“They offer concrete solutions to concrete problems”

Are evangelical churches increasingly influencing world politics?? U.S. President Trump is supported from these circles and Brazil's presidential candidate Bolsonaro is even an evangelical convert himself. An attempt to explain.

Interviewer: What then connects the Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro with the evangelical churches??

Prof. Gunda Werner (Institute for Dogmatics at the Faculty of Catholic Theology, Karl Franzens University, Graz): Very roughly speaking, one can first state that what connects him personally with evangelicals is that he himself is a convert. He was Catholic himself and converted to an evangelical church in 2016.

From that point of view, he has joined a religious community, a denomination in Brazil that is so slowly but surely softening the majority of the Catholic Church in Brazil. While Brazil used to be simply Catholic, about a third of the population is now evangelical. In politics, too, it is amed that about one fifth of all members of parliament are now evangelicals and have even formed their own evangelical "bank", their own evangelical alliance within the House of Representatives.

That is, the evangelical churches have a very, very big influence on politics, already before Bolsonaro, but now especially, since he represents the evangelicals personally.

Interviewer: This reflects a development that can be observed throughout the continent of America. Evangelicals are gaining influence everywhere – also politically. U.S. President Donald Trump is supported by evangelicals. Now, however, there are very different evangelical churches. Some take place in the garage, some in soccer stadiums. What then makes these churches? What are the similarities and differences?

Werner: That is quite exciting and it is at the same time difficult to say. Even in the U.S., about a quarter of the population is thought to be evangelical. About 80 percent of them voted for Donald Trump. It is a similar situation from the outside.

But what is "evangelical" really? This is very difficult to grasp, because among evangelicals there are very different ways of living Christianity. But there are common characteristics and there is always a "plus X", depending on the direction in which a community, a church tends then.

Commonalities are mainly conversion. So a very personal experience of faith, which can usually also be dated as a real conversion experience. This is connected with a certainty of salvation that they are now on the right path. One of them is that they are faithful to the Bible. There it varies whether the Bible has the highest authority or is interpreted literally. Then, for example, in the Midwest of the U.S., the ark is replicated. It is also very focused on Jesus Christ. It is very much about prayer and witness. That is, the mission has a very high priority. One actively proselytizes. Above all, people are actively proselytizing and living in near expectation. That is, they actually expect Christ's return and the end of the world to be there.

In addition, there are also very rigid moral concepts. If you look to Brazil, to the U.S. and also to some extent to Europe, suddenly themes come together. When people campaign against women, against gender or against homosexuals and for a traditional image of the family and a traditional image of women, then suddenly political goals meet with moral-religious political ideas. And both are presented missionary.

Interviewer: This also partly interferes with everyday life. Some forbid believers to drink alcohol and dance outside of church services. Who changes his faith to the evangelically oriented churches?? What makes the attractive?

Werner: If you look less at Europe, but more at the countries of the "second" and "third" world with big social problems and migration flows, they offer concrete solutions for concrete problems. Very simple, very clear and very structured. For example, men are told: "Stop drinking your money away and going to whorehouses. God does not want that".

There is also a tangible improvement. You simply have to look at this, although I am critical of it myself. But these are perspectives that belong.

They are also on the ground. I think what makes them attractive in Western Europe at the moment is that they allow faith and encounter with God to be experienced emotionally – and very immediately. This God can be experienced directly. It's not so much brainwashing that the established churches are accused of.

Interviewer: And who switches? Know that?

Werner: A look at Latin America brings us a bit full circle. From the Catholic Church, from the bishops' conferences in Latin America, it has been observed that many Catholics also change their churches. They change because these evangelical churches – whether Pentecostal or more Bible-centered – offer more opportunities to the laity.

Especially change women. They change their church because they are allowed to take on functions in these evangelical churches. They can lead congregations, they can lead services. They have a completely different presence and get a different sense of self there, a different responsibility that Roman Catholic just didn't allow them to have.

This is also a very exciting perception, which also leaves open questions as to whether the influx can be attributed to evangelicals alone.

The interview was conducted by Heike Sicconi.

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Christina Cherry
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