Brazilian evangelicals show concern for the Amazon under new leader


Courtesy of Amy Smith

Amy Smith, associate professor of political science and liberal arts and sciences dean’s professor, recently published an article diving into how Brazilian evangelicals will react in regard to the fires spreading through the Amazon rainforest.

Morrgan Zmolek

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Brazilian evangelicals display environmental concern under their newly elected president.

On Nov. 6, Amy Smith, associate professor of political science and liberal arts and sciences dean’s professor, published an article on a website called The Conversation discussing how Brazilian evangelicals will react in regard to the fires spreading through the Amazon rainforest.

Smith, who does various research studies in relation to religion and politics, was conducting a project in Brazil in 2014 about churches and politics and how religious ideas fit into the way people understood the drought that was happening from 2014 to 2017. This project sparked her interest in the relation between climate change and various religions around the world.

Evangelicalism, a denomination within the bounds of Christianity, is a movement that believes salvation only comes through an individual’s faith in Jesus’ forgiveness, according to the National Association of Evangelicals website.

As such, according to a poll citation in Smith’s article, this religious group in the United States is typically one of the least likely groups to believe in the existence of climate change or that it is, subsequently, a human-produced issue. Many who do acknowledge the existence of climate change are of the mind that it is a symbol of God’s wrath upon the human population for abusing the environment given to them by God.

According to Smith, there are two denominations within evangelicalism: Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal evangelicals.

Non-Pentecostal evangelicals, also known as traditional evangelicals, have a strong belief in the action of the Holy Spirit. They believe that the Holy Spirit causes miracles and rewards people for faith.

Pentecostal evangelicals tend to be more conservative and more focused on the supernatural as it pertains to daily lives.

In Brazil and around the world, however, evangelicals take an opposing stance to the beliefs of those in the United States, according to Smith’s article.

This difference has a direct correlation with the election of new president Jair Bolsonaro, a climate skeptic, in 2018.

During the election, Bolsonaro greatly appealed to groups such as the evangelicals because he, like them, holds extremely conservative beliefs about topics like gay marriage, gender, sexuality and religious roles in society.

Now is a different story.

Bolsonaro completely removed restrictions concerning the utilization of fires for tree-clearing in the Amazon.

According to another article, “Strict Amazon Protections Made Brazilian Farmers More Productive, New Research Shows,” which Smith linked in her own article, Bolsonaro believes that conservation zones and steep fines for removing trees are halting Brazil’s economic growth. Among plans such as cutting down on fines for those who clear Amazon land illegally, Bolsonaro also plans to dismantle Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment, which is in charge of enforcing laws like the one Bolsonaro is getting rid of.

Evangelical approval of President Bolsonaro went from 68% during his election campaign to 37% now, according to Smith’s article.

Intense push-back from not only the evangelical population and the citizens of Brazil as a whole, but also the entire world has forced the president to issue a ban for 60 days on all burning in the area. This has led to the fewest forest fires in the Amazon in the month of October since 1998.

New environmental alliances between scientists and the evangelist population are already being created to help save the Amazon from sustaining further damage.

For this coalition to be successful, however, Smith said there has to be an emphasis on the language used between the two groups.

“Evangelical groups are interested in the environment,” Smith said. “But they need people to frame it as being urgent. They see economy and religion as more urgent. They need public spokespeople to talk about [environmental issues] as an urgent issue in public sphere.”

Smith said the protection of the environment is critical for everyone, which is why her research is important, and she wants to display how different issues such as climate change are increasingly polarized and politicized in their dialogue.

She said she believes her work provides examples of how people can work together toward a positive change.

“The goal is a different way of talking about religion and religious theology and to bring new political coalitions for environmental sustainability,” Smith said.