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Benjamin A. Cowan: Brazil and the new right

North American historian launches book about religious conservatism in the 20th century

Personal archives Cowan: understanding the constitution of the transnational right requires comparative studiesPersonal archives

Benjamin A. Cowan, of Los Angeles, California, United States, did not speak Portuguese nor did he have much scientific interest in Brazil before he got to know the archives of the War College (ESG) in 2003.  In the institution’s library, located in the São João fortress in the neighborhood of Urca, Rio de Janeiro, the historian found publications and documents that sparked his interest in topics such as authoritarianism, the radical right, morality, and sexuality. Fluent in Spanish, he immediately tried to decipher them. That was when he began his research about Brazil, focusing on post 1964 cultural history and gender.

Almost 20 years later, Cowan has just published his second book about the country, through The University of North Carolina Press. With a total of 304 pages, Moral majorities across the Americas: Brazil, the United States, and the creation of the religious right historicizes the so-called new right as a phenomenon of broad roots and essentially transnational in nature.  In this interview, given via video conference from his home in the United States, the associate professor from the University of California in San Diego speaks about the importance of Brazil as a “critical locus” for the birth of this phenomenon. “To understand the modern right, Brazil must be included as an essential platform for the development of the cultural, moral, and political agendas that are part of our current reality,” he says.

Where did your interest in Brazil come from?
My interest arrived by accident when I started a research project on the violence of the Chilean and Argentinian military dictatorships and came out of the discoveries I made in 2003 through a source of files that were little explored. I learned that the ESG library documents were accessible through a North American soldier. I was curious. I traveled to Brazil, went to the school’s headquarters in Rio de Janeiro and began to investigate the archive. Only later did I discover that the history of Brazil and of my own country, the United States, have much in common with respect to the rise of the new right. I would say that luck was on my side. Access to this archive ended up being very important in my academic and professional journey. I had just been accepted for my doctorate at UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) and had been living in the country for one year. I researched at the EsAO (Officers Improvement School), ECEME (School of Command and General Staff of the Army), the Army Archive, and the National Library. With a digital camera, I made 10,000 images of documents in three years. I stopped studying Argentina and Chile, and Brazil became the object of my doctorate.

The book Securing sex: Morality and repression in the making of Cold War Brazil, published in 2016, is the result of this research. What is the main conclusion of your doctoral thesis?
It is that a group of conservatives—individuals and organizations, civil and military—who came together through a transnational system of ideas, played a central role, which was to that point little known, in the implementation of a cultural and reactionary project within the Brazilian military regime. In the book, with the Cold War as the backdrop, I address the relationship between conservatism, anticommunism, and moral issues. I show that the relationships between moral activities and the concept of anticommunism in Brazil are very tight, especially during the dictatorship period (1964–1985). During the research, it became clear how a series of these ideas, which originated in the 1930s, gained strength in the governing of the military. More specifically, how retrograde ideas became central to the concept of military thinking. This partly explains the communist following during that period. The idea of cultural war was present there, which saw communism as something that operated through culture, sex, and customs. Theorists—whom I designated as moral technocrats—doctors, lawyers, politicians, and theologists played various roles in society and in government, and they came together around the idea that communism would be linked to the much older and more eternal fight between good and bad—understood and materialized in cultural weapons, such as pornography, drugs, and even pieces of clothing, such as the miniskirt.

The victory of the conservatives has to do with their cooperation with the dictatorship and with the connection with transnational groups from other countries

How did you develop your work with this group of conservatives?
Antônio Carlos Pacheco e Silva (1898–1988), for example, was a psychiatrist and played various roles within the military regime. The Catholic writer, Gustavo Corção (1896–1978), who was known for his articles in the popular press, worked in diverse official committees, such as the Federal Council of Culture. They were not the “face” of the dictatorship, but they influenced those behind the scenes. On the other hand, general Antônio Carlos da Silva Muricy (1906–2000), who had an important role in the State coup, led a campaign to integrate this moralism into the center of the regime’s ideology.  Individuals such as these worked, each in his own manner, to make the centers of power more receptive to the notion that the Cold War was a cultural fight, to be waged in “battlefields” such as sex, customs, clothing, appearance, especially of the youth. This was not something unique to Brazil, as such ideas circulated in the Atlantic world. The language of moral anticommunism or of the moralist was part of a series of tactics and operations to associate the enemy, no matter who or what it was, with cultural threats. It was an attempt to rationalize and justify the violence. Moral panic is a term that helps us to understand how these ideas became so powerful at that time. But what I discovered during my research was that people who “threatened” the Brazilian government during the dictatorship were not so interested in the sexual revolution. The suspicion that there was a direct link between the sexual revolution and the left was not exactly verified. During the dictatorship, the Brazilian government’s decision to follow capitalism left the cultural domain vulnerable to what was happening abroad. The regime, to a certain degree, ended up assuming the format that the conservatives dreaded. The best example, and perhaps the most descriptive, is the pornochanchada (genre of sexploitation films produced in Brazil at that time). In the ESG library, there were documents that mentioned the pornochanchada as evidence that pornography was used by the communists as a weapon. The details and vehemence of the ideas shocked me. It turned out that the pornochanchada was funded by the government, who was interested in promoting the country’s cinematographic industry. Their films changed the face of our national film scene.

How did this happen?
It comes from the fact that the dictatorship, up to that point in the mid-1970s, was already a mess. If moral anticommunism was at the center of the ideology, it was impossible to regulate sex in daily life. These ideas became weak, not only because control was not possible, but because the dictatorship promoted an economic and cultural model that produced exactly what it tried to prevent. In some way, it can be stated that the Protestantism of today came about during this cultural war of the dictatorship.

UH Archive /Folhapress The customs agenda was evident in demonstrations, such as the Freedom March of the Family with God, in March 1964UH Archive /Folhapress

And is this the theme of Moral majorities across the Americas, which is being released now?
Yes. In essence, my book is a story of religious conservatism in Brazil during the 20th century. It is about how we arrived at the current configuration of power among the evangelicals. During the period when the conservative evangelicals got closer to the military dictatorship, there was a lot of hope for a renewed Christianity, not extremely left, but engaged in issues of social justice and people’s quality of life. How did this vision of a future, more progressive Christian get sidelined? What we know today is that evangelicals and conservative Brazilian Catholics were in a system of ideas that went beyond national boundaries and ended up being very important for the voice of the right in the world. The most interesting fact is that the majority were unknown.  In the United States, for example, there was Paul Weyrich (1942–2008), founder of the Heritage Foundation. Our own Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira (1908–1995), of the TFP (Brazilian Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property), had a transnational vision. He wanted to create an international network for the TFP and collaborate wtih Weyrich. The archbishop of Diamantina (MG), Geraldo de Proença Sigaud (1909–1999), became the leader of the conservative Catholics, who were shocked with the changes that were happening in the Church. There was reaction from various groups to the so-called “modernity,” understood as cultural changes, ecumenism, and communism. In Brazil and abroad, conservative Protestants also opposed the idea of ecumenism, which they considered a communist trap for theological conservatism. In the book, I tried to identify denominations and discovered that this fight even developed within them. Throughout the country, the victory of the conservatives is related to their cooperation with the dictatorship and a connection with transnational groups from other countries. They built a platform comprised of topics that today we view as the most central thread of the Christian right: opposition to abortion, support to bear arms, neoconservatism which became neoliberalism as a response to communism and which is compatible with Christianity.

And how did this arrive in the 21st century?
In the book, I argue that the resurgence of the right came from a history of conservative activism that brought together Brazilians, North Americans, Catholics, Protestants, secular conservatives, authoritarian opportunists, among others. The similarity between the president of Brazil today and Donald Trump, for example, comes from the former work of Brazilian and North American activists who deliberately established an agenda more about topics of identity than of ideology. What does opposition to abortion have to do with bearing arms and the size of the State, in relation to social wellness programs? These activists understood the importance of building a platform that would appeal to a certain multitude and, for this reason, they created these connections. My research in religious archives, not only in Brazil and the United States, but also in Italy, show abortion as a theme that is capable of bringing together many people. In the archives of the Publishing House of the Assembly of God, I found a reference to Carl McIntire (1906–2002), a radically conservative pastor who had not received much attention from historiography but who made a significant contribution to the development of the radical right in the United States. Through my research at the Princeton Theological Seminary, where his files are kept, I discovered that McIntire worked with the evangelicals in Brazil. He tried to build an association of conservative evangelical churches in the 1950s. As a response to theological modernity and ecumenism, and in collaboration with the International Council of Christian Churches (ICCC), McIntire sought to organize a global network of institutions and spaces where conservative evangelicals could gather, exchange ideas, and influence cultural policies. In Brazil, where he had visited several times and had sent missionaries, he found fertile ground. With the participation of Brazilian activists, he organized and hosted conferences throughout the world. The Reverend Israel Gueiros was one of his correspondents. The two collaborated for decades, combining staunch anticommunism with cultural reactionism, always with a focus on the defense of unregulated capitalism.

Institutions and Brazilian activists were essential to the resurgence of the right through creating organizations and supporting alliances

Were they successful?
I don’t think even they believed how successful they would be. The goal was to articulate, with participants from other denominations and other countries, a series of topics that everyone agreed should be defended. For them, you could not separate political power from religious power. Before the 1960s, the directive for most evangelical churches was to not get involved with world doctrines. The focus was on spiritual life. They didn’t want the things of Caesar; they wanted the things of God. What changes is the growing will of the evangelicals to take for themselves a part of public life, presented as a political manifestation of feelings and religious doctrines. They were concerned about defending religious values, but I think, at that time, they couldn’t distinguish between what was happening in politics from what was happening in culture and the economy. One of the great deceptions was connecting all of this with religious identity. They were able to link the notion of guardians of religious tradition with a series of initiatives that were not, and are not, exactly religious. Contrary to the State and to egalitarianism, these activists helped to convert the engagement of the Christians from not only legitimate, but necessary. There is no way to explain the similarity between the current president of Brazil and Trump, or the rise of right-winged populism in the United States, based only on what happens within the United States or on a national perspective. I maintain that these stories should be reflected on in transnational terms.

Have other countries also participated in the construction of this transnational right?
Brazil had a very important role that began almost a century ago. Institutions and Brazilian activists were essential for the resurgence of the right to happen through creating organizations and supporting alliances that facilitated the construction of today’s transnational Christian conservatism—possibly the most influential political and cultural phenomenon today. But I also realize that other countries also participated in this initiative. For a long time, studies about right-winged movements assumed they were limited to within the nation state. We must, therefore, consider links with other countries. The majority of us are trained in national studies, but we must investigate countries of which we know little about on this topic. If I were to recommend the next focus of research, it would be a country in Asia, either Korea or China. The World Anticommunist League (WACL), for example, has worked in Asia. It seems fundamental to understand the forces of establishing links with the churches in that region.