Christophobia, the chinese vaccine and the coherence of bolsonarism: a threat to democracy in the region

It is possible to make numerous accusations against Brazilian President Jair Messias Bolsonaro; you can say that he is authoritarian, undemocratic and sexist. But we can all agree that it would not be correct to say that Bolsonaro is incoherent. On the contrary, the captain seems to try to live up to his campaign promises to the letter. In fact, even in the months of October and November, his actions were almost a summary of the positions he put forth in his 2018 campaign. In this context, there are no surprises. On the contrary, everyone knew, everyone heard the rhetoric, and to expect him to be different would be to bet on incoherence. That is not the case, Jair is coherent.

For example, on September 22nd of this year, as dictated by tradition, the president of the Brazilian nation inaugurated the United Nations Assembly. One of the most remarkable aspects of his speech was the accusation of an existing “christophobia”. Nothing more coherent, Jair is Jair. The man, who announced that he would not give another inch of land to indigenous peoples and quilombolas, the man who assigned a weight in arrobas to Afro-descendants, now uses the pulpit of the United Nations to protect the majority in his country from the alleged attacks by minorities. The political grammar of the president could not be clearer. In his campaign he attacked minorities, as president, he protects majorities.

Well, perhaps it could be clearer. Then-candidate Jair Bolsonaro was even clearer in his electoral campaign. In a speech given in a city in northeastern Brazil, then-candidate Bolsonaro said verbatim (without being asked) that "the minorities must bow to the majorities, or they could disappear." If someone set out to define fascism in a single sentence, they probably couldn't do better than Jair Bolsonaro in his own election campaign.

Now then, taking this posture into account, Bolsonaro's speech at the United Nations seems more like the fulfillment of a commitment than anything else. In a country where violence against religious minorities (especially African religions) is growing at an alarming rate, it is important to understand what the president meant by "fighting christophobia." Could he be justifying this violence at the pulpit of the UN?

At best, it could be that Bolsonaro is unaware of the religious violence waged by fundamentalist Christian groups in Brazil and accuses others, those who are actually being targeted, for the persecution. All of this may seem strange, but it isn’t. It is important for the Brazilian president to recover the role of the victim. In this way, he can justify legal efforts for a supposed protection of Christianity. But that’s not everything. In addition to the president's more pragmatic perspectives (strengthening relations with evangelical parties and politicians, for example), there is a strong ideological content in Bolsonaro’s discourse that cannot be ignored.

Let's be even clearer; the Brazilian president intends to break with the idea of liberal modernity. Bolsonaro is a typical anti-liberal. For him, the idea of a secular state is uncomfortable and must be overcome. For him, it is urgent that Brazil consolidate itself as a Christian country. Therefore, those who are not Christians must adapt or cease to exist. You are either a Christian or you are not a Christian. Shit (to use his favorite word)! You cannot be almost Christian, Christian and something else, nothing like that. Christianity emerges as the fundamental frontier of identity, and therefore must be protected.

In this context, the fact that Bolsonaro appealed to the UN against “christophobia” is even more symbolic and it is important. The United Nations proposes a multilateral and inclusive power structure, where the rights of minorities must be guaranteed by national states and international structures. Since 1948, with the International Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations has gained even more strength and power to intervene and guarantee this protection. With all its imperfections, which are many, a new international order was created for the defense of humans, whoever they are. For Bolsonaro, all of this is wrong. Human rights are uncomfortable, and so is multilateralism. He sees himself as someone who brings in a new order; an order that envisions recovering lost values.

If it is important to ensure that Christianity is the prevailing cultural system in Brazil, in most of the world, Christians are a minority, so internationally, “christophobia” should be denounced and attacked. Since the opening of the United Nations Assembly, Bolsonaro has presented himself as an international defender of Christians. In a speech reminiscent of the 11th-century Crusades, the Brazilian president denounced the East, Islamists, and non-Christians as threats. From his perspective, he considers himself a regional leader (Latin America is hegemonically Christian) and an international leader (in the world Christianity is a minority).

Finally, it is important to note that Bolsonarismo has different layers, but its ideology is not insignificant. The fight against non-Christians is fundamental. In this context, the response of the Brazilian government to the pandemic has also been related to this question. Isolated indigenous peoples, for example, need conversion more than medicine. Politicizing the disease is part of that game. Churches and pastors should be the benchmarks for the treatment of the sick, not hospitals and doctors. Furthermore, the president presents himself as the nation's healer by introducing a miracle drug (chloroquine), which he claims is enough to heal his followers.

In this political and ideological context, the recent refusal of the Brazilian government to purchase the “Chinese vaccine” (the coronavac produced by the Chinese government in partnership with the Butantã laboratory in São Paulo), makes perfect sense. The Chinese, in Bolsonaro's perspective, are not only communists, they are also from the East and non Christians. Therefore, to make them the liberators from the disease would be to transform non-Christian communists into the redeemers of the people. It is therefore better that millions of Brazilians continue to get sick than to regard the Chinese as saviors.

However, we should not think that Bolsonaro's project is exclusively Brazilian. The president sees himself as an international leader, committed to saving the Christian West. It is no coincidence, for example, that he often tries to intervene in regional politics. By financing the coup in neighboring Bolivia, threatening to invade Venezuela, or frequently criticizing the Argentine government, Bolsonaro presents himself as the liberator of the Americas; a new, white, reactionary Christian liberator, an anti-liberal par excellence, who imagined himself, until now, as the main partner of Donald Trump.

Nothing could be more coherent. We’ll see what the next chapters unfold.


Michel Gherman is a historian, co-director of the Nucleus of Judaic Studies at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, an academic at the Brazil-Israel Institute and a researcher at the Center for Studies on Zionism and Israel at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

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