Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro are among the world leaders who minimized the dangers of COVID-19.
In the United States, President Trump continued to downplay the novel coronavirus in January and February, even as the threat the virus posed was continuously emphasized in his daily briefings.
Even after the president began implementing measures to address the pandemic, there has been a recurring tension between President Trump and health officials, he has regularly clashed with state governors and has shared misleading information in many of his press conferences and tweets.
In Brazil, President Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist, has sabotaged appropriate quarantine measures by calling COVID-19 “a little flu,” blamed the press for fabricating a COVID-19 hysteria, encouraged anti-confinement protests and defied social distancing guidelines in many public appearances.
When Brazilian journalist Elaine Brum called Bolsonaro the COVID-19 pandemic villain, she was right.
Perhaps a more important question is not which leader has had the worst response to the pandemic, but how are Bolsonaro and Trump alike?
They do share many commonalities. Both are populist, authoritarian and perceived as unorthodox politicians; they are each unapologetic about their far-right tendencies and favor policies detrimental to minority groups.
But a key characteristic they also share is the strong evangelical support they receive in their respective contexts.
Although evangelicals in Brazil are diverse – an aspect that is further problematize by the fact that the term “evangelical” in the country is generally synonymous with Protestant – Brazilian evangelical groups who resemble their U.S.-based partners are the most ardent supporters of Bolsonaro.
This support is not coincidental, but a result of 150 years of U.S. evangelical presence in Brazil.
And if this evangelical influence could be overlooked until the mid-20th century, evangelical growth in the region now reveals how important the history of U.S. evangelical presence abroad can be to geopolitics. In fact, this influence now figures importantly into issues of global health.
The Brazilian evangelicals who followed in the footsteps of their U.S. founding fathers are denominationally diverse, but they share a social imagination.
A mixture of individualism, social conservatism, biblicism, otherworldliness and alleged concern for individual morality characterizes their shared worldview.
This convergence of perspective is the result of U.S. evangelical missionaries’ domination in the Brazilian religious market.
In Brazil, U.S. missionaries built and sustained an ideological framework so durable it continues to characterize global evangelical identities.
Since the 19th century, U.S. evangelical missionaries tried to implement prohibition in Brazil, introduced a stance that is suspicious of scientific evidence where it contradicts a priori theological commitments, institutionalized a limited form of racial hierarchy in Brazilian evangelical institutions, supported the U.S.-sponsored dictatorship that lasted for 21 years, established pro-U.S. sensibilities and founded schools and institutions of theological education that perpetuated the U.S. evangelical style of doing theology and politics.
Bolsonaro’s rise to power fit like a hand in this evangelical glove. To be sure, Brazil had many evangelical senators and congressmen before Bolsonaro, but now evangelicals have their first real president.
The pandemic reveals how problematic this scenario can be. In botching his response to COVID-19, Bolsonaro invested more of his social capital in siding with sectarian evangelical initiatives than in being a positive example of a science-based pandemic response.
Thus, recently, Bolsonaro was featured not upholding the authority of scientists or measuring Brazil’s effectiveness in curtailing infections but instead in a video with major evangelical leaders to call the country to a day of fasting and prayer.
In the video, Bolsonaro was compared to King Jehoshaphat, who in 2 Chronicles 20:3 calls a national fast. He is framed as both the supreme leader of the nation and the mouthpiece of a holy proclamation.
Bolsonaro offered, “Thank you to all of you, and for those of you who believe, Sunday is the day of fast.” He was, the video overtly stated, summoning Christ’s army to join in the largest prayer campaign in the history of the nation.
Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians and other evangelical leaders – some of whom have a long, documented history of animosity toward each other – responded by uniting under the banner of their supreme leader.
“I have no doubt that Coronavirus’ time is up, because the people of God will be praying,” one leader said.
Another declared, “All catastrophic predictions are annihilated in the name of Jesus.”
Dozens of “thoughts and prayers” sentiments by evangelical leaders were also presented in the video, which featured prominently the man who arguably provided the worst presidential example in the COVID-19 pandemic.
It would not surprise me if a similar video were to circulate among U.S. evangelicals, although there is also diversity of perspective within the group.
Amid the pandemic, Southern Baptist Convention leader Albert Mohler declared his support of Donald Trump and urged other evangelical leaders to do the same.
Mohler’s SBC – the largest Protestant denomination in the United States – had a tremendous impact in the history of evangelicalism in Brazil.
These affinities are not coincidental. Religion shapes worldviews, informs narratives of belonging, shapes the meaning of beauty and of darkness, guides social imaginations and frames political engagement.
Evangelical leaders move a tremendous amount of resources and help connect people across the globe around similar ideologies.
The effect of global evangelicalism on the COVID-19 pandemic is – at least in the case of the U.S. and Brazil – damning.
We should not make the mistake of overlooking the force of evangelicals’ influence as we look to the future.
Associate Editor for “Perspectivas”—the Journal of the Hispanic Theological Initiative and is the author of the forthcoming book “The Global Mission of the Jim Crow South.” He holds a Ph.D. in religion from Baylor University.