandira Queiroz Coelho’s salary and operating expenses “are sent in monthly installments from the ACLJ [which has an annual budget of nearly $17 million] in the United States — at least until BCLJ begins fundraising in Brazil.”
In an interview with Queiroz, Coelho “said he personally was not engaged in politics until ACLJ asked him to be its Director of Operations in Brazil.” Living the U.S. for “almost half of his life,” … he graduated in Business and Economics from King College, which is affiliated with both the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. “In politics, I just like to see what’s related to my area,” he told Queiroz. “I just came back [to Brazil] five years ago but I just started to work on politics three months ago, with BCLJ. I’m still green.”
Writing in the Winter 2012-13 issue of The Public Eye, Queiroz, a PRA research fellow and a longtime reproductive and LGBTQ rights advocate in Brazil, maintained that “The ACLJ’s move into Brazil is sharply strategic.” Brazil is second only to the U.S. in number of Christians within its borders, “and the number of evangelicals … is growing fast. While 90 percent of the country identified as Roman Catholic in 1980, 21 percent of the population now identifies as Protestant.”
The evangelical community in Brazil, like other Latin American countries, often leans left on economic issues, and things are changing on some social issues as well; Brazil is home to the largest gay pride parade in the world. However, it is unclear if this progressive economic and social tendency will hold in the face of growing US evangelical funding and influence.
Queiroz reported that “A Pew study found that 51 percent of evangelical leaders in Latin and Central America believed that homosexuals should be accepted by society, compared to 23 percent of evangelical leaders in Europe and nine percent in North America. But the social conservatives seem to have the strongest will to political power.”
The Evangelical caucus at the Brazilian National Congress was inaugurated with 26 members during the Constituent Assembly of 1987. There are about 70 deputies (out of 513) in the lower house and three senators (out of 81) currently in its ranks. Most are pastors, bishops, or self-nominated “apostles” from a range of denominations. This caucus, though a minority group, is influential because of its alliance with landowners, entrepreneurs, and other conservative groups represented in the Brazilian Parliament. Together, they make up the majority of the Congress and have been blocking some of the progressive aims of the federal government, especially over the last decade.
Evangelicals have established a stronghold on radio and television and they, according to Queiroz, “are broadcasting more talk shows, preaching programs, and live transmission of services, with pastors, bishops, and apostles promoting political campaigns on the airwaves.”
“In Brazil, many pastors and televangelists are, like Pat Robertson, owners of communications empires that include publishers, producers, record labels, and radio and television channels, as well as elaborate portals on the Internet." Anti-homophobia legislation is seen as “a threat to their ‘freedom’ to keep preaching on national television that homosexuality is an abomination in the eyes of God, and that the homosexual movement is implementing a plan to transform the whole country into Sodom and Gomorrah.”
U.S.-based evangelicals promoting their books and DVDs are welcomed onto the airwaves and television sets of conservative Brazilian evangelicals.
“In its short existence, it is clear that the BCLJ is using some of ACLJ’s same tactics to try to win influence: wooing government officials and facilitating access to them, building alliances with key evangelical powerbrokers, and hiring local staff to serve as its face,” Queiroz reported. “But the evangelicals here are much better resourced than in some of the other countries in which ACLJ operates. It remains to be seen whether it will find a place for itself in a country with a more moderate evangelical movement than it is used to, and where evangelicals are already highly engaged in the political scene.”
Back in the states, even though the ACLJ is thriving and engaged in business as usual, its business practices have come under scrutiny by several groups tracking charitable organizations.
According to BBB Wise Giving, an organization that, according to its website, “helps donors make informed giving decisions and promotes high standards of conduct among organizations that solicit contributions from the public,” the ACLJ “does not meet” its “10 Standards for Charity Accountability.” Charity Navigator “Your Guide to Intelligent Giving,” gives the organization’s “Overall” performance one star (out of four); it gets three stars for its “Financial” management, and receives no stars for “Accountability & Transparency.”
The Public Eye is a quarterly publication of the Somerville, Massachusetts-based Political Research Associates, an organization that has been in the forefront of investigating, monitoring and reporting on right-wing movementsfor over 30 years.