Many of my recent speaking and teaching engagements have been connected with Brazil, which has prompted some observers to wonder how I became so deeply involved with its people, especially the burgeoning evangelical population. Here then is my account of my ongoing romance (is that too strong a word?) with a remarkable country that spans a huge swath of the South American continent.
Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, both in population and in area. According to worldometer, Brazil had a population of 213 million in 2020. This puts it behind China, India, United States, Indonesia, and Pakistan and ahead of all others. When I spoke there in 2016, I got a feel for how spread out the country is. My plane landed in Brasilia, and I stayed with a young family there. But then we drove to Goiânia for the event at which I was delivering my keynote addresses. It took nearly three hours to drive the distance, yet on the map it covers a very small proportion of the country's area. People that I had come to know beforehand and had hoped to see at the event told me that it was too far away from their homes, which I could scarcely have imagined earlier. But it would be the equivalent of my speaking in Toronto and expecting to see people from Calgary or Vancouver show up.
Brazil's language is, of course, Portuguese, reflecting the country's colonial history. I studied the language independently in the months leading up to my visit. I am still far from fluent, but I can read most of what I come across, and I can converse at a rudimentary level. Among the Lusophone countries of the world, Brazil is by far the largest, so if you are interested in learning Portuguese, you will likely be taught the Brazilian variety, which has a much different sound than the European dialects. I myself find Brazilian Portuguese a delight to listen to, and to my ears it sounds almost musical.
Two things sparked my fascination with Brazil as a boy. First the May 1960 issue of National Geographic carried a story that utterly captivated me: Brasilia: Metropolis Made to Order. The notion of someone planning and building a capital city made a deep impression on me, and shortly thereafter I nurtured the aspiration to become an architect or city planner, something that I abandoned only in high school. When my plane flew over Brasilia in 2016, I recognized it immediately from the air, so familiar was I by then with its layout.
Then there is the music. And what music! A few years after Brasilia was opened and the institutions of government moved from Rio de Janeiro to the new Distrito Federal, the bossa nova craze swept North America, beginning with the music of the great popular composer Antonio Carlos ("Tom") Jobim (1927-1994), whose Garota de Ipanema and Vou Te Contar (Wave) became smash hits in the northern hemisphere. Nor should we forget João Gilberto (1931-2019), Astrud Gilberto, Baden Powell (1937-2000), Sergio Mendes, Ary Barroso (1903-1964), Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), and so many more. I quickly took to Brazil's music and continued to do so as an adult, attempting to play at least some of it on the guitar.
Lucas Grassi Freire, a young graduate student at the University of Exeter, who was studying political science and shared with me an interest in metrical psalmody. From there I made connections with other Brazilians, including Guilherme de Carvalho, head of l'Abri Brasil. He read my book and thought it offered something of value to the Christian community there. Around 2013 I learned that my book, Political Visions and Illusions, was to be translated into Portuguese, with Freire doing the translating. The following year Edições Vida Nova in São Paulo published it under the title, Visões e Ilusões Políticas, in the midst of a heated presidential election campaign. I was overwhelmed by the positive reception that greeted the book. Since then I have greatly increased my contacts with Brazil, whose people I have found to be warm, affectionate, and hospitable.
I have been especially impressed with the quickly growing Christian community in Brazil. In 1980 Brazil had around 120 million people, with the evangelical population amounting to around six percent of the whole. The 2010 census found that 22.2 percent out of a population of 195 million now counted as evangelical protestant. One survey in 2013 found that Catholics amounted to 51 percent of the whole with evangelicals standing at 28 percent. Nevertheless, Brazil remains the largest Catholic country in the world. Along with the expansion of evangelicalism has come an increasing sophistication on matters relating faith to life, as reflected in an explosion of Portuguese translations of the writings of such figures as Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, Abraham Kuyper, and philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, all of whom I count as intellectual and spiritual mentors.
So why Brazil? Why are Brazilians so enthusiastic about my writings and about others in the same tradition? Here is where I must touch on a growing interest of mine which I hope one day to turn into another book, namely, the connection between political culture and political institutions. Human beings are cultural beings, something that sets us apart from other living things in God's creation. Other creatures must adapt to their natural environments. Human beings uniquely adapt their environment to their own needs. They till the soil, raise livestock, build cities, organize transportation systems, shape liturgies to worship God or gods, create great and not so great art, compose music, &c., &c. And they do so in strikingly different ways, depending on their geographical location and place in the historical process. All of these works of human ingenuity exist for shorter or longer periods of time, the most durable for perhaps hundreds or thousands of years. Tradition plays an important role here, because most of our day-to-day lives follow patterns set down by others who came before us. We may question specific traditions, but we necessarily do so in conformity with other traditions that have shaped who we are as persons created in God's image.
Political culture consists of a whole series of phenomena conditioning our lives as citizens of a particular body politic. This includes such tangible factors as flags and coats of arms, the shape of parliamentary chambers, and styles of political architecture, along with less tangible elements such as ways of exercising leadership, attitudes towards authority, willingness to participate in public life, voter turnout, types of political rhetoric, attitudes towards competition and co-operation, the priority of the public over private interests, attitudes towards our natural and social environments, beliefs about the meaning of justice, and, finally, which gods we worship. All of these factors are organized into specific types enabling us to distinguish among, say, Britons, Italians, Spaniards, Indonesians, and Nigerians, all of whom, despite their internal diversity, conform to general patterns which others recognize.
More to the point, each of these cultural types can be said to support a unique constitution or political system that is not easily transferable to another people or nation. For example, the Constitution of the United States, with its distinctive configuration of institutions fashioned by the country's 18th-century founders, owes far less to the supposed genius of those founders than to the traditions of representative government that had developed in both England and the several colonies after 1619, when the first colonial assembly was established in Virginia. Without those traditions, the system would not have worked well, and a written constitution would likely have remained but a scrap of paper. Indeed virtually every country that has attempted to import an American-style presidential republic, including Brazil and other Latin American countries, has eventually become a dictatorship, at least for a time. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Turkey since 2017 is the latest unhappy example of this phenomenon.
As the gospel has made its way into Brazil, huge numbers of people are coming to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, accepting forgiveness of their sins and being empowered by the Holy Spirit to live new lives of service to God and neighbour. For them Christ the Redeemer is more than just a familiar monument in Rio de Janeiro. He is the living Redeemer who has called them "out of darkness into his marvellous light" (1 Peter 2:9). Through the Spirit he is transforming their affections to conform to his will. As more and more Brazilians immerse themselves in God's word, finding their own place in the biblical redemptive narrative, they begin to see their own lives in a different light. This in turn necessarily begins to influence the culture, including the political culture.
It is no secret that corruption is endemic to political life in Brazil. Many prominent political figures have been convicted and sent to prison in recent years. Ordinary Brazilians have lived with this corruption for many decades and perhaps much longer. But as increasing numbers are called into God's kingdom, they are coming to see the cultural, social, and political implications of their new faith. Our allegiance to God's kingdom is not a personal possession to be kept within the private domain of church building and household. As Abraham Kuyper famously put it, "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!" I think this explains the growing attention to writings that stand in the tradition of Kuyper and his heirs, including my own Visões e Ilusões Políticas. As more Brazilians come to Christ, and as the political culture changes, many hope that the country's political institutions will function so as to serve the general public and to do public justice to the diversity of individuals and communities within their jurisdiction. This could move Brazil from an oligarchical past to a future characterized by high levels of social trust and a civic culture conducive to constitutional governance. Such a Brazil could become a force for great good on the international stage as well.
Is this too optimistic a scenario? It's too early to say at this point. But Brazilians in large numbers are increasingly dissatisfied with the current political options on offer. They are ready for something new. As far as I can tell, many Brazilian Christians are reading the right books, put out by such publishers as Vida Nova and Monergismo. As Kuyper's influence has waned in the Netherlands over the past six decades, his legacy is growing in Brazil, and I'm tremendously grateful for this. I am particularly gratified to be playing a role in disseminating the riches of this tradition in such a wonderful country. Que Deus abençoe o povo do Brasil!
All of these efforts of mine require considerable time and energy. I sometimes receive honoraria from the parties that have invited me to speak, but these do not adequately compensate me for time spent on these many activities. If you believe as strongly as I do in the power of the gospel to reshape, not only individual lives, but entire countries like Brazil, would you consider supporting my work, both financially and in your prayers? At the top of this blog you will find a Global Scholars Canada icon. If you click on it, you will learn how you can contribute to my work. I have been part of Global Scholars since 2019, and I am excited at the ways God is using this organization to bring the blessings of Christian scholarship and Christian scholars to the larger world. My own work is connecting me, not only with Brazil, but also with Germany, Finland, Ukraine, Indonesia, and elsewhere. Please consider a monthly or one-time contribution as you feel led. And please do pray for God to bless my work. Thank you in advance.