Gender, neoconservatism and democracy

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By FLAVIA BIROLI, JUAN MARCO VAGGIONE & MARIA DAS DORES CAMPOS MACHADO*

Read an excerpt from the newly released book

The reaction to the gender equality and sexual diversity agenda is a phenomenon with global dimensions, but it is necessary to understand its regional patterns. In this book, we defend the thesis that an update of religious conservatism is underway in Latin America, a phenomenon that develops in a time frame marked by the advance of reproductive and sexual rights, but also by changes in the correlation of forces in the religious field, with the decline of Catholicism and the spread of Pentecostalism throughout the region.

It is, therefore, a new configuration of conservatism, in which religious actors and groups react to societal transformations and make use of political alliances with non-religious segments to guarantee moral hegemony in different societies.

The new configuration of conservative activism, neoconservatism, has become more sophisticated over the last few years, both in terms of discourse and strategies. Although religious institutions and their hierarchies continue to be relevant actors, neoconservatism is also made up of civil society organizations that carry out campaigns in favor of life or the family and by representatives of different political parties, which prioritize the denial of sexual rights and reproductive rights as part of their public agendas.

In this morality dispute, conservative religious actors stand out, on the one hand, and, on the other, the feminist and LGBTQI movements. What has been called in this book “reactive politicization” and, more specifically, “reactive juridification” explains how this dispute has been configured. The politicization of the religious is also reconfigured, with Christians maximizing the use of democratic channels of participation to expand their representation in spaces for discussion and deliberation of sexual, gender and family policies. Thus, the reactive policy of these religious actors mobilizes thousands of believers and has a great impact on the formulation and approval of laws, the implementation of public policies and electoral processes in several countries.

Despite having become possible in democratic contexts in which political plurality has expanded, this updated conservatism has significant connections with current patterns of authoritarianism and the phenomena recognized as processes of de-democratization or the erosion of democracy, which are present in countries in the region. and globally to different degrees.

From one perspective, an entire research agenda opens up on the instrumentalization of the fight against the agenda of gender equality and sexual diversity by movements, leaders and governments of the right and extreme right. On the other hand, the fundamental problems discussed in this book are the anti-pluralism of movements against gender and the way in which the defense of the “family”, in the terms in which it is done, legitimizes violence and restrictions of rights, as well as processes of privatization and erosion of the collective dimension of politics.

Policies anchored in the defense of “majorities” and supposed national or religious traditions promote setbacks that reduce the possibility of participation and influence of groups that work in defense of human rights, especially in feminist and LGBTQI agendas. There may be stigmatization, silencing and, ultimately, criminalization of feminist and LGBTQI movements, as well as the production of knowledge that exposes gender inequalities and violence. Meanwhile, the participation of religious actors in the construction of public policies is intensified. Thus, also for the analysis of the processes of transformation of democracies and autocratization of regimes, it is crucial to understand the alliances between different actors, the patterns of action of the conservative religious actors protagonists in the movements that we analyze and their effects on agendas of rights that depend on the denaturalization of the religious character of secular norms.

Analyzes of anti-gender mobilizations in different societies suggest alliances between different religious segments, with division of tasks between Catholic and Evangelical leaders. A recent study by Franklin Gil Hernandez shows that, while the former were responsible for spreading the “gender ideology” narrative in Colombia, the latter stood out for their great ability to mobilize the faithful in social networks, streets and legislative houses to combat the sexual and gender policies in the year 2016.

In Brazil, analyzes of the parliamentary performance of evangelicals and charismatic Catholics in the National Congress in the first two decades of the XNUMXst century draw attention to the fact that such political actors take turns in the development of complementary activities, such as the writing and presentation of bills and rapporteurship of proposals in the permanent and temporary committees of the Chamber and the Federal Senate, when the themes are sexual and reproductive rights.

In the same direction, Denise Carreira identifies the distribution of tasks among Christian actors in the fight against the inclusion of the gender perspective in educational policy, with evangelical actors more readily taking the offensive in the National Education Plan (PNE), at the federal level, and Catholics standing out in the clashes around regional and municipal plans. Data collected by Sonia Corrêa and Isabela Kalil also demonstrate that the number of evangelical publications on “gender ideology” grew significantly after 2014, the year of the PNE vote, and today is higher than the writings of Catholic intellectuals in Brazilian society. These are phenomena that suggest the progressive sharing, by Catholics and Evangelicals, of the neoconservative discourse in combating the agenda of gender equality and sexual diversity in the country, as well as a joint action (albeit not always coordinated) in its dissemination.

We argue that the expressive growth of Pentecostal churches in Latin America has increased the participation of individual actors with an evangelical identity in party politics and in electoral disputes in several countries, creating the conditions for a conjunctural alliance of this religious segment with conservative Catholic sectors. It is a complex process, involving different interests – on the one hand, the desire for greater political projection of the evangelical sectors; on the other hand, the pretensions of Integralism to strengthen itself in the face of the more liberal versions of Catholicism –, but which has had an excessive impact on the public debate and institutions in the region.

In this sense, evangelical groups have not only been incorporating the discursive formulations of Catholic intellectuals with traditionalist positions, but have also been adopting intervention strategies in the public sphere that scientific investigations associated with the Catholic universe (creation of non-governmental organizations and transnational networks, holding events international “pro-life” and “pro-family” groups, adoption of legal language and strategies for conflict resolution, etc.).

It is common to observe the collaboration of conservative Catholic and Evangelical actors in rejecting projects linked to the liberalization of abortion, the recognition of rights for same-sex couples or the implementation of sex education in schools, among other topics. These actors, formerly in tension due to the privileges of the Catholic Church, are articulated in various alliances and joint collaborations, evidencing important transformations in the religious field. Sustained by the common obsession with sexual morality, will these alliances be stable in the coming years, if the different emphases and differences between the actors are intensified by moral or political issues? It is something to be thought about also with regard to the alliance with secular actors, such as right-wing and extreme right-wing groups and leaders, for whom today it seems convenient to instrumentalize the “pro-family” agenda.

It should be noted, however, that, in addition to the influences of the Catholic milieu, evangelicals in the region, in recent decades, have greatly strengthened ties with the Christian right, which is part of the support base of Donald Trump, elected president of the United States. United States in 2016 and running for re-election in 2020, as we finish this book.

The neoconservative agenda of Latin American evangelicals is built and implemented based on the circulation of values, actors and organizational and mobilization strategies coming from both the global North (United States and Europe) and exchanges between religious actors in Latin America itself. . From Prosperity Theology to the onslaughts of Capitol Ministries with the objective of influencing regional politics, including sexual restraint initiatives for young Christians, such as the Eu Escolhi Esperar movement, there are many and different intangible and material goods that circulate between American and Latin American evangelicals.

If, for now, the alliance between evangelical sectors in growth and conservative Catholics seems to bear fruit for both sides, in the medium and long term, the tendency is for tensions to increase due to the intention of evangelical segments to assume cultural hegemony in the region . The multiplication of evangelical universities, the growing investments of churches in communication networks – electronic, printed and digital –, as well as the disputes around the associations that regulate professional practice in different fields – law, psychology, social work, medicine, bioethics etc. –, which already occur in different societies, can generate shudders in relations with Catholics, who for centuries managed to influence the main institutions and culture of the region. If the renaturalization of religious morality as a public ethics is of interest to different religious groups, it remains to be seen how their differences will manifest themselves in very concrete power disputes, which involve access to economic and symbolic resources, as well as political-institutional space.

Despite the patriarchal and sexist character of the anti-gender campaigns, updating social inequalities in the family and in societies more broadly against the criticism and justice agenda promoted by the feminist and LGBTQI movements, the initiatives of the neoconservative Christian segments of Latin America mobilize women from different confessional groups. Some are pastors or politicians who have developed public speaking skills and leadership skills in religious events, but most Christian women who respond to the call of neoconservative/neoconservative religious to crusade against gender engage in movements led by emotion. Living in a situation of great social marginalization and impotence, these women believe they are fighting for the preservation of the family and their children.

The analysis of mobilizations in Colombian and Brazilian societies, as well as the participation of neoconservative religious in the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) in 2019, reveals that evangelical segments have been adopting the strategy of Catholic sectors to open space for Christian women – pastors, missionaries, politicians, etc. – in the political reaction to the achievements of feminist movements and for sexual diversity in the region. The neoconservative activism of these Christians has an important symbolic dimension in the public clash with feminists and defenders of the secular state.

After all, it is women who challenge the emancipationist theses of other women – such as the right to decide over one's own body, but also the “natural” hierarchies between men and women and their impact on the definition of authority in the family and the roles played by women. both in the private and public spheres – and reaffirm the importance of religion in contemporary society. They can also play an important role in the socialization of girls and boys, at a time when the morality dispute becomes more acute. In other words, the engagement of these women in the moral crusade of conservative Christians makes explicit the ideological differences within the female segment, expanding the challenges of those who fight for gender equality.

Therefore, it is necessary a deep reflection of the feminist movements and for sexual diversity on the importance of religiosity in social life, an effort in the construction of cognitive bridges with the religious segments, as well as the planning of lines of action together with groups of young Christians/Christians.

The existence of collectives with innovative proposals in the theological and political fields – Network of Theologians, Pastors, Activists and Christian Leaders; Christian feminists; Evangelical Front for the Rule of Law; Evangelicals for Gender Equality etc. – indicates that this way of acting can be fruitful and that the dissonant female voices in the Christian milieu need to become visible to the other sectors of society.

Disputes take place in many arenas; In this book, we show the relevance of the judiciary and the law more broadly. The reproductive and sexual rights agenda, in its advances in the second half of the XNUMXth century, takes to a new threshold the claim of secularity of the modern State, as well as the separation between law and religious influences. As mentioned in the introduction, it explains the religious tourism as such – that is, in its conflicts with politics – and places the human rights agenda at the center of the clashes.

Neoconservatism is, to a large extent, a reactive movement to the transformations in sexual ethics and legality, to the sexual (dis)order that is inscribed in and from the law. One of its main objectives is to re-Christianize society through the mobilization of law. In this way, conservative religious actors seek to restore a moral order that they consider to be in crisis and, for that, the legal field and legal strategies occupy a privileged place. The various actors that make up neoconservatism thus converge in actions aimed at influencing the role of law in defining a hierarchical ordering of gender and sexuality.

Relations between the State and civil society and the networks in which political participation takes place have been transformed. In recent decades, especially since the democratization process in several Latin American countries, feminist and LGBTQI movements have been actors in the construction of laws and public policies in the region.

They participated in the reconfiguration of the international human rights system, which would be referenced by gender equality and respect for sexual diversity, and were active in disputes in national spaces. In some countries, they found opportunities to act in renewed spaces of institutionalized participation, with the victory of center-left rulers – although there were limits to the promotion of their agendas, especially with regard to sexual and reproductive rights, as discussed in this article. book.

At the same time – remembering that it is necessary to take into account differences between countries –, in this same context, neoconservative actors increased their presence in governmental spaces – ministries and state secretariats – and in institutionalized spaces of participation – public policy councils, definition and implementation of educational policies, initiatives and spaces to fight drugs and recover drug addicts, psychiatric care, among others.

Therefore, we draw attention to the fact that this morality dispute is established in democratic contexts, in which it is politically instrumentalized, so that channels of participation and political representation are used, as well as the possibilities of manifestation and plurality are expanded. of public debate. This does not mean, of course, that the different actors and movements act for the strengthening of democracy. On the contrary, what we observe here is precisely the tension between agendas referenced by pluralist ethics and others guided by anti-pluralism.

It is especially important to consider the movement of actors and their access to state spaces and resources. With redemocratization in the region, from the 1980s onwards, there was greater state permeability to feminisms and LGBTQI movements. The neoconservative reaction, displaced with greater intensity to state spaces by the arrival of right-wing and extreme right-wing governments to power (in countries like Bolivia, Brazil, Chile and Colombia, among others), by the religious alignment of leaders and governments from center-left (as in Mexico and Nicaragua) and by the election of neoconservative representatives at subnational levels, thickens the barriers to actors who have historically promoted emancipatory agendas. State permeability now expands in another direction, with a greater presence of civil society actors fighting norms and policies for gender equality and in government spaces.

The electoral dimension itself is, therefore, relevant to understanding the participation patterns and the circulation of actors in the state sphere. As discussed in this book, the new patterns of politicization of religion involve the more assertive participation of conservative religious actors in electoral disputes. Although the Catholic hierarchy has historically been close to political parties and governments in Latin America, the evangelical appeal to vote for “brothers” and the creation of parties with strong connections with neo-Pentecostal churches, with national and regional capillarity, have been effective.

We can also consider, as a hypothesis to be confirmed in particular contexts, that, in this process, the anti-gender agenda has made it possible to differentiate these actors from other segments of the right. It thus allows for an appeal to specific segments of the electorate. Increased presence of elected conservative religious actors with that identity it also potentially widens setbacks from the legislative, national and local, and even the Executive, depending on how government support alliances are constituted in different countries.

At the same time, as we have shown, the popular dimension of neoconservative politics goes beyond electoral processes and institutional space. In public consultation resources, which stand out undersigned, campaigns Online and even referenda, such as the one held in Colombia on the peace agreement between the country's government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the capacity for mobilization through the anti-gender agenda is evident.

In street protests, in different cities and countries in the region, messages and frameworks are repeated: there is a threat; it's up to the parents to protect your children and traditions dear to the Christian people. It is necessary to distrust the “modern” and “globalized” elites, international organizations and democracy itself, valuing a kind of common sense based on hierarchies seen as natural.

Therefore, it seems especially important to us to understand the reconfiguration of specific laws and policies, but also the reorganization of the relationship between State and society, in a process in which neoconservatism intensifies and transforms its mode of participation in the political game. One of the central issues concerns the allocation of responsibilities; another, to the way in which morality is politicized. The appeal to the family is essential in both cases.

In the first, it is a question of placing the family as the nucleus for the social reproduction of hierarchies, presented as natural, and of Christian traditions, presented as majority. The family is, therefore, a control device. It is not just any family, however, that is positioned like this. Heteronormativity, the reproductive function of marriage and the complementarity between the sexes merge in this perspective – and allow differentiating between natural (legitimate) and non-natural ties (deviant in relation to nature; therefore, if not current law, deviant in relation to morality and the “natural law”).

In the second case, that of the new standards of politicization of morals, the “defense of the family” becomes a device to deepen the boundaries between those who deserve and those who do not deserve protection. This makes it possible to justify anti-pluralist and anti-humanist positions, as well as the rejection of social justice agendas.

As we discussed before, in the name of the family it is possible to challenge individual rights, such as the freedom to criticize hierarchies, violence and prejudice, something that is particularly clear with regard to educational content and, more specifically, sex education. It is also possible to justify disrespect for the physical and psychological integrity of individuals, as in the case of equating homophobia with heterophobia and in arguments that cast doubt on research on domestic and sexual violence against women, claiming that violence exists and would be biased. treat it as a gender phenomenon.

In a sense contrary to plurality and democracy, feminisms and LGBTQI movements are turned into enemies. After all, if they put “the family” and children at risk, how can we consider them legitimate political opponents? Lies and stigmatization can thus be political strategies. They justify, at the same time, the political persecution, the diffuse violence and the refusal of the justice agendas of these movements. In addition to restrictions on individual rights in the name of the family, neoconservatism contributes to establishing stricter boundaries for legitimate political conflict and to naturalize inequalities.

This point, that of normalized inequalities, is one of the links between neoconservatism and neoliberalism discussed in the book. Both converge, as we have seen, in the definition of the family as a necessary support network for individuals, as the collective political dimension frays and state protection apparatuses are reduced or dismantled. As it is impossible to suspend the dilemmas of human vulnerability, neoliberalism and exacerbated individualism coexist with the appeal for family support and with pressure for women to assume their traditional role in care relationships - even if they do so amidst new stimuli for strengthen the family's economic capacity, common among Latin American neo-Pentecostal churches.

The functional family that neoliberalism requires need not be fair or democratic; it needs to play a role in societies where insecurity is historical, acquiring new contours with neoliberal dismantling. There are nuances, however, and they are, in themselves, a promising research agenda.

Recently, the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis, has been critical of neoliberalism and inequalities. Pentecostal denominations are not homogeneous, but one can find in this field a closer approach to individual-centered conceptions of merit, with lesser or greater explicit contact with Prosperity Theology. Despite this, many of these churches function as support for the most vulnerable communities and offer support and even services in times of restriction of the public character of the State - which can happen in a complementary way to this dismantling, but it still needs to be noticed and understood as configuring alternative networks of solidarity.

We understand, despite the complexity and nuances mentioned, that the link between familism and neoliberal capitalism goes beyond positions openly held by churches in relation to support networks and economic inequalities.

The bet on the family as a nucleus of security, in the face of vulnerability and precariousness, makes neoliberalism and neoconservatism operate in a convergent manner, precisely when conflicts related to gender inequalities intensify, the crisis in care relationships becomes more explicit and the withdrawal of social guarantees, as well as measures to secure restrictions on the public budget, are taken to new heights.

An extreme example is Constitutional Amendment n. 95, which, in December 2016, amended the Brazilian Constitution to establish a ceiling for public spending for twenty years. With that, it affected the distributive character of the country's Constitution, enacted in 1988, and restricted the political decisions that would come ahead. Restricting resources has not diminished the need for care for children and the elderly, for people when they get sick, or for those with special needs.

In the same way, with the “flexibilization” of work relations, the increased insecurities regarding the daily routine and sustenance make the need for private support networks even greater, since it does not come, at that moment, from policies and laws with bias collective and solidary.

The moralization of insecurities is thus a key to neoconservatism as a policy. The appeal to real insecurities is made within a framework in which the possible support is that of the nuclear, heterosexual, family. responsible for your. The fragilities of the family order would not be of the order of the political economy (related to the precariousness of work relations or the fraying of collective forms of support).

Nor would they be of the order of social gender transformations, sedimented over decades and rooted in a series of changes – technical-scientific, cultural, political, legal, etc. The problem, in neoconservative narratives, would be of a moral order. Better saying, the deviation and capture of traditionalism would lead to insecurity, lack of references, chaos.

Faced with real transformations and insecurities, the politicization of religion and, specifically, of traditional morality has become an instrument in ideological disputes and, more specifically, in electoral disputes. The political right and extreme right have found significant political opportunities in this instrumentalization. Authoritarian politicians and those classified as populist have assumed, in different parts of the world, the anti-gender campaign as an important aspect of their identity and their governments when elected.

Although its policies may be anti-popular in many ways, as in the cases of deregulation of labor relations, restriction of public investment in health and education, limitation of pensions, among other examples, the appeal to the “people” would come from a perspective moral. The Christian family would be the counterpoint to moral corruption – which would include sexual morality and the capture of public goods by politicians and businessmen.

An axis in which its appeals still need to be understood is the relationship between gender and nation. Among secular neoconservative ideologues, as well as in the street protests discussed in this book, the rhetorical key of the “Christian majority” played an important role alongside that of “national traditions”. To recover the nation and even democracy, in some of the statements analyzed, would be to take it back from feminists and lesbians, from communists, from gramscians and marxists, but also from politics itself as a collective management of the public. Thus, families and expanded control of bodies would remain, reactivating patriarchal and heteronormative standards of morality and authority in micro and macro politics.

It should be noted, however, that feminist movements, LGBTQI and progressive evangelical and Catholic sectors persist in defending egalitarian principles and the gender agenda in Latin America. The experiences of feminists in Chile (with the Un Violador en Tu Camino campaign), in Argentina (with the Ni Una Menos campaign and the resumption of the campaign for the legalization of abortion) and in Colombia (with the election of Claudia López Hernández for mayor of Bogotá in 2019) are important indicators of the capacity for action of the aforementioned social sectors.

In Brazil, in 2015, the Fora Cunha movement, which took women from all over the country to the streets for their rights, among which legal abortion stood out, and the movement of secondary students, which had great expression and showed the leadership of young women, and, in 2018, the Ele Não movement, against the election of the far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, have shown the ability to articulate and advance beyond the specific gender agenda, in a reactionary context.

They mobilized in defense of democracy and social justice. With the victory of Bolsonaro, who assumed the Presidency of the country in 1o January 2019, despite the initial feelings of perplexity and fear over the threats to activists with national projection, the articulation with other political actors (academy, parties, movements in the legal and scientific field and religious counter-movements and Christian dissident voices, among others ) began to target the confrontation with the government's regressive initiatives in the fields of human rights, education, health, the environment, foreign relations, indigenist policy, and, specifically, gender policies.

In a way, this book confronts us with a paradox that has become acutely explicit in Brazil: the reaction to rights finds feminist and LGBTQI movements, as well as black movements and other sectors that act in defense of human rights, active and very present in the debate and disputes. Democratic forces renew their strategies and alliances to confront authoritarianism and the escalation of disrespect for human rights.

It is important that, in this expansion of alliances, the meaning of democracy be dense enough to encompass the equality and diversity agendas that, in recent decades, made visible the bottlenecks and systematic exclusions of liberal regimes. In other words, the very meaning of democracy that one seeks to consolidate or rebuild, depending on the context, is also in dispute.

 

Addendum

We started this work before the covid-19 pandemic and delivered the original text to the publisher when its effects began to be known, in March 2020. A few months later, at the final moment of reviewing the book, on July 13, 2020, 145 deaths from the disease had been recorded in Latin America, more than 70 in Brazil alone.

Preliminary data and studies point to the deepening of inequalities as one of the consequences of the pandemic and, in some cases, of the choices made to combat it. As a public health crisis and as an economic crisis, it adds to pre-existing cleavages and vulnerabilities. Given the sexual division of labor, caring for children during periods when face-to-face school activities are suspended and caring for those who become ill increase women's burden.

Solutions to reduce contagion come up against informal work and the deregulation of labor rights in many parts of the world in recent decades. Around the world, domestic violence has increased, and existing health and housing problems have become even more evident.

In this context, the reaction to gender equality and reproductive and sexual rights has not ceased. In countries as diverse as the United States, Hungary and Brazil, policies are underway to restrict the right to abortion, nullify the rights of transgender people and limit the fight against domestic violence in the name of the family order, showing that the reaction to the agenda of equality and diversity is maintained and may even deepen.

The relationship between the pandemic and democracy has yet to be told, but we already know that, if, on the one hand, the perception of the relevance of distributive and health public policies may have expanded, on the other hand, exceptional policies can anchor them. if in the needs opened by the pandemic.

In addition, the economic crisis may, once again, pave the way for authoritarian and nationalist leaders to resurrect threats and the defense of a restricted “us”, shaped by misogynistic, racist and xenophobic perspectives. The problems with which this book deals remain. But now they are joined by renewed disputes in a context in which the new, without a doubt, does not mean overcoming past challenges.

* Flavia Biroli is a professor at the Institute of Political Science at UnB. She is the author, among other books, of Gender and inequalities: limits of democracy in Brazil (Boitempo).

*Juan Marco Vaggione He is a professor of sociology at the National University of Córdoba (Argentina).

Maria das Dores Campos Machado is a full professor of sociology at UFRJ. She is the author, among other books, of Politics and religion (FGV).

 

Reference


Flavia Biroli, Juan Marco Vaggione & Maria das Dores Campos Machado. Gender, neoconservatism and democracy. Sao Paulo, Boitempo, 2020.

 

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