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Brazil and its deficit of secularism and republicanism

On Tuesday, March 21, International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the government of President Lula took another step forward in the promotion of racial equality in Brazil, with the signing of a decree which guarantees that at least 30% of the Executive Commissioned Positions in the federal government will be held by Black people. In the words of the Minister of Racial Equality, Anielle Franco, this will make possible the presence of “Black men and women in the implementation of public policies in the federal government”.

Aligned with policies of racial equality, opportunities, and redress of injustices to the Black population, the decree can undoubtedly be considered an important initiative to provide access to spaces in the country’s administrative and public life to a large segment of the population. Brazil needs this type of action, especially the republican, egalitarian, and democratic “spirit” that sustains it. Nonetheless, this initiative also evidences a historical issue in the democratic and civic life of the country of paramount consideration to understand the present and future implications for a modern and secular state.

The press images of the decree signing at the Planalto Palace have shown clear aesthetic and cultural links, not only with the Black population of the country but also with a specific way of understanding Blackness itself and, especially, with a particular religious practice. The images refer to the “African matrix”’s religiosity aesthetics: candomblé, afoxés, the use of turbans, to a whole “global fashion” in clothing, suggesting the affirmation of Black identity in the encounter with “ancestrality”.

The groups that accompanied the president in the event acted in the public space on the basis of a sociocultural identity configured in the discourse of “African memory”, of slavery, and of a “Black body” marked by what is understood as “structural racism”. It is possible that Lula, the government, and even the Workers’ Party itself did not notice the side effect of that event: religion and politics in a close relationship.

During the Bolsonaro government, pastors and leaders of evangelical churches, Bible in hand, occupied to exhaustion fundamental sectors of citizen life, affecting areas such as education, health, and social assistance. Let us remember the speeches of the Minister of Women, Family, and Human Rights, the lawyer and evangelical preacher Damares Alves, who conspired against common sense and civic life, and her disregard for the indigenous people guided by supposedly biblical precepts. She will be remembered for personifying an alliance between religious conception and political and institutional life. Never before had so many pastors been seen in a government.

But the republican tradition in Brazil, as fragile as it may seem, coupled with the strong respect for the secularism of the state, repeatedly manifested itself to condemn this political practice during the administration of former President Bolsonaro. It was perceived as an intolerable “colonization” of the state structure by very active and militant conservative religious groups, which pursued social and cultural agendas in line with their beliefs.

There are differences, in fact, between the two cases. During Bolsonaro’s government, the evangelical presence was the result of effective political action, materializing a power project anchored in the religious sphere, in the action of the churches that institutionally participated in the government. Together with the military, the evangelicals exercised effective power, providing support and legitimacy to Bolsonarism.

With the signing of this new decree, the presence of the “African matrix” religiosity does not acquire such a significant weight. Nevertheless, on that day a ‘political aesthetics’ was perceived that exposed a particular political culture on anti-racist policies and the very definition of  ‘Black culture’ in Brazil.

It should be noted that in Brazil “Black culture” and the anti-racist struggle have defined Blackness from a historical narrative anchored in colonial slavery. That moment in history is taken as a reference, assuming that subsequent historical cycles are merely the confirmation of a structure of exclusion that would not have altered the social and cultural condition of the Black population.

Thus, nurturing the “memory of Africa” was a group strategy with a strong appeal to religiosity, a discourse of historical resistance that would go hand in hand with anti-racist political implications. As a result, religion and politics were allied in the particular characterization of Black culture, presumably hegemonic in the public space.

But is this reference representative of the Black population? And, is being Black in Brazil limited to particular aesthetic and social values close to religious practices of the “African matrix”? Surveys from 2020 indicate that more than 30% of the Brazilian population declares itself ‘evangelical’, 59% of them being Black and 55% Brown. If we add the Black Catholic population and those who declare not to practice any religion, we can understand that the “Black culture” is much more complex and diverse.

In fact, the decree spirit of racial equality and social justice may not materialize in the inclusion of the heterogeneous Black population in the public administration if proximity to the “global fashion” of Africanness becomes an important factor in filling the Executive Commissioned Positions reserved for Black people. On the other hand, what secondary effect can the relevant presence in the public administration of a new group of people linked to a certain religious practice have on the state structure?

The injustices against the Black population demand a secular state. Also, a cosmopolitan and universalist definition of citizenship and Blackness that separates the private from the public, and, fundamentally, religion from politics are essential. Black culture” is heterogeneous and is not tied to the aesthetic domain and to religious values or practices. Therefore, society and state must remain vigilant as they did with evangelicals in the past government, protecting secularism and republicanism, necessary values in such an unequal country.

*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva


Cientista político. Profesor del Programa de Postgrado en C. Sociales de UNISINOS (Brasil). Doctor en Sociología Política por la UFSC (Brasil). Postdoctorado en el Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos de la Univ. de Miami. Prof. vsitante en la Univ. de Leipzig (Alemania).


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