Book review: H-Net
Hernández on Cowan, 'Moral Majorities across the Americas: Brazil, the United States, and the Creation of the Religious Right'
Benjamin A. Cowan. Moral Majorities across the Americas: Brazil, the United States, and the Creation of the Religious Right. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021. 304 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-6206-0; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-6207-7; $24.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4696-6208-4.
Reviewed by Bonar Hernández (Iowa State University) Published on H-LatAm (March, 2023) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58934
In recent decades, scholars have greatly advanced our understanding of religion and society in Latin America. Classic studies focusing on the stormy history of church–state relations have given way to granular analyses of popular religion and non-Catholic religious traditions. The theoretical and methodological approaches introduced by cultural historians have resulted in enlightening archive-based and national histories that reevaluate Latin America’s past through the lens of culture, including progressive and conservative religious movements. Joining this rich historiography, Benjamin A. Cowan investigates the origins and expansion of the Christian Right in Brazil and the United States during the Cold War. In this meticulously researched and highly readable book, Cowan links together the activism of a collection of religious and political actors who fashioned a conservative religious movement whose legacy is particularly pertinent given the recent proliferation of rightist, authoritarian, and nationalist politics.
The Christian Right, Cowan argues, developed across national boundaries. To trace its historical foundations and expansion, he employs a broad approach, one that situates the work of Brazilian activists and institutions as part of an international network of religious and political activism that over time turned Christian conservatism into a “transnational phenomenon” (p. 6). The Right, we learn in this study, originated from a collection of improbable allies, especially Brazilians and North Americans, who were motivated by a range of ideological factors. Rightist militants included conservative Catholics and Protestants who espoused an anticommunist, authoritarian, and neo-medievalist imaginary. Brazilian conservatives operated across national, ideological, and denominational boundaries to construct a transnational and, equally important, variegated Christian conservative movement. According to Cowan, the polarizing milieu of the Cold War played a critical role when it came to the rising political fortunes of the Christian Right. Conservative religious activists, after all, gained ground religiously and politically due to the patent support they received from and the ideological affinity they had with the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-85). During this period, the state persecuted progressive Catholics and Protestants in an effort to destroy alternative (nonconservative) visions of Brazilian society.
Cowan weaves together a complex and fast-changing national context that includes the ascendancy of conservativism across different denominations. Chapter 1 focuses on the religious agenda and activism of Brazilian traditionalists during and after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Cowan emphasizes the centrality of bishops Antonio de Castro Mayer and Geraldo de Proença Sigaud, both of whom became key figures within the Sociedade Brasileira de Defesa da Tradição, Família e Propriedade (Brazilian Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, TFP). TFP members promoted anticommunism, moralism, anti-ecumenism, and nostalgia for an imagined medieval past while prioritizing hierarchy, free enterprise, and supernatural over secular values. In chapter 2, Cowan contends that the evangelical Right emerged politically by adopting a “politics as politics-of-moralism” posture that sanctified family life and condemned Brazilian society’s apparent sexual laxity (p. 71). In their opposition to ecumenism, social justice, democratization, and progressive Catholicism, conservative churches such as the Assemblies of God and conservative Presbyterians received the approval of the personnel at the Brazilian Escola Superior de Guerra (Superior School of War). The confluence of religious and state actors meant that over time “the state leaned toward conservative evangelicals, empowering what might otherwise have remained an extremist fringe in Brazil’s politics and culture” (p. 83). The next chapter serves as an essential counterpoint to chapter 2. It delves into the activism of progressive Protestants before they were marginalized by the growth of the Christian Right. Progressive evangelicals supported ecumenism, social justice, and racial and ethnic-based agendas. Amid the political polarization brought about by the Cold War, these positions caught the attention of the dictatorship, with the consequence that progressive evangelicals (and their Catholic counterparts) became victims of state repression. This history of violence had undeniable political effects for Brazil’s religious and political landscape, for, as progressives suffered from the brutality of the military, conservatives drew closer to the members of the dictatorship.
The last two chapters examine the consolidation of the transnational Right. Chapter 4 elucidates the connections between Brazilian and US activists as they laid the underpinnings for a transnational conservative trajectory based on “moralistic anticommunism” (p. 15). Brazilian evangelicals, Cowan points out, set the basis for the ascent of the transnational Christian Right by taking part in an international web of activism. The coalescence of the Brazilian Right and its connections abroad made Brazil a natural destination for evangelicals from the United States, including the likes of Paul Weyrich, Morton Blackwell, and Carl McIntire and for right-wing fronts such as the World Anti-Communist League. Considering these ties, Cowan concludes that “the Christian Right in Brazil, the United States, and elsewhere emerged transnationally” (p. 137). The final chapter analyzes the factors that bound the international Right together: private property; hierarchy; nationalism; rejection of pluralism, modernism, secularization, and communism; and an emphasis on the divine or supernatural over mundane affairs. Together with its links to the Brazilian dictatorship, these unifying factors nurtured a religious and political environment that allowed for the blossoming of the modern conservative movement in Brazil, the United States, and elsewhere.
In light of the present-day revival of nationalism and religion, Cowan’s book offers a timely contribution to the study of religious movements in Latin America. It expands on his previous work on right-wing politics in Brazil during the Cold War. Moral Majorities sheds light on the extent to which conservative religious activists worked within national and international settings and across denominational and ideological (if not theological) frontiers to form a movement of transnational dimensions. Cowan’s analysis moves beyond the nation-state as a unit of inquiry to show that Brazilian Christian conservatives and their counterparts in the United States waged a series of hemispheric-wide religious (and political) campaigns against what they viewed as threats to tradition and morality. Scholars have written extensively about the advance of Latin American Pentecostalism and, more generally, how the Christian Right sought to counter the progressive spirit of Vatican II. The author zooms in on the elements and the course of this right-wing opposition in Brazil and the United States, but also re-creates a context characterized by a Protestant-Catholic conservative alliance, the activism of progressive evangelicals, and the security establishment’s support for the expanding Christian Right. This mutifaceted approach is a welcome one, for it calls attention to the predominance of a diversity or “variety” of rightist groups and reminds students of the Cold War about the possibility of counterhegemonic (nonconservative) religious paths.
More broadly, Cowan should be commended for utilizing an array of religious and state archival documents to provide a nuanced discussion of the historical origins of the present-day “culture wars.” He shows that today’s clashes over culture and morality are rooted in a complex structure of unlikely allies who saw themselves as forming part of a far-reaching religious community that extended beyond specific nationalities. As Cowan suggests, it is perhaps more fitting to talk about the so-called New Right today, not as a series of associations that seek to “Make Brazil Great (or “Make America Great Again”), but rather as a transnational movement whose ultimate objective was (and continues be) to “Make the West/World Great Again” in the image of tradition, morality, and anti-leftist politics. An unapologetic conservative religious imaginary that spans national boundaries stands at the heart of this activism. In this way, Moral Majorities invites students of religion and politics in Latin America to consider rightist religious groups as forming one of several complex global webs of activism during and after the Cold War.
. Benjamin A. Cowan, Securing Sex: Morality and Repression in the Making of Cold War Brazil (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
. See, for example, (in chronological order) Andrew Chesnut, Born Again in Brazil: The Pentecostal Boom and the Pathogens of Poverty (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997); Edward L. Cleary and Hannah Stewart-Gambino, eds., Power, Politics, and Pentecostals in Latin America (New York: Routledge, 1998); Brian H. Smith, Religious Politics in Latin America, Pentecostal vs. Catholic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998); and Todd Hartch, The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
Citation: Bonar Hernández. Review of Cowan, Benjamin A., Moral Majorities across the Americas: Brazil, the United States, and the Creation of the Religious Right. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL:https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58934This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.